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Science Sunday: Astronomer and Alchemist Tycho Brahe Died Full of Gold

The shiny element was important to Renaissance scientists. Very important

Tycho Brahe was extremely wealthy and lived an unusual life that included a pet moose. (South Denmark University) 

new study based on chemical analysis of Brahe’s remains has shown that he was regularly exposed to large quantities of gold throughout his life.

Tycho Brahe, born on this day in 1546, is known for his interest in alchemy as well as his contributions to astronomy, like his detailed measurements of Mars’ orbit. Brahe’s unusual life story makes him noteworthy in his own right, and this new discovery adds to the mystery.

“We found traces of gold in Tycho Brahe’s hair, and we can establish that he was exposed to gold while these hairs were still on his body,” chemist Kaare Lund Rasmussen of the University of South Denmark said in a university press release.

“The investigations of Brahe’s remains are interesting because of his lifelong activities in natural sciences including alchemy—the dawn of modern chemistry,” the study reads.

 Rasmussen’s team analyzed hair samples taken from the astronomer’s scalp, beard and eyebrows. They found that the samples contained a gold content of between 20-100 times higher than a normal person today, showing that he was “excessively” exposed to gold in the last 2 months of his life, the study says.

“Gold was ubiquitous throughout the higher social circles of Renaissance Europe,” the study says, which means there are many possible ways he was exposed: perhaps scrapings from cutlery or plates of gold added it to his food, or maybe the wine he drank had gold leaf in it.

Drinking gold in wine was a remedy dating back to the late Middle Ages, writes Leah DeVun in Prophecy, Alchemy and the End of Time, her book about a groundbreaking alchemist named John of Rupecissa. It relates directly to alchemical beliefs about the ability of minerals like gold to provide the consumer with “a vital, heavenly principal,” she writes.

Brahe’s cause of death remains unknown, although seeking that cause is the reason his remains have been exhumed not once, but twice.

At one time, Brahe was thought to have died from a bladder infection after a rupture caused by politely “holding it in” at a royal banquet rather than excusing himself, writes Megan Gannon for Live Science. Scientists exhumed his body for the first time in 1901 to mark the 300th anniversary of his death: their claim that they found mercury in his remains gave power to rumors that he was poisoned, perhaps by rival Johannes Kepler.

Brahe’s remains were exhumed again in 2010 and have since led to a variety of discoveries about the man, including that he was not murdered. Rasmussen’s team also conducted that analysis in 2012. They have yet to find any traces of mercury in his body, although they have conducted a number of tests. What they did find in their most recent analysis: traces of cobalt, arsenic and silver that they suspect were from his laboratory.

Brahe definitely lived the kind of colourful life that sounds like it would start rumors. Things like owning a drunk pet moose, the fake nose he wore after losing the real one in a duel and hiring a man named Jepp who had dwarfism and who Brahe believed was clairvoyant are all bound to stand out in the historical record. Then there’s the fact that he was fabulously rich, owning up to one percent of Denmark, according to Mark Mancini for Mental Floss.

And then there was the alchemy thing. While it’s not known exactly what experiments Brahe conducted under that branch of “science,” it’s not that surprising that he would be interested in it. At that time in history, astronomy was the most cutting-edge branch of science, and it was also closely connected to the less-rigorous (to modern eyes) pursuit of alchemy. In the Renaissance there was “a broadening of inquiry in all areas that might have been seen at the time as related to understanding the natural world,” writes Sheila J. Rabin for Oxford Bibliographies.

By 1575, when he was just turning 30, Brahe was famous throughout Europe, writes Michael Fowler for the University of Virginia physics department. He went on a tour, visiting astronomers in many other cities. To lure him back to Denmark, King Frederick II of Denmark offered Brahe his own island, complete with a fiefdom of 40 farms. Brahe stayed there for a while, but ended up leaving again and becoming imperial mathematician to the court of Rudolf II in Prague.

However the gold got there, it adds another layer of oddity to the Tycho Brahe story.

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Did you know ?

  • 1oz – It is rarer to find a one ounce nugget of gold than a five carat diamond.

  • 175,000 tonnes – Less than 175,000 tonnes of gold has been mined since the beginning of civilisation.

  • 21 metres cubed – All of the gold ever mined would fit into a crate of 21 metres cubed.

  • 200 – Julius Caesar gave 200 gold coins to each of his soldiers from the spoils of war in defeating Gaul.

  • 50 miles – One ounce of gold can be stretched to a length of 50 miles; the resulting wire would be just five microns wide.

  • 4,600 tonnes – There are 147.3 million ounces – around 4,600 tonnes – of gold stored in the US Bullion Depository at Fort Knox.

  • 9 metres square – One ounce of pure gold can be hammered into a single sheet nine metres square.

  • 530,000 bars – The US Federal Reserve holds 6,700 tonnes of gold, in 530,000 gold bars. At its peak in 1973, the Fed stored more than 12,000 tonnes of monetary gold.

  • 400 troy ounces – A “London Good Delivery Bar”, the standard unit of traded gold, is made from 400 troy ounces of gold.

  • 79 – The atomic number of gold is 79, which means there are 79 protons in the nucleus of every atom metal.

  • 2316 troy ounces – The largest ever true gold nugget weighted 2316 troy ounces when found at Moliagul in Australia in 1869. It was called the “Welcome Stranger”.

  • 90% – Over 90 per cent of the world’s gold has been mined since the California Gold Rush.

  • 80 cm – The largest gold coin ever created was cast by the Perth Mint in 2012. Weighing one tonne and measuring 80 cm in diameter, it surpassed the previous record, a 2007, C$1 million coin which was just 53 cm across.

  • 1885 – While digging up stones to build a house, Australian miner George Harrison found gold ore near Johannesburg in 1885, beginning the South African gold rush.

  • 31.103 grams– There are just over 31 grams in a troy ounce of gold.

  • 11.2 million – If all of the existing gold in the world was pulled into a 5 micron thick wire, it could wrap around the world 11.2 million times.

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