Experts seek to solve riddle of astronomer Tycho Brahe’s death

Monday, November 15, 2010

PRAGUE - Danish and Czech scientists launched an effort Monday to solve the centuries-old riddle of the death of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who some suspect may have been murdered.

The scholars began exhumation Monday of Brahe’s remains, which have been resting in a Prague church tomb since his death in 1601. Brahe, a Danish nobleman, gained fame for his precise astronomical observations.

Born in 1546, Brahe moved to Prague in the late 1590s at the invitation of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, after falling out with the new Danish king, Christian IV.

It had been long believed that the astronomer died of bladder failure. According to legend, he died days after he had refused to leave a court banquet to use a toilet, as this would have amounted to a breach of etiquette.

But in the 1990s, Danish and Swedish scientists found that Brahe’s moustache, samples of which were obtained during an exhumation in 1901, contained high quantities of mercury. They have suspected mercury poisoning ever since.

The astronomer may have taken mercury as a remedy or he may have been poisoned. Suspects include the Danish king as well as Brahe’s collaborator in Prague, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler.

The scientists plan to take samples of Brahe’s bones and hair before returning the remains on Friday to his tomb at the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn in Prague’s Old Town Square. At that time, the Prague archbishop will celebrate a requiem mass.

The scientists’ tests should be able to determine whether Brahe died of acute or chronic mercury poisoning. Acute poisoning might support the murder thesis.

But 409 years after Brahe’s death, the probe is not expected to reveal the astronomer’s possible murderer.

Filed under: Accidents and Disasters

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