Thursday, November 22, 2012

Tycho Brahe: The Worst Demise in History

The date is October 13, 1601.  The place is Prague.  A wealthy baron is hosting a swanky dinner party and only the noblest of nobles secured an invite to attend.  For everyone familiar with nobles, and for those who are not, a nobleman must be polite at all costs.  This is mandatory.  He must not, for any reason, excuse himself from a party.  This could be seen as ungracious and worthy of condemnation.

Among the crowd is Tycho Brahe, a mildly successful astronomer, a nobleman, and a minor celebrity in the circles of Eastern European high society.  He has hired, as his bright and youthful assistant, the very talented and soon to be notorious Johannes Kepler.  This is important only because for centuries after Tycho's death, people will believe that Kepler had murdered Tycho with mercury in order to gain access to his prized astronomical charts.  It was not the case but if it were, it would have been a much kinder fate.

Tycho was born a rich boy, the richest of the rich, to Danish parents, nobles in their own right, in a town that is now currently within the borders of Sweden.  After being kidnapped by his paternal uncle, Tycho was sent to a prestigious school to study law.  But soon thereafter, he became dissatisfied with the field in its entirety, finding it to be painfully tedious and circumstantially irrelevant to his desires.  So he set his sights and pursuits on a much more fascinating endeavor, one that Aristotle and Ptolemy dedicated their respective lives to: Infinite Space.

Tycho Brahe was obsessed with the night sky and he was continually disappointed with the maps and charts that were at his disposal in the middle sixteenth century.  He made a commitment to further those charts, to make them as accurate as possible.  Tycho had absolutely no respect for sublunar theory, believing instead that the Earth was just one of a trillion other planets in the universe.  Despite the avid number of Christian dingbats alive and prospering at the turn of the seventeenth century, Tycho made it his life's work to study the stars and the universe and come up with a believable and credible theory about how everything came to be. He cared not for the idea that the stars in the sky consisted of purely unknowable heavens.

But that's not what this story is about, not at all.

My slightly paranoid state of mind that is often given to fantastic and terrible misapprehensions finds Tycho Brahe interesting for another reason entirely.  It has nothing to do with his astronomical contributions to the world. While I do find those to be worthy of credit and regard, they are not nearly as fascinating as what caused Tycho Brahe's ultimate demise.  That has become the stuff of legends, horrendously graphic legends.  Since coming to learn of Tycho Brahe in a college astronomy class, I have not been able to forget about the circumstances of his death.


It all began at this dinner party in Prague, a city that Tycho settled in after becoming dissatisfied and discontent with Ven, an island off the Danish coast that he had been given by the Danish King.  At Ven, Tycho had commissioned his own observatory and built himself a large castle.  He had servants, illegitimate children and a dungeon.  What more could a megalomaniac, slightly Machiavellian sixteenth century blowhard ask for?

Tycho was happy for awhile with his life but when the new King of Denmark was crowned, things turned ugly for the selfish, arrogant astronomer.  The new King was frugal, parsimonious and stiff.  He was a fiscal conservative and he tightened the reins on Tycho and his lavish spending of the country's dimes.  Accordingly, Tycho decided to take his talents elsewhere.  He traveled Europe near and far looking for a better place to settle down.  He finally found that place in Prague, under the reign of King Rudolf II.  This is where Tycho met his fate, a fate that makes me cringe every time I read about it, every time I think about it.  And I think about it quite often.

Now, tangents and background aside, back to the story of October 13, 1601...

A baron of Prague was having a dinner party and it was a "who's who" of the important scientists and dignitaries of the time.  It was 1601 and everyone knew they weren't living to see the 1700s.  I'd call that a small favor, but like usual, I digress.  Tycho Brahe was among the guest list at this swanky dinner party and in his typical fashion, he was sucking down drinks like there was no tomorrow.  (In fact, there would be eleven more tomorrows for Tycho but they would be tortuous and hard acquired).

Before attending the party, Tycho drank a few glasses of water in preparation.  I know how irrelevant this sounds now but it has its place in the rest of the story. Upon arriving at the baron's castle, Tycho Brahe was quick to make conversation with other guests, telling them all about his astronomical endeavors and how he alone would solve the mysteries of the universe.  I would have smirked to myself if I had been there as a fly on the wall.  But alas I was born about three-hundred and ninety years in the future, give or take five years. Regardless, Tycho goes on and on about his mission to impress the great figures of seventeenth century Prague.  He loved to boast almost more than he loved to drink.

After the appetizers and drinks, the party heads for the dinner table to dine.  Tycho, an avid connoisseur of food, digs in almost immediately.  He licks his chops and pauses only to absorb compliments on his life's work from those seated nearby him.   He loves himself, like a narcissistic fool would, and he loves to acknowledge praise from those around him.  Of course, like any dinner party, the wine is flowing and Tycho is constantly filling his glass.  He likes wine almost as much as he likes praise and his glass is always going empty.  His bladder, on the other hand, has been full for hours.  It is in dire need of emptying.

The night progresses, like all nights do, and Tycho starts to notice heavy discomfort in his groin.  He has to pee, bad enough that he's starting to fantasize about using the toilet.  In his head he is trying to think of ways to make a graceful exit. But the compliments and wine are still flowing and he simply does not believe that he can excuse himself gracefully.  Raised by nobles, he must be polite, at all costs.  He mustn't excuse himself in the middle of dinner, in the middle of conversation, in the middle of praise.

So Tycho crosses his legs uncomfortably, bites down, and endures the pain of a full bladder.  He smiles and accepts the kind words of his companions, thinking no one has ever died of a burst bladder.  He doesn't know it now but these will be his famous last words.  The guests continue to shower him, he continues to cross his legs and smile tightly.  I, as the fly on the wall, know what happens next but I do not buzz a word of it.  That would be in poor taste.

After dinner, the party moves on to brandy and dessert.  Tycho loves brandy and he loves being intoxicated but all he feels now is the unbearable pressure of his full bladder, all the fluid ounces of urine begging to be released.  How good it would feel to pee right now, Tycho thinks to himself as he nods and forces a polite smile.  But he doesn't dare walk out because of his fear of being impolite.  He mustn't be impolite; he was raised by nobles after all.  But the pressure is getting the better of him and he's fantasizing hard about taking a grand leak.  Nevertheless, he waits longer, indulges in more compliments and bides his time until he can graciously excuse himself.  Of course he knows it could be hours.

The baron's servants offer him another libation; he cannot justify saying No.  And once it's in front of him, he cannot justify not drinking it.  So he drinks.  He drinks, and he drinks, and he drinks, filling his bladder beyond capacity, way beyond.  As the fly on the wall, I shake my head.  But Tycho keeps drinking and talking with his companions, apparently believing wholeheartedly that bladders are capable of holding copious amounts of liquid without bursting.  He keeps his legs crossed and tries to sound interested in the stories of others, all the while thinking incessantly about how nice it will feel when he is finally able to relieve himself.

How were you able to record such precise measurements for the stars in the sky, one nobleman inquires, placing his chin in his hands and appearing just absolutely mesmerized by the idea.  Tycho eats it up, even though he would rather be peeing.  He starts in on a long, albeit somewhat distracted dialogue about how he realized that some of the stars were behaving differently than what had been predicted by Ptolemy and the other astronomers before his time.  Interestingly, there was a star in the sky, brighter than all the others and visible during the sunlight hours that was moving around the sky unpredictably, Tycho relates to interested noblemen sitting around him.  They respond brilliantly and the dialogue continues.  Tycho doesn't know it but the phenomenon he is describing is a supernova.

It's all madness in Tycho's brain as he tries to figure out a polite way to excuse himself in order to relieve the immense pressure in his bladder.  Doctors say that bladders cannot burst but Tycho knows he's pushing it now. He has drunk so much.  Nevertheless, he keeps drinking, drinking, drinking.  He can't stop himself because of the etiquette and the manners he was raised on.  There is no accounting for the damage parents inflict upon their children.  Still, Tycho wants to scream, he wants to yell at the top of his lungs, but he patiently listens to the noblemen speaking and he responds in kind.  It's total and complete hell but he doesn't let on.

Finally, and thankfully for Tycho, the evening comes to an end.  He bids goodbye to all of the guests and of course the host, who he has been painstakingly trying not to offend all evening, and then graciously exits the castle with a brisk and cautious walk.  He waddles to his carriage but he doesn't dare relieve himself out there on the lawn.  Tycho, the courteous nobleman that he is, decides to wait until he gets back to his own castle.

Unfortunately the trip home is by horse and carriage and it is bumpy as all hell.  It is incredibly not to his liking but he suffers through it because he is a nobleman and above such pedestrian concerns.  But he curses heavily, under his breath, dreaming of the time where he will get home and be able to let it all out and feel instantly better.  Every bump along the road is insufferable but Tycho handles it like the sophisticated nobleman and astronomer that he is. He doesn't mention his discomfort.

A quarter of a mile from his castle, the carriage hits a particularly unruly bump and Tycho is thrust into the air and off of his seat.  As he lands once more he feels a soft explosion.  He gasps and realizes that the pressure on his bladder that he has felt all night has magically subsided.  At first he fears he might have wet himself but he quickly realizes that isn't the case.  He flings into a mild panic as he wonders what has happened to him.

By the time he makes it back to his own manor, he doesn't have to pee anymore.  His bladder doesn't feel empty but it doesn't feel full either.  He is initially very confused but he doesn't dwell on it long before retiring to bed. Science isn't perfect but deep down Tycho sort of feels like something isn't right with him.  But he's Tycho Brahe, famous astronomer, and not vulnerable to such mortal body concerns.  It's an arrogant sort of attitude that he will come to regret in time.  But it's too late for him now.

Before the break of dawn, Tycho is awakened and doubled over with the worst stomach pain he has ever experienced.  He thinks back to the carriage ride and the soft explosion he felt.  He is not sure whether that was the great burst of his bladder but he certainly suspects that something is dangerously amiss.  He calls in doctors and specialist from all over Europe to cure him.  The doctors are all somewhat puzzled by his condition.  None of them have been able to offer a cure.

Tycho comes to suspect soon enough that he is on his deathbed.  He has not been able to urinate anything more than a few drops since the night of the dinner party.  In reality, all of the toxins of human urine have spilled all over and throughout his internal organs.  Sepsis has set in, and fast.  He is fading and there is nothing that seventeenth century medicine can do for him.  His bladder has exploded.  Bacteria is eating his insides alive.  Stomach pain is agonizing.  Tycho suffers extreme pain and haunting delusions.

Tycho can do nothing but wait for the torturous death still in store.  A ruptured bladder is in fact a death sentence.  At this point, he has suffered the worst demise in history.  Eleven days after the explosion of Tycho's bladder, his stomach pain subsides.  He is too weak to do much more than die.  Johannes Kepler, his budding assistant, and some servants lie by his deathbed.  Tycho Brahe speaks his last and final words.  "Let me not seem to have lived in vain".  Then he dies.


So Pretty?

1 comment:

  1. Profs love to discuss this guy as a cautionary tale. I learned about him in astronomy and his death was a footnote.