Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What ever happened to Hven?

On a small island in Denmark in the 16th century, a scientific utopia once flourished. Happy farmers tilled the fields in the name of the knowledge and wisdom of their benevolent scientist-lord, who, his eyes constantly fixed on the stars, read the secrets of the heavens night after night. In this small, peaceful kingdom, science ruled, and all were happy.

Well, not quite. Swap happy peasants for terrorized serfs and the benevolent scientist-lord for a drunken egomaniac, and you've got something like a picture of 16th century Hven, a small island in the finger of sea between Denmark and Sweden. In 1575, thanks to a decree by King Frederik, the island came under the sovereignty of one twenty-nine-year-old Tycho Brahe, and life on Hven started to get a whole lot stranger.

Tycho Brahe is one of those historical figures that makes me think, "Gosh, they just don't really make astronomers the way they used to." Forget every documentary you've ever seen that included a pocket-protector wearing NASA astronomer (sorry, guys). Forget your high school physics teacher. I'm convinced that if more scientists got into duels, had fake noses, and just drank as much as Tycho Brahe did, the whole field would look a lot more appealing.

Here's a short bio: Brahe was born in Denmark in 1546 to a noble family whom he annoyed by getting into astronomy rather than law. When he was seventeen, something happened that inspired Brahe to begin taking measurements of the positions of the stars and planets. He saw Jupiter and Saturn pass very close to each other, an event that even the most accurate astronomical tables (of the 16th century) erred by several days in predicting. So he decided he was going to gather his own data.

The whole of Hven became a slave to this this idea, although that was several years later, after he'd studied in Germany, gotten into a duel that cost him the bridge of his nose, and established himself as the premier Danish astronomer. (Which was a higher honor than you might think, since court astronomers were also court astrologers, a handy thing for a king to have around.) When Frederik II gave Brahe Hven as a bribe for staying in Denmark, Brahe constructed a fantastic observatory-cum-palace on the island. He called it the Uraniborg, the castle of the heavens. It cost about 1 percent of Denmark's GDP, greater than the greatest percentage of US GDP that's ever been spent on NASA.

The Uraniborg was outfitted with instruments for observing the heavens; it was an observatory in the days before the telescope. Bringing together a large staff, an army of clocks, and huge, intricately constructed quadrants for providing lines of sight, Brahe could make measurements accurate to one arc-minute (a minute is a sixtieth of a degree.) Johannes Kepler, who worked as an assistant at the Uraniborg, calculating the orbits of the planets, used this data to prove that planets moved in ellipses, destroying the Ptolemaic picture of the universe. But the eccentric Brahe wasn't exactly generous with his data, so Kepler (he admitted this in one of his books) waited for Brahe's death and snatched up the data before Brahe's heirs could realize its significance.

That death is shrouded in a whole lot of mystery. According to legend, Brahe died from a burst bladder after being too polite to leave the dinner table to take a leak. But forensic research on Brahe's corpse, which was interred in Prague, has since turned up mercury in Brahe's hair. In 1996, a physicist at Lund University in Sweden used Particle Induced X-ray Emission to find the location of the mercury in Brahe's hairs, which proved that Brahe had consumed mercury on the day of his death. Was this a case of an an enterprising scientist trying to medicate himself, or was there foul play? A recent book even suggests Kepler poisoned Brahe in order to get at that precious data.

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These days, the peaceful island of Hven (now spelled Ven, because it belongs to Sweden) shows little trace of Brahe's strange influence. Brahe reputedly terrorized the peasants (the Uraniborg was outfitted with a dungeon), had a pack of illegitimate children with one of his servants, and got up to mischief constantly with a dwarf court jester and a pet moose who died stumbling down the castle stairs after a night of heavy drinking. While you can't see the pet moose or hear a prophecy from Jeppe the dwarf, you can visit the old grounds of the Uraniborg, see the nearby museum, and have a cup of coffee at the Cafe Tycho Brahe after you've made some observations with a reconstructed sextant and quadrant!

And as if Brahe weren't cool enough, he also coined the astronomical term "nova" when he wrote the treatise "De Stella Nova" on his 1572 observation of a stellar object brighter than Venus - what we would now call a supernova.

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