Tycho Brahe’s Psychic Dwarf

Tycho Brahe, as depicted by Sara Drake of the Small Science Collective

On Monday, a team of Danish and Czech archaeologists unearthed the remains of 16th century astronomer Tycho Brahe from his tomb in Prague. The research is part science, part murder mystery: the Danish and Czech teams plan to use CT scanning, DNA testing and PIXE analysis to find out more about Brahe’s life and times as well as his cause of death. It seems the latter has never been quite clear, and some pretty nasty rumors have started to swirl about old Johannes Kepler. As the Scientific American blog Observations revealed:

…  Brahe is being disinterred starting November 15 for analysis for the second time since he was buried in Prague in 1601. Testing on hair samples taken from Brahe’s tomb the first time, in 1901, showed an abnormally high mercury content in the astronomer’s body, raising the possibility that he had been poisoned. But Brahe may well have met his fate by less malicious means; for centuries medical practitioners applied mercury as a treatment for maladies such as syphilis. …

The poison angle got a new look in 2004 in the book Heavenly Intrigue: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History’s Greatest Scientific Discoveries. Not only was Brahe poisoned, contended Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder, but all signs point to his famed protégé, Johannes Kepler, as the culprit.

Brahe’s body is being returned to his grave on November 19th, but we won’t know the results of the study until sometime in 2011. In the meantime, Brahe’s bones will spend a lot of time spread out in scenes like this one:

Professor Niels Lynnerup of Copenhagen University examining Brahe. Photo by Jacob C. Ravn, Aarhus University.

As a side note, the best part of the Observations post was the bit about Brahe’s psychic dwarf. The post quotes from the 1890 biography Tycho Brahe: a picture of scientific life and work in the sixteenth century by John Louis Emil Dreyer, which I’ll quote at a little more length here:

Two other inmates of Tycho’s house may also be mentioned here. One was a maid of the name of Live (or Liuva) Lauridsdatter, who afterwards lived with Tycho’s sister, Sophia, and later was a sort of quack-doctor at Copenhagen, where she also practised astrology, &c. She died unmarried in 1693, when she is said to have reached the ripe age of 124. The other was his fool or jester, a dwarf called Jeppe or Jep, who sat at Tycho’s feet when he was at table, and got a morsel now and then from his hand. He chattered incessantly, and, according to Longomontanus, was supposed to be gifted with second-sight, and his utterances were therefore listened to with some attention. Once Tycho had sent two of his assistants to Copenhagen, and on the day on which they were expected back the dwarf suddenly said during the meal,” See how your people are laving themselves in the sea.” On hearing this, Tycho, who feared that the assistants had been shipwrecked, sent a man to the top of the building to look out for them. The man came back soon after and said that he had seen a boat bottom upwards on the shore, and two men near it, dripping wet. … When any one was ill at Hveen, and the dwarf gave an opinion as to his chance of recovery or death, he always turned out to be right.

As it turns out, Jepp the Clairvoyant Dwarf has his own Facebook page, where his interests are said to include telling the future, riding drunken elks, hiding Tycho’s nose, and being dead.


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