Thursday, 24 October 2013

Tycho Brahe - the foolish death of a wise man

On a night in October 1601, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II of Habsburg hosted a lavish banquet at which was present the renowned astronomer Tycho Brahe. But after drinking too much wine, Tycho is filled with the urgent and embarrassing need to urinate.

'What can I do?' he nervously asked himself. 'I can't leave the table, that would be a breach of etiquette. I'll just have to cross my legs and wait.'

And it was an agonising wait, like sitting through a compilation of acceptance speeches from the Oscars: 'I'd like to thank my mom for giving birth to me, my dog for all the love and affection he gives me, God for creating our beautiful planet.....'

Finally, the feasting ended, Tycho rushed to the nearest urinal and hurriedly pointed Percy at the porcelain. But catastrophe! Nothing came out! Panic stricken with severe piss paralysis, Tycho closed his eyes and addressed a silent prayer of supplication to his prostate. A few meagre drops finally dribbled out, but nothing to write home about. 

His friend and assistant Johannes Kepler transported him to his residence in Prague, and ten days later, still unable to relieve himself, Tycho died on the night of 24 October 1601, lamenting that his life had been for nothing. 

But what was the cause of his sad demise? A study at the University of Lund (Sweden) in 1996,which examined hairs from his ample moustache, suggested that it may have been mercury poisoning. Was Kepler the poisoner? Not according to Professor Peter Andersen of Strasbourg who claims to have deciphered a cryptic manuscript which points the finger of suspicion at a distant cousin of Tycho's, who may have poisoned Tycho on the instructions of the Danish King Christian IV, as a punishment for Tycho for having once been his mother's lover, the Queen Sophie of Mecklembourg-Gustrow. 

Another mystery for Patricia Cornwell to solve.

Tycho Brahe, meanwhile, or rather his mortal remains, are interred in the Church of our Lady before Tyn in Prague, where his epitaph reads:
'He lived like a sage and died like a fool'

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Christopher Columbus, Rodrigo de Triana, and the discovery of the New World

On 6 September 1492, the flotilla of vessels comprising the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria, under the command of Admiral Christopher Columbus, set sail from the Canary Islands, and one month later there was still no sight of land. 

With the sailors close to mutiny, on 10 October, Columbus, aboard the Santa Maria, summoned the Pinta and the Nina to draw close so that he could address their crews.

'My brave lads!' he tells them. 'Have courage! It is true that we have yet to sight land, but I am fully trained and highly skilled navigator. I know my arse from my elbow, and my infallible and precise calculations tell me that Japan - yes, Japan! - is just over the horizon. And remember: the Queen of Spain has promised a prize of 10,000 maravedis to whomsoever is first to spy our destination. So forward, my tall fellows!'

The sailors cried 'Hurrah!' and threw their caps into the air, and indeed on 12 October, at two in the morning, a sailor's cry of 'Japan ahoy!' is heard to ring through the air aboard the Pinta. The sailor was Juan Rodriguez Bermejo, also known as Rodrigo de Triana, and soon all can discern the sombre outlines of the coast in the rays of the moon.

At first light, the captain of the Pinta, Martin Alonso Pinzon, clambered aboard the Santa Maria, to claim from the admiral the Spanish Queen's prize for Rodrigo de Triana. But he was in for a surprise.
'What time was this?' questioned Columbus.
'At 2 a.m.' replied Pinzon.
'That's a pity, because I spotted it at 10 p.m. the previous night', replied Columbus.
'But that's impossible!' protested Pinzon.
'No, no, I have two witnesses!' countered Columbus. 'I could even make out the lights and smell the sushi.'
It was pointless to argue, for already it was time to manoeuvre the vessels alongside the green and lush landfall.

Naked and friendly natives came to greet the new arrivals, welcoming them with gifts of cotton and parakeets. But something was not quite right. 
'Are you quite sure that this is Japan, Chris?' Alonso asked Columbus.
'Of course it's Japan! Where else could it be? Where's my interpreter? He'll confirm it', replied the admiral.
At that moment the interpreter rushed forward.
'Well?' asked Columbus.
'I don't understand it!' said the interpreter. 'I've talked to them but they don't seem to understand a word of Japanese!'
'Oops! We must have taken a wrong turning!' said Alonso.
'Well, wherever we are', replied Columbus, 'inform them that I'm renaming their ancient land San Salvador, that they are now subjects of the King of Spain, and can they please tell me where I can get my hands on their gold.'

Communicating through gestures, the explorers believe they have learned that the gold is on an island to the south. They set sail at once, and on 28 October weigh anchor in the new land.
'At last!' announced Columbus triumphantly. 'Japan!'
In fact it was Cuba, but by this time did anyone care?

But the vexing question remains: Who was the first to discover the New World? Was it Columbus? Was it Rodrigo? Or was it a new candidate - Pedro de Lope? Posterity may never know.