HEAVENLY INTRIGUE by Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder (Anchor, 2004/2005, ISBN 1-400-03176-1, 336pp) (book review by Mark R. Leeper):
On November 4, 1601, Tycho Brahe was laid to rest in Prague in a decorous funeral. He had been struck ill twenty-two days earlier during a banquet. At the beginning of the evening he had felt fine but as the evening progressed he became more and more ill. After eleven days of great pain he was dead. The explanation that has been built around that evening says that he had had a desperate need to relieve his bladder but was too polite to excuse himself from the table. This resulted in a blockage that eventually killed him. However, as Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder report in HEAVENLY INTRIGUE, a forensic analysis in 1991 showed that he had mercury levels in his body that were one hundred times normal and that he must have ingested the mercury around 9:00 the evening of the banquet. Also, there was another large ingestion of mercury just thirteen hours before his death.
Tycho Brahe was succeeded in his post as Imperial Mathematician to Emperor Rudolf II by his assistant Johannes Kepler. Today Kepler is remembered as a strong proponent of the Copernican view that the Earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around. The Gilders suggest that the now-respected Kepler was also the murderer of Tycho Brahe. The motive for the murder, it is suggested, was forty years of astronomical data and observations that Brahe had collected and that would become available to Kepler only on Brahe's death.
The book follows the two astronomers' careers. Brahe had a passion for data, rejecting the commonly accepted observations at the time as being inaccurate and much preferred collecting his own. He has built his own observatory and from it measured what he thought was the birth of a new star. Today we know it to be the death of an old star in a supernova. Based on his success, Denmark's King Frederick II built his a powerful new observatory.
They tell us of Kepler's unhappy childhood with a cruel father. He had wanted to go to the priesthood, but for reasons not clear he was not wanted there. His teachers pushed him into mathematics instead. Kepler was a life-long believer in astrology and his dependence on the stars framed much of his thinking. As he says of his wife, "Take a look at a person for whom the good stars like Jupiter and Venus are not in a favorable position at the time of birth. You will see that such a person may in fact be honest and wise but still has an unhappy and rather sad fate." Kepler's view of the universe accepted Copernicus and at the same time was grounded in the Aristotelian view. The planets could revolve around the sun, but interplanetary distances were controlled by the five Platonic solids nested one within another.
The book introduces both of the astronomers and gives their histories before and after their joining each other to work together. When they do meet it is under unfortunate circumstances that caused the then-famous Brahe to underrate Kepler's theories. His later kindness toward Kepler is only occasionally met with appreciation. Brahe eventually had welcomed an opportunity to work with Kepler, but due to earlier incidents in which some of Brahe's discoveries were plagiarized, he never trusted anyone, including Kepler, with all his data. The two had an on-again, off-again relationship with Kepler respect never really blooming.
The book covers the two men's histories for about two hundred pages, leading up to the death of Brahe. Then it has several chapters covering the modern investigation into the death of Brahe whose body shows unmistakable signs of mercury poisoning. The book looks at who had motive and opportunity and concludes that the killer was probably Kepler who wanted to steal Brahe's data.
It seems the history of science, or nearly any other subject whose history is still studied, include frequent rumors of scandal. We are familiar, for example, with the supposed hatred and alleged murder of Mozart by Antonio Salieri. Perhaps Kepler did murder Brahe. The conjecture makes for juicy gossip. But one is tempted to ask after all this time, what difference would it make, even if the murder by Kepler could be proven. We live in a world that Brahe, Kepler, and for that matter Mozart and Salieri could not conceive of. The people of today are totally alien to Brahe and his contemporaries. Would it make much difference to Brahe or to Kepler that at this late date our understanding how Brahe died changes? If four hundred years from now people decide that I was the assassin who killed John Kennedy, would that really bother me? I think not.