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January 17, 2018

5. Tycho’s Supernova

He lived like a sage and died like a fool.

* * *

Otto Brahe and Beate Bille welcomed Tyge Brahe and his twin brother into the world on the 14th of December, 1546, eleven days before Christmas. Tyge was named after Otto’s father, a good man. Just days after being born the twin passed away, failure to thrive. Tyge was now a different child, absorbing his nameless brother. Perhaps they would meet again in another life.

One day, a two-year old Tyge ran around the lavish castle grounds when his uncle, Jørgen, Otto’s brother, paid the family a visit.

“Brother,” Otto said. His tone was cold.

In response, Jørgen repeated the word in the same temperature.

As they spoke privately in another room, the severity could be seen seeping out from under the closed doors.

Tyge was playing in adjacent nursery. When they emerged, Jørgen stormed in, picked up the boy, and walked out. Otto followed, much slower and downcast. Jørgen’s actions were calculated, unceremonious, and mostly mysterious. That was the last Tyge ever saw his birth-family.

The circumstances around this adoption were much more akin to a kidnapping—and were never spoken of ever again.

“You are lucky. You’re name will be Tycho from now on. Tyge no longer exists,” Jørgen said to his nephew—now his son.

Tycho Brahe was born noble. His blood was so blue it was iridescent. And he knew it. And he would know it. The cream of royal society. The Brahe name was a thick cord of ancestry and Tycho thrived within its vein. Of his twelve siblings he was favored and could feel it. Favor and spoils flowed through his fingers and tinged behind his eyes. His prominence in society would become tactile.

Tycho would grow up to be an enthusiastic and flamboyant character. A real social magnet and people-charmer. Rather than following the noble path of politics, he followed his passions in the stars: alchemy, arithmetic, and astronomy. But there was a dark side to Brahe.

With his cutting blue eyes he wore a thick and bristly mustache that hung beyond the cliff of his upper lip. Blonde, nearly silver in sheen, the sides of which fell down and outward like a bird’s wings in flight.

* * *

Twenty years after being born, in 1566, Tycho lost his nose. At a wedding party, in a disagreement over techniques and arithmetic, a one Manderup Parsberg challenged Tycho to a dual, took a sword to Tycho’s face, and sliced off his nose. The wedding party was aghast.

“Let me help you, sir!” shouted a voice. The little man came running from through the crowd, using his arms to divide the sea of shocked onlookers. The man suffered from dwarfism but that did not stop his heart from helping as he could. The man was employed as entertainment at the wedding but he dropped any comical guise and instantly offered medical assistance.

Tycho took the unfortunate event and left his own signature: he wore a prosthetic nose made of gold—something to show off his wealth as well as his past. Sometime later, in the tides of life, Manderup and Tycho became friends. They were cousins, at least.

At the age of 79, Manderup Parsberg would die of natural causes on November 11, 1625. He would always claim the cut to Tycho’s nose was accidental.

* * *

In 1572, wearing his signature mustache and golden nose, 26 year old Tycho witnessed astronomical history. He wrote,

“On the 11th day of November in the evening after sunset, I was contemplating the stars in a clear sky. I noticed that a new and unusual star, surpassing the other stars in brilliancy, was shining almost directly above my head; and since I had, from boyhood, known all the stars of the heavens perfectly, it was quite evident to me that there had never been any star in that place of the sky, even the smallest, to say nothing of a star so conspicuous and bright as this. I was so astonished of this sight that I was not ashamed to doubt the trustworthyness of my own eyes. But when I observed that others, on having the place pointed out to them, could see that there was really a star there, I had no further doubts. A miracle indeed, one that has never been previously seen before our time, in any age since the beginning of the world.”

Tycho Brahe had observed a supernova, a star dying, exploding and collapsing into itself. Changing slightly in color and becoming less evident in daylight, the bright star would remain visible for nearly 16 months. This, however, went against the Aristotelian concept of celestial immutability. Tycho was eyewitness to a change in the heavens. His account would establish him a higher seat at the table of academic astronomy.

* * *

Using his name, nobility, and fame as an astronomer, Tycho requested of King Frederick II of Denmark an observatory of the stars, a laboratory of alchemy, a research institute for his studies. On good terms, the land was granted and the castle was built between 1576 and 1580. The castle was more akin to a fortress on a scientific campus, Brahe’s own municipality, his own polis. Uraniborg, “The Castle of Urania,” was the locus of astronomical observation and Brahe’s own heart.

However, it was here that his darkness shown more clearly. Uraniborg was equipped with a subterranean dungeon. Hidden passageways led to torture rooms and his servant-employee staff lived in constant fear. Tycho believed astronomy—the position of stars in the heavens—was so closely related to our physical bodies here on earth, that he could see the stars more easily through the window of the human form. The celestial bodies influence, and even sometimes determine, terrestrial fate. Perhaps he could control Fate by understanding of our earthly embodiment.

Numbered among Brahe’s staff was a Johannes, one of his best astronomers and closest assistant. Johannes was devoted to Tycho and his research unlike any other.

But these were Tycho’s halcyon days, his period of most academic and personal success. Tycho lived like a king.

* * *

Tycho had befriended the dwarf from the wedding over a decade earlier. It was a cultural and societal taboo but the kindness and effort of the little man had a great impact on Tycho. The man had said his name was Jeppe and went by Jep. Brahe employed him as a court jester and entertainer when guests arrived but the two were true friends.

Jep was well aware of his friend-employer’s social status and passion for the stars. And using his own quiet skulduggery, he informed Tycho that he could see the future and read the stars, astrologically—beyond Tycho’s formal astronomical readings.

In time, behind the veil of friendship and proximity, Jep began to help run Uraniborg, using Tycho as a voice for his own thoughts.

“Sir, I have seen a vision,” Jep said to his friend. “This life is temporary but I see something,” Jep was hesitant to continue.

“What do you mean, Jep? Speak as the stars tell it.”

“I see exile, death, and rebirth somehow. But that rebirth is duplicated. As if one life leads to multiple births of a single soul.” Jep was genuinely confused by his own words. Tycho was confident. This sounded something to him like birth upon birth, endless life.

Shortly after this conversation, in 1588, King Frederick II died. His 11 year old son, Christian IV was heir but a council was established to rule until he came of age. The council was essentially a catalog of individuals with disdain for Brahe and shortly after the favorable King Frederick II passed, the council exiled Brahe—exactly as Jep had prophesied. Tycho thought nothing of it. His rebirth was still ahead of him!

Tycho departed Denmark and abandoned Uraniborg and his slave-staff. Only Jep and Johannes joined him in lodging in the castles of past acquaintances through Germany, Belgium, and Prague.

* * * 

Some years later, in October of 1601 Tycho was at a formal event with royalty. Some members in attendance that evening held a grudge and Brahe was certain someone would try to take his life. That evening he could not urinate and was in severe pain. For days Brahe experienced delirium and visions, sights beyond reality or imagination. He saw Jeppe and his deceit. He saw his student, Johannes surpassing him in greatness and fame. He saw drunken elk running freely through elegant castles. He saw stars dancing around in mockery of Tycho’s life. 

“When I look up, I see down; when I look down, I see up,” he murmured through fevered sweats. Tycho pulled Johannes closer, “May I not seemed to have lived in vain,” and he breathed his last.

Johannes looked across the room at Jeppe and nodded.

On October 24, at the age of 54, Tycho Brahe passed from this world.

* * * 

Tycho Brahe’s body was exhumed in 1901: his first rebirth. Autopsy confirmed case of death as uremia, bladder infection. Tycho had refused to relieve himself at the royal event out of etiquette and given himself a deadly infection.

Brahe was exhumed yet again in 2010 for further study. It was reported in 2012 that murder was out of the question. This was Tycho Brahe’s final rebirth.

The historically accurate life of Tycho Brahe is more fantastic than fiction. The man was a psychotic megalomaniac and lived a fascinating life. I’ve left out a pet elk that drunkenly fell down a flight of stairs at Uraniborg to its death. Otherwise, dates and names are as correct as possible. Most of the fiction here is in the dialogue and conspiracy between Jeppe and Johannes—who would go on to be greater than Tycho. Johannes Kepler used Brahe’s astronomical findings and corrected them to what we know today. 

My sources mostly stemmed from Brahe’s Wikipedia entry