Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Skullduggery (part ii)

On Nov 18, BBC science journalist Quentin Cooper covered the story of the exhumation of Tycho Brahe on Material World on BBC Radio 4 (the photo to the left is by Jacob C Ravn, Aarhus University).  As you may remember, we covered the same story here last week, and were a little less than enthusiastic about the science.  We called it the latest from the Desecration Newsroom.

Tycho Brahe was a 16th century Danish astronomer -- indeed, Oxford Historian of Astronomy and Medical Historian Allan Chapman, commenting on this story on Material World, called him 'the greatest founder of modern astronomy', whose 'influence was simply incalulable.'  He showed the world 'how to do modern mathematical astronomy.'

Another great early astronomer, Johannes Kepler, worked with Brahe for the year before he died, and was at the banquet at which Brahe suffered from urinary suppression soon before his death -- or was murdered, depending on your point of view. Kepler's account of the event had it that Brahe had a full bladder at dinner, but was too polite to excuse himself to go to the loo, thus leading to the cascade of events that killed him.

Or not.  Hair samples analyzed in the 1990s showed evidence of mercury, which suggested to some that he'd been so murdered, as described here.  
A new theory by Danish scholars claims that Brahe was poisoned with mercury on the orders of Christian IV, the King of Denmark, because the astronomer had an affair with his mother. It is even suggested that Shakespeare used the alleged liaison as an inspiration for Hamlet.
Peter Andersen, a Danish scholar at the University of Strasbourg, told The Times that the astronomer was poisoned by his cousin Count Eric Brahe, a Swedish diplomat in the service of the Danish Crown.
Last year Professor Andersen found the diary of the alleged murderer, in which he records many meetings with Hans, the brother of Christian IV, on whose orders he is believed to have gone to Prague to murder his cousin. 

Nonsense, scoffed Professor Chapman. If you had urinary suppression in the 1500s, you'd have a catheter inserted into your urinal system, it would have been filthy and you'd have lapsed into fever a few days later due to a generalized infection that began in the urinary system, and you'd soon be dead.  Mercury was used as a standard part of 16th century pharmacy, so of course you'd have been treated with it, and of course it would be found in your body later.  Even much later.  Further, as Chapman said, mercury was very slow acting so if you wanted to kill someone, you'd have used fast-acting arsenic, not mercury.  

Well, will the exhumation resolve the question?  No, not even according to the people doing the exhuming.  But photos of the great event can be seen here.  

Said Svend Aage Morgensen, "The main reason for exhuming Tycho Brahe is not to find out cause of death, because we could never know for sure....but Tycho Brahe is one of the great Danes... and we are interested in knowing everything about these persons; how they are living and what they are thinking and so on."

But now we're really confused.  CT scanning him will tell us what he was thinking or how he was living?  We've just heard that it wasn't done to determine cause of death, as that can't be determined.  

Cooper asked Morgensen what it was like to open the casket.  He described a scene with 100 journalists and many tv cameras, and said it was 'like seeing a Hollywood star entering a movie theatre' -- right, a spectacle.  They found, as expected, two jars, one containing the remains of Brahe's skull and the other the remains of his brain.  They took hair from Brahe's beard, eyebrows and head and samples from his bones, and his remains were CT scanned at a hospital in Prague before he was reburied on November 18.

Cooper asked if Morgensen was at all disturbed by disturbing Brahe.  No, he said, "We are quite confident that TB as a great scientist would have agreed to let science exhume him."  

Really.  You'd hope that Brahe would have wanted science to have a real purpose for doing so, not just the prurient desire to create a spectacle. 

1 comment:

Ken Weiss said...

Maybe our distinguished Danish 'scientists' are taking a page from Brahe himself, showing how wrong ideas can be twisted into what seem like right ones. Brahe devised a geo-heliocentric astronomy in which the earth was, as the Ptolemaics had said, the center of things, but the other planets went around the sun. So perhaps twisting the truth is part of Danish science now, as it was then....

Or is it just an ego-centric universe we live in?