November 15, 2012
16th-Century Astronomer Tycho Brahe Wasn’t Poisoned
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
Scientists have determined the 16th-Century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe most likely was not poisoned after all.
Brahe was thought to have died of a bladder infection, but previous exhumation found traces of mercury in hair from his beard, leading to theories he may have been poisoned instead.
Some speculated he had been killed on orders from the Danish king, or by fellow astronomer Johannes Kepler.
A team of Danish and Czech scientists went to work to solve the mystery by analyzing bone, hair and clothing samples, and digging up Brahe's body again in 2010.
The scientists determined although mercury was found in his beard, the levels were not high enough to have killed him.
"In fact, chemical analyses of the bones indicate that Tycho Brahe was not exposed to an abnormally high mercury load in the last five to ten years of his life," Dr. Kaare Lund Rasmussen, who analyzed the bone samples using cold vapor atomic absorption spectroscopy at the University of Southern Denmark, said in a statement.
He said the description given by Kepler of the famous astronomer's death at the age of 54 matches with the progression of severe bladder infection. The team is still analyzing the teeth samples.
One story told about Brahe was that his bladder burst at a royal banquet because he was too polite to leave the table to use the restroom. According to this story, he died 11 days later.
Brahe studied astronomy at the University of Copenhagen and helped to catalog over 1,000 new stars. Some of his work has helped to lay the foundations for early modern astronomy.
Brahe had to wear a metal prosthetic nose because he lost the bridge of his nose while dueling at the University of Rostock in 1566. Other tests performed on Brahe showed his prosthetic nose was made of brass, not gold or silver as some accounts had suggested.
"When we exhumed the body in 2010, we took a small bone sample from the nose so that we could examine its chemical composition," Dr. Jens Vellev, an archaeologist at Aarhus University in Denmark, said in a statement. "The green coloration turned out to contain traces of equal parts copper and zinc, which indicates that the prosthesis was made of brass. So Tycho Brahe's famous "silver nose" wasn't made of silver after all."
He was buried at Tyn Church near Prague's Old Town Square in 1601, but his body was unearthed in 1901.
Scientists conducted tests on a sample of hair from his mustache and have been doing so up to as recently as the 1990s.
Filmmakers have followed the team's project closely, all the way from getting permission to exhume the body to analyzing Brahe's remains. The documentary will be broadcast this Sunday on Swedish and Czech television with support from Nordvision.