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Did astronomer Tycho Brahe really have a silver nose?

July 17, 1998

Dear Cecil:

Tycho Brahe, the astronomer, is buried here in Prague in a church. That's not so unusual. What is rather strange is the persistent rumor that he had a silver nose, something to do with a duel. Did it tie on around his face with silk strings? Did it have little hooks that went around his ears, like eyeglasses? Was it surgically attached? I'm truly curious. I also wonder if it tarnished, and whether he had to polish it. Did it make a note like a whistle when he blew his nose?

Cecil replies:

Glad to be of help, Ray. I know how tough it is for journalists to come by this kind of information. What you heard was no rumor. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), the father (or at least the godfather) of modern astronomy, really did wear an artificial nose, owing to the fact that the real one had been sliced off in a duel. You may think: this does not sound like the scientists I know. Tycho Brahe, however, was no ordinary stargazer.

It happened in 1566 while the 20-year-old Tycho was studying at the University of Rostock in Germany. Attending a dance at a professor's house, he got into a quarrel with one Manderup Parsbjerg, like himself a member of the Danish gentry. Over a woman? Nah — tradition has it that the two were fighting over some fine point of mathematics. (My guess: Fermat's Next-to-Last Theorem, which posits that 2 + 2 = 5 for very large values of 2.) Friends separated them, but they got into it again at a Christmas party a couple weeks later and decided to take it outside in the form of a duel. Unfortunately for Tycho the duel was conducted in pitch darkness with swords. Parsbjerg, a little quicker off the dime, succeeded in slicing off the bridge (apparently) of Tycho's nose.

Reconstructive surgery then being in a primitive state, Tycho concealed the damage as best he could with an artificial bridge made of precious metals. He carried some nose goop with him always, either to polish the nose or to glue it more firmly in place. But no hooks or string, and probably no whistling either.

High-handed and irascible, Tycho Brahe was the kind of guy who got into duels. Luckily he was also a genius. Fascinated by the stars since his youth, he discovered that existing astronomical tables were grossly inaccurate and set about making his own meticulous observations of the heavens, a project that occupied him for most of his life. To keep him from going abroad, the king of Denmark and Norway gave Tycho a prodigious quantity of cash ($5 billion in today's money, by one estimate) and his own island. There Tycho constructed an observatory where for 20 years he compiled the impressive body of astronomical data that his assistant Johannes Kepler subsequently used to deduce the laws of planetary motion. All this, mind you, with the naked eye; the telescope hadn't yet been invented.

To give you a further indication of the type of guy we're dealing with there, Tycho didn't marry the mother of his eight children, employed a dwarf as a jester, kept a pet elk (which died after breaking a leg while going downstairs drunk), dabbled in alchemy, and tyrannized the local peasantry. After his royal patron died of excessive drink he managed to tick off everyone in Denmark, had his subsidies revoked, and eventually found it wise to leave the country. Having relocated to Prague, he died after drinking heavily at dinner, obviously a pretty common fate in those days.

Tycho's tomb was reopened in 1901 and his remains were examined by medical experts. The nasal opening of the skull was rimmed with green, a sign of exposure to copper. Presumably this came from the artificial nose, which supposedly had been made of silver or gold. The experts put the best face on this, as it were, saying that Tycho was an expert in metallurgy and probably wanted an alloy that was durable and skin colored. Sure, guys. I say Mr. Astronomy got nicked in the nose department twice.

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