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Science has many colorful figures, but nobody quite like Tycho Brahe. Beyond his astronomy genius, he lost his nose in a math-fueled duel, possibly inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet, and maybe made his even greater successor Johannes Kepler a murderer.

It's hard to avoid getting a bit sensational when talking about Brahe. Everything about his life seemed off-kilter and larger-than-life, even from his earliest origins. When he was two, his uncle, the wealthy Danish noble Jørgen Brahe stole young Tycho from his parents...who proved to be strangely OK with this. Most everything else that followed in Brahe's life was just as unlikely, eccentric, and more than a little awesome.

A Larger Than Life Astronomer

A solar eclipse in 1560 inspired Brahe to become an astronomer, and he quickly realized the burgeoning science could only progress if it had observations that were systematic, accurate, and, above all, nightly. To that end, he refined old instruments and built new ones, and spent the rest of his life assembling one of the largest bodies of astronomical data in human history...and more on that in a moment.

But Brahe was far from a dry scholar. In 1566 at the age of 20, he lost part of his nose in a duel with another Danish nobleman named Manderup Parsbjerg. The duel is said to have started over a disagreement about a mathematical formula. Because 16th century Denmark didn't have resources like the internet to figure out who was right, the only solution was to try to kill each other. For the rest of his life, Brahe wore a prosthetic nose. His fake nose was likely made of copper, although he probably also had gold and silver noses around for special occasions.

Brahe inherited a great deal of wealth from his foster father Jørgen, who died in 1565 when saving the King of Denmark from drowning...a rather different royal death than the one Tycho might later have experienced. Brahe is thought to have possessed as much as 1% the entire wealth of Denmark, and five times that much was spent by the Danish government on Brahe's astronomical research.

He lived in a castle, where he kept a rather unusual group of regular entertainers. He employed a little person called Jepp, who Brahe believed possessed psychic powers. Jepp was his court jester, and spent most dinners under the table. It's probably best not to speculate on just why Brahe preferred that arrangement. Then there was Brahe's elk, a tame beast that Brahe kept as a prized pet. The elk met a rather bizarre end, reportedly drinking a lot of beer while visiting a nobleman on Brahe's behalf, after which it fell down the stairs and died. Yes, that entire sentence was about an elk.

Murder Most Astronomical

Still, his life seems almost dry and tedious compared to his mysterious death. He died of a sudden bladder disease in 1601 while at a banquet in Prague. He was unable to urinate except in the smallest of quantities, and after eleven days of excruciating agony he finally died. At least, that's the official story. It's possible he actually succumbed to mercury poisoning, as later researchers have detected toxic quantities of the substance on his mustache hairs.

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