The relationship between Brahe and Kepler, two of the giants of astronomy, has long been known to be stormy, but did it end in murder?
Yes, declare the authors, novelist and State Department veteran Joshua (Ghost Image, 2002) and former German television producer/reporter Anne-Lee. Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) was of noble Danish extraction, his family close to the king. Famously independent, he fought a duel in his early days and married a commoner in defiance of law and custom. His pursuit of science was also a rebellion, but he turned it to his benefit by obtaining the king’s backing for a lavish observatory. A new king and a subsequent change in political winds ended Brahe’s influence in Denmark, so he went to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in Prague. There he met and hired as his assistant Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), a mathematician of humble origin, trained for the ministry. On the basis of his self-analytical writings, quoted extensively here, Kepler’s career comprised a series of feuds. That pattern continued with Brahe, whose astronomical observations awaited analysis to support his eccentric theory of the solar system. Kepler needed the job and had the math skills. But he also had his own theories, based on the Platonic solids, which he hoped Brahe’s data would support. Brahe, however, was miserly with his material, fearful of its being stolen. By 1601, the Gilders argue, Kepler decided to get his hands on the data by engineering the older scientist’s death; modern forensic analysis of Brahe’s remains suggests mercury poisoning. Kepler demonstrably had the motive, knowledge, and opportunity to destroy his mentor, from whose observations he derived his laws of planetary motion. The authors marshal the evidence effectively and vividly paint the historical context of their tale. But they work so hard to portray Brahe as a magnanimous genius and Kepler as an ungrateful villain that readers may take their verdict at less than face value.
Still, despite its flaws, a fascinating story.