Heavenly Intrigue: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History's Greatest Scientific Discoveries

Heavenly Intrigue: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History's Greatest Scientific Discoveries

by Joshua Gilder, Anne-Lee Gilder

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Heavenly Intrigue is the fascinating, true account of the seventeenth-century collaboration between Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe that revolutionized our understanding of the universe–and ended in murder.One of history’s greatest geniuses, Kepler laid the foundations of modern physics with his revolutionary laws of planetary motion. But his beautiful mind was beset by demons. Born into poverty and abuse, half-blinded by smallpox, he festered with rage, resentment, and a longing for worldly fame. Brahe, his mentor, was a flamboyant aristocrat who had spent forty years mapping the heavens with unprecedented accuracy–but he refused to share his data with Kepler. With Brahe’s untimely death in Prague in 1601, rumors flew across Europe that he had been murdered. But it took twentieth-century forensics to uncover the poison in his remains, and the detective work of Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder to identify the prime suspect–the ambitious, envy-ridden Kepler himself. A fast-paced, true-life account that reads like a thriller, Heavenly Intrigue is a remarkable feat of historical re-creation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307275066
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/14/2005
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,109,294
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Joshua Gilder has worked as a magazine editor, White House speechwriter, and State Department official and is the author, most recently, of the novel Ghost Image. Anne-Lee Gilder was formerly a producer and investigative reporter for German television. They live outside Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


The crowds of Prague citizens so thronged the streets that it was as if the funeral procession were making its way between two solid walls of humanity. The coffin, cloaked in black velvet upon which the Brahe coat of arms had been lavishly embroidered in gold, was borne aloft by twelve imperial officials, all noblemen. Inside, Tycho Brahe's body was laid out in knightly regalia, his sword at his side.

Three men led the procession, two holding candles high, the third a flowing flag of black damask. They were followed by Brahe's favorite horse, draped from head to tail in black cloth, all emblazoned in golden heraldry. Another flag bearer followed, and a second sepulchral horse, covered in black; then a man carrying a pair of gilt spurs, another carrying Brahe's helmet, festooned with feathers, a third the Brahe shield and escutcheon. Behind the coffin walked Brahe's youngest son, accompanied on either side by Brahe's beloved cousin, Eric Brahe, and Brahe's friend and dinner companion the night he first fell ill, Baron Ernfried von Minckwitz, in long mourning dress. Imperial counselors and Bohemian nobles came next, trailed by Brahe's assistants and servants.

Brahe's wife, Kirsten, followed, escorted by two distinguished royal judges, her three daughters in train, each attended by two noble gentlemen. Bringing up the rear were many "stately women" and after them the most exalted members of Prague's high society.

On November 4, 1601, the line of mourners made its way beneath the imposing black spires of the Teyn Church and through the mass of onlookers who filled the interior. Nobles and commoners alike jostled to catch a last glimpse and pay their respects to the almost mythic figure whose casket lay before them. The family took their seats in chairs draped in black English cloth, and Brahe's close friend Johannes Jessenius of Jessen ascended the steps before them to deliver his funeral oration.

"You see before your eyes," he said, "this great man, the restorer of astronomy, lying dead, indiscriminately cut down by fate." He spoke of Brahe's martial ancestors and noble lineage, the glory of his work and life in Denmark, and the unparalleled patronage of the Danish king Frederick II. He lauded his scientific achievements and, as might be expected in a funeral oration, the excellence of his character: his kindness to strangers, his hospitality and generosity to the poor, and the depth of his religious belief. Jessenius spoke from his own experience when he described his friend as a "man of easy fellowship," someone who "did not hold anger and offense, but was ever ready to forgive."

In the forthright manner of the age, however, Jessenius also made extended reference to more unpleasant occurrences that probably would be passed over in our euphemistic times: the youthful duel that had disfigured Brahe's face, his forced exile from Denmark, and the plagiarism of his Tychonic system of the planets by a man who called himself Ursus. Jessenius described in disconsolate detail the house of mourning he arrived at shortly after Brahe's "sudden and unexpected" death, and took the opportunity, in front of the assembled members of Prague nobility and high society, to clarify the status of Brahe's unparalleled treasure of celestial observations, which he had "earnestly entrusted to his heirs, even while breathing his last," but which were still--Jessenius pointedly remarked--in the possession of "Master John Kepler, within whose hands all these have remained so far." After Brahe's death, Kepler had left the house where he had served the last eighteen months as the famous astronomer's assistant. In Kepler's luggage were Brahe's massive logbooks, the record of forty years of meticulous labor.

Jessenius also dwelt at some length on Brahe's fatal illness. On the night of October 13, 1601, Brahe had attended a banquet and, although he had experienced no symptoms beforehand, grew increasingly ill during the course of the evening. By the time he reached home, he collapsed in bed with a raging fever, his body wracked by excruciating pain. For almost a week he endured terrible agony, relieved only intermittently by a light delirium. Toward the end of that time, however, his fabled hardy constitution seemed to have pulled him through the worst. He appeared to be regaining his health. It was then that Brahe had declared that his observations should be entrusted to his family. The morning after this announcement, on October 24, 1601, he was found dead.

Immediately following Brahe's death, rumors flew across Europe that he had been poisoned. Brahe, at fifty-four, was still strong and healthy. There had been no previous symptoms. His death seemed too sudden. The rumors spread across Germany and as far afield as Norway, where the bishop of Bergen, Andreas Foss, wrote to Brahe's old assistant and trusted companion Longomontanus: "I would like to know whether you have particular knowledge about Tycho Brahe, because recently an unpleasant rumor has developed, namely that he died, but not a usual death. . . . Alas, that this rumor may be wrong. God have mercy on us." In a similar vein, the prominent astrologer George Rollenhagen wrote not long after from Germany of his conviction that Brahe had been poisoned, as in so "vigorous a body [as Brahe's] so drastic an effect cannot possibly result from the retention of urine, before a climacteric year." Rollenhagen's reasoning was characteristically astrological, and thus might merit little credence in itself, but Brahe's physical strength--what Jessenius describes in the eulogy as his "firm and virile body"--was well known. The idea that someone so comparatively young and in such good health should suddenly succumb to a seemingly trifling illness no doubt fueled the speculation that he had been killed by an enemy. (While average longevity was comparatively low in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this was in large part due to the appallingly high infant and child mortality rates. Those who lived into adulthood stood reasonably good odds of achieving a ripe old age.)

In time, however, the rumors quieted down, in large part because there was no obvious culprit and because, given the medical knowledge at the time, the diagnosis of his illness appeared plausible: during the banquet, Brahe had held his urine too long, injuring his bladder and making him unable to urinate. Over the next four centuries, different explanations would be advanced. At first it was assumed that he died of a burst bladder; as medical knowledge developed, the more likely diagnosis was that he succumbed to a case of acute uremia--in which the kidneys are no longer able to filter out toxins naturally occurring in the blood--probably brought on by an enlarged prostate or other obstruction of the urinary tract.

In 1991, however, forensic analysis of a hair sample taken from Brahe's disinterred remains yielded a startling result. During the same time period in which the allegedly fatal dinner party took place, Brahe ingested something not on the menu: a massive dose of mercury that left deposits in his hair one hundred times above normal levels--enough to bring even the healthiest individual to death's door, if not all the way through it. Five years after the first hair analysis, a second study showed a dramatic mercury spike occurring thirteen hours before Tycho's death, or about nine o'clock on the evening before.

Two independent analyses leading to a single conclusion: Tycho Brahe died of mercury poisoning. His death was no accident: Tycho Brahe was murdered.

Chapter 2


My conception was tracked down," the twenty-six-year-old Johannes Kepler noted in his astrological diary: "May 16, 1571, at 4:37 in the afternoon."

Kepler doesn't tell us what astrological calculations he employed to determine the moment of his conception with such precision, but the timing was important. His parents had been wed the day before, May 15, and he wished to allay any suspicion that he had been conceived out of wedlock. Kepler, who came into the world on December 27, 1571, a little over seven months after the wedding, concluded instead that he had been born prematurely, after precisely 224 days and ten hours in the womb, a deduction backed up by the planetary configurations at the time: "With the sun and moon in Gemini, five eastern planets signified a boy," while Mercury ensured that he "might have a weak and speedy birth."

We know these details because they are contained in the yearly horoscopes Kepler began to cast for himself in 1597, at the age of twenty-six, a practice he continued until 1628; two years before his death. His belief in astrology was not unusual for his time; in many universities, astrology was taught in tandem with astronomy as one of the seven classical liberal arts (the others being grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, and music). Throughout much of his career as an astronomer Kepler would supplement his income by drawing up astrological charts for various officials--including, later in life, Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor--that predicted everything from the weather to the outcomes of military campaigns. While he would often voice his skepticism about such detailed prognostications, he never lost his faith in the power of the planetary "aspects"--the planets' geometrical relation to one another against the background constellations--to shape a person's character and fate during crucial life events such as conception, birth, and marriage and even to determine the time of one's death.

In his midtwenties Kepler began a retrospective project to plot the astrological birth charts for himself and immediate relations in an attempt to understand the comingled fates that forged his personality. His often cryptic notes, accompanied by brief thumbnail sketches of his various family members describing their characters, circumstances, and as often as not the bad ends they came to, provide most of the information we have about his childhood. As seen through his eyes, the family portrait is one of almost unremitting damage, both physical and psychological, of violence and antisocial behavior running in a broad streak from one generation to the next.

Kepler was born in his grandfather's house in the imperial city of Weil der Stadt, whose one thousand or so inhabitants were mostly peasants and craftsmen. Located on the northern edge of the Black Forest in what is now southwestern Germany, it was part of the patchwork of free cities, principalities, and duchies that constituted the Holy Roman Empire. The Keplers appear to have had a legitimate claim to nobility in the distant past, but by the time Johannes came along, the family had been on the decline for several generations.

The patriarch of the family, Grandfather Sebald, Kepler remembers as "arrogant" with a "haughty distinction in apparel. . . . His face revealed that he had been hot-tempered, headstrong, lustful. The face was bushy and fleshy, his beard implied much authority. He was eloquent for an uneducated man. . . . From his 87th year his reputation began to be diminished with his wealth."

While physically abusive to his family, Sebald was apparently well enough regarded by his fellow townspeople to serve for many years as the mayor of Weil, where he also plied his trade as a publican, or tavern keeper, and a buyer and seller of paper, cloth, and other articles. At the age of twenty-nine, he took a wife, Katharina, whose good qualities, in Kepler's memory, were far outmatched by bad ones: "She is very restless, clever, a liar, but studious about religion, graceful, of fiery nature." Kepler goes on to describe his grandmother as an instigator who was always looking for trouble, "jealous, blazing with hatred, violent, mindful of injuries."

To this couple, eleven children were born. The first three died within a few years of their birth. Heinrich, Johannes's father, the fourth-born, was the first to survive into adulthood. Kepler recounts the fates of his other aunts and uncles in order. The fifth child was Kunigunde: "The site of the moon could not have been worse. She died, the mother of many children, killed as they thought by poison." Of the sixth, Kepler notes only her birth date and states that she died, most likely in infancy.

The seventh child, and biggest troublemaker, was Sebaldus, whom Kepler calls a "Magus," or practitioner of black magic. This uncle "led a very impure life," passing himself off as either Catholic or Protestant according to what was most advantageous in the circumstances. Despite being infected with "the Gallic disease," most likely syphilis, he married a rich noblewoman with many children. He was "a criminal and hateful to his citizens," ending up "wandering France and Italy in extreme poverty." The eighth child was named Katharina, like her mother. She married well but "lived extravagantly, squandering her money," and also fell into poverty. Of the last three, two seem to have died in infancy. Of Uncle Friedrich, Kepler simply notes: "He went away to Essen."

It is Kepler's father, however, whom he remembers as the most brutal of all: "Saturn in trine with Mars . . . brought about a man wicked, abrupt, contentious and led to an evil death. Venus and Mercury increased the malice. Jupiter in fiery descension made him a poor man, but nevertheless he married a rich wife." Saturn in the seventh house led him to study gunnery. Kepler recalls that his father had "many enemies and a contentious marriage. Jupiter with the sun badly placed brought falseness, a vain love of honors, and futile hopes about them, a wanderer, . . . he fell into danger of hanging. . . . An exploding earthen vessel of gunpowder with a fracture tore Father's face to pieces." He treated Kepler's mother "very harshly and finally went into exile to die."

Heinrich wasn't the only one to treat his wife harshly. Both were still living in the home of Heinrich's parents, and Kepler believes that it was only through her stubbornness that his mother was able to withstand the "inhumanity" of her parents-in-law, who beat her so severely when she was pregnant with her last child, Christopher, that she almost died.

In 1574, when Kepler was two years old, Heinrich left his wife and two children (a second son, named Heinrich after his father, had been born in the interim) to fight as a mercenary on the Catholic side against the Calvinist uprising in the Netherlands, though the Keplers themselves were Lutherans. Kepler's mother followed a year later, after surviving a bout of the plague, to join up with her husband and his mercenary army, handing over the care of her sons to their hot-tempered grandfather and violent grandmother.

When Johannes, at the age of three and a half, came down with smallpox, his grandmother bound his hands so tightly in bandages--to prevent the child from scratching--that they appear never to have regained full function. Kepler remembers how he was "almost killed off" by smallpox and "and then harshly treated, even almost maimed in respect to hands." In later years he would refer to his handwriting as "knotty" or "tricky." The pox spread to Kepler's eyes, where it left permanent scars, producing multiple vision in one eye and leaving both badly nearsighted, what Kepler described as "by sight stupid." For the future astronomer who would one day revolutionize our understanding of the universe, the heavens would ever after be an indistinct mass of hazy stars before which multiple moons danced in imperfect outline.

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