welcome to star cult moose island
Or, why Tycho Brahe is the scientific wackjob Elon Musk wishes he was.
Welcome to another year of dirtbaggery, and also happy first anniversary to this newsletter! As my eccentric Canadian Shakespeare professor used to say, the wind is still very much up, and there are many more dirtbags in store for us in 2022.
Longtime (ok, medium-time) readers will remember first meeting this week’s dirtbag back in August, when we went on a tour of weird pets throughout history and I had cause to remind you all just how big a moose is.
That’s right, today we’re talking about the granddaddy of astronomy himself…
Tycho Brahe, That Weird-Ass Sonofabitch
Before we get into it: I knew Tycho Brahe was wild before I started researching for this newsletter. FRIENDS, I DID NOT KNOW THE HALF OF IT. I’m about to quit my job and go back to school so I can get a PhD in Tycho Brahe Studies.
Tycho Brahe was born in 1546 in what we know today as Sweden. (This bit was still part of Denmark at the time, which regrettably means Tycho wasn’t involved in any of the ski-based revolutionary activity discussed heretofore.)
Tycho was descended from noble-as-fuck people every which way. His family tree was basically made out of gold. Here is a portrait of him surrounded by all of his important family crests, for reference. There are shit tons of them.
He was raised by his uncle, who was also equally rich and fancy. Tycho had two perfectly alive parents who raised all their other children, but apparently the uncle was nice so we’re not supposed to ask questions about why they just yeeted this particular child at a relative.
Anyway, as is the case throughout history, Rich Boy Tycho got into all the best schools and received the most banging education the mid-sixteenth century could offer. In 1562, 15-year-old Tycho met his academic mentor, Anders Sørenson Vedel. They traveled Europe together, learning things and looking at planets. Through these travels, Tycho’s astronomical obsession was born.
Quick note: Vedel was nineteen. Can you imagine handing a literal teenager another literal teenager and saying “You there! Child! Teach this other child the ways of the stars!” The fact that they didn’t both end up dead within a month is stunning.
The two traveled Europe studying the planets for a few years, and Tycho was so good at it he started to make corrections to Copernicus’s models of the stars. He would later return to this passion for precise measurement and science, but!
He had to get his nose shot off!
I’m Sorry, What Happened to His Nose?
At age 20, Tycho was enrolled at the University of Rostock in Germany. In late 1566, he got into a drunken fight with his cousin about—what else—who was best at math.
So they decided to resolve this argument the way you would, if you were drunk and also Tycho Brahe: A DUEL TO THE DEATH.
Neither Tycho nor his cousin died, which is fortunate, because of all the ways to die, “math hubris” is probably the dumbest. But the cousin’s bullet hit Tycho in the face and shot off the bridge of his nose.
(If you’re struggling to imagine how the bridge of your nose could get shot off but not the rest of your nose, welcome to the club.)
Tycho, in a very Phantom of the Opera move, wore a series of prosthetic noses for the rest of his life. Most of them were made of brass, but he also had a series of Fancy Noses made of silver or gold, for special occasions.
The King of Star Island
After the death of Tycho’s father in 1571, Tycho returned to Denmark, where he met his “wife” Kirsten Jørgensdottir. I use air quotes because he definitely loved Kirsten, but not enough to actually marry her, because she was a commoner and marrying her meant he’d have to surrender his Golden Family Tree status. They lived together for the rest of his life, and he never lost a cent because of it. Ah, romance.
The 1570s were when Tycho started making a name for himself as an astronomer. He was the first person to identify a supernova in the night sky, which he demonstrated with a diagram like this for some reason I cannot discern:
More interestingly, in 1576, he became KING OF STAR ISLAND.
To persuade Tycho to stay in the country and keep making Danish astronomy famous, King Frederick II literally handed him the island of Hven—which, by the way, had people living on it at the time—and told him to have at it.
Which, uh, he did.
Tycho built a giant-ass castle named Uraniborg, which he transformed into an astronomical observatory complete with an underground laboratory, an alchemy lab, a bunch of star-watching towers, and whatever the fuck is going on in this image:
Tycho loved Star Island. Couldn’t get enough of it. And by all accounts, he had a fucking fantastic time there.
He invited visiting kings and queens of Europe over for drunken good times and star watching. He paid the rent by doing fancy horoscopes for King Frederick II, while spending all his free time looking at comets and measuring shit. He hung out with a person with dwarfism named Jepp who he believed could see the future. He (allegedly, as discussed) let his pet moose wander around inside and gave it the keys to the liquor cabinet. And he spent money like a motherfucker—because at the time, he owned fully one percent of all of Denmark.
Basically, for 20 years or so, he was what would happen if you put Bill Nye the Science Guy and Elon Musk into a blender. Love him or hate him, he was iconic.
The Labor Union of Star Island
Remember the people who—as I mentioned—were already living on this island? Well, they didn’t love Tycho.
They politely asked Tycho to stop turning their island into a science theme park, and while he was at it to stop taking their crops and taxing the shit out of them. Because he was stealing their crops and taxing the shit out of them. Eventually, it got so bad that the islanders took Tycho to court to get him to fuck off.
The court said, “Nah, his family tree’s made of gold, he can do what he wants,” because history is terrible sometimes. So Tycho Brahe kept on being the Supreme Autocratic Ruler of The Magic Kingdom of Astronomy, and the islanders gritted their teeth and dealt with it.
Bad Times and Pee Problems
But then King Frederick II died, which spelled bad times for Tycho. The new king, the young Christian IV, loved fighting and thought science was for losers. Worse, Tycho had made a bunch of enemies at court, partly because of his transformation into the old guy from Jurassic Park, as detailed above.
Things kept taking a turn for the worse, and after a mob rioted outside Tycho’s house, he decided in 1597 it was time to leave town.
BUT NOT BEFORE WRITING A WHINY POEM ABOUT HOW NO ONE APPRECIATED HIM.
Anyway, Tycho wandered Europe after getting thrown out of the Danish court. He eventually landed in Prague, where he got into a science fight with Johannes Kepler, though fortunately no dueling ensued this time.
Tycho Brahe died in Prague in 1601 under mysterious circumstances, AKA my favorite kind of circumstances. Possible causes of death include:
JOHANNES KEPLER MURDERED HIM???
Gold poisoning from a fancy nose
A really really bad UTI
Tycho’s body has been exhumed twice for experimentation to figure out the cause of death. It probably wasn’t murder, but once you say “was it murder??” you can’t put that theory back in the box.
RIP, you wacky bastard. Elon Musk wishes he was you.
As of today, the paperback of A Tip for the Hangman is available wherever books are sold! It’s pretty, portable, economical, and it’s got all the same words as the hardcover, so I’d love it if you picked one up for yourself or a friend.
I’m also doing a few events to promote the paperback this month!
And on Thursday, January 13 at 7pm CT, I’ll be doing a virtual book talk with Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis. You can join me and bookseller Annie Metcalf by registering here.
Til next time, happy new year, and please don’t transform into a despotic island science lord, because history doesn’t need another one.