Mercury poisoning! Voluntary urinary retention! Clairvoyant dwarfs! Intoxicated Elk! The screenplay will practically write itself!
December 1, 2010, 2:30 am
Who or what killed Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), the Danish astronomer who — after observing a new very bright star in the heavens — first coined the term “nova”? (And who, incidentally, had a prosthetic gold nose piece replacing a chunk lost in a duel.)
Some say it was his protege – Johannes Kepler – in the observatory with a vial of mercury. Others claim that Brahe died of his own gluttony when — after he refused to get up from a particularly prodigious banquet to relieve himself — his bladder burst. Still others say the murderer was Eric Brahe, a Swedish relative and hired assassin whose employer had motives too complexly Oedipal to explain easily.
A breezy piece in this week’s New York Times Science Section points out that the Brahe saga has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster in the vein of Amadeus. Aside from the elements mentioned above, it also includes a clairvoyant dwarf named Jepp whom Brahe kept under his table to prattle on during dinner, and a pet beer-drinking Elk who died of traumatic injuries suffered when intoxicated.
Brahe’s body was recently exhumed to investigate more fully the mercury poisoning angle. Many scholars think that this hypothesis is unlikely, and that the high levels of mercury previously found in samples of Brahe’s hair may have been due to inadvertent exposure or therapeutic misadventure.
The author of the Times piece, John Tierney, amusingly envisions a meeting where the idea of a film about Brahe and Kepler is pitched to Hollywood executives:
“Look, you’ve got some interesting elements to work with here. I love the royal sex and the poison and the duel — could we call him Goldnose? The clairvoyant jester is a nice device. And I totally get the Tycho-Kepler conflict — high-living nobleman versus tormented commoner. But . . . do they have to be astronomers?”