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Scientists open grave of astronomer De Brahe

posted 15 Nov 2010, 09:58 by Sam Mbale

Czech and Danish scientists are opening the grave of Danish astronomer Tycho De Brahe in Prague to ascertain the reason behind of his mysterious death.

Was it accidental poison or murder most foul? Could it have been a sudden illness or the dark result of envy among two of history's greatest astronomers?

Czech and Danish scientists opened the Prague tomb of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe on Monday in an attempt to discover what killed the alchemist in 1601, whose observations of celestial bodies laid the foundations for modern astronomy and his assistant Johannes Kepler's later fame.

Speculation has long centered around three theories. Brahe -- who worked at the Prague court of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II and is a popular figure in Czech and Danish history -- was murdered, became ill or simply ingested too much of a toxic substance such as mercury in the course of his experiments.

The Czech Academy of Sciences said nuclear scientists will test bone and hair samples taken from Brahe's remains in the Our Lady Before Tyn Church in Prague's medieval Old Town Square.

They will be looking for mercury and other substances that could shed light on the cause of his death. Some presence of mercury was shown by earlier analysis of his facial hair.

Scientists said longer-term exposure to poison would indicate Brahe may have died from self-administered "medicine" or too much exposure from his experiments.

However, high concentrations of a toxic substance near the hair root could indicate a big one-time dose of poison.

"It is impossible to say if he was murdered or not, "said chief scientist Jens Vellev from the university of Aarhus. "But we can perhaps decide if he took so much mercury that he could die of it. For sure he took some mercury, we know it from analysis of his beard ten years ago. But that time they could not decide how much mercury he took. Perhaps if we combine the results from the beard and the results from the analysis of the bones we can decide if the amount of mercury was so big that he could die of it. Personally I think that he hook mercury because he had pain and he used mercury as a medicine." .

Scientists will work hard to ascertain as much information as is possible from the degraded samples of Brahe's bones and hair.

"Hopefully we might come a little bit closer but on the other hand it has been my experience that with such old remains which may be more or less degraded it might actually be difficult to reach the full definitive answer. But we will do our best and that's the only thing we can do," anthropologist Niels Linnerup said.

One murder theory says that Brahe was killed on the orders of Danish King Christian IV who he had fallen out with or that his now more famous assistant Johannes Kepler murdered him to get his hands on Brahe's astronomic observations.

An illness causing kidney failure is another possibility for a colorful character, who wore a prosthetic nose said to have been made of precious metal to hide the loss of the bridge of his real nose in a duel.

One popular legend says Brahe, also said to have enjoyed a party or two, died after a dinner where his bladder burst because etiquette prevented him from leaving the table attended by the king. Doctors have said that theory doesn't hold water.

The collaborative research will not just aim to settle old riddles.

"From my point of view it will be important to find out, if the remains allow it - how Tycho de Brahe looked, the circumstances of his burial and to conservate (conserve) the grave textiles," said Vladimir Kellnar who is pastor of Tyn Church where the body had been buried.

Further tests will be done at universities in Lund, Sweden and Odense, Denmark, the Czech Academy of Sciences said.