There is no shortage of lore surrounding Tycho Brahe. For starters, the 16th-century Danish astronomer famously lost part of his nose at age 20 in a duel with another nobleman and thereafter wore a metal prosthesis on his face. Then, take this bizarre snippet from an eponymous 1890 biography of Brahe by J.L.E. Dreyer:
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 [Brahe's assistant] Longomontanus, was supposed to be gifted with second-sight, and his utterances were therefore listened to with some attention.
Later in his life, as court astronomer to Emperor Rudolph II in Prague, Brahe collected some of the best observations of his day for the positions of celestial bodies in the sky, which his successor, Johannes Kepler, would later publish as The Rudolphine Tables. To top it off, Brahe died at age 54 after, as the story goes, he stayed at the table too long without relieving himself during a formal dinner, possibly bursting his bladder in the process.
That last legend may soon be challenged, as 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 1890 biography of Brahe—written before the mercury test—noted that rumors of Brahe's poisoning swirled after his death. But Dreyer dismissed such "silly" talk as "scarcely worth mentioning."
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. (Kepler's motive would have been to get hold of Brahe's tightly kept treasure of data.) But the astronomical community hardly turned on the esteemed Kepler—in a review of the book, Marcelo Gleiser of Dartmouth College wrote that the accusation "verges on the preposterous."
The new exhumation is being led by medieval archaeologist Jens Vellev of Aarhus University in Denmark. Vellev told the Associated Press that he hoped to not only analyze Brahe's mustache and hair, but also his bones. The group aims to learn more about Brahe's health and medicinal intake and, just maybe, to find some new information about his untimely demise.
"Perhaps we will be able to come close to an answer," Vellev told the BBC, "but I don't think we will get a final answer to that question."
Photo of Brahe's tombstone: Robert Scarth/Flickr