How do we kill off myths of science zombies?

The Internet is a sort of cyberspace limbo where myths in the history of science, which have been debunked a long time ago, keep popping up on social media as #histsci zombies, the history of science undead. One such that has popped up to haunt me several times in recent weeks is the claim that Johannes Kepler murdered Tycho Brahe. This claim was at best ludicrous and, having been thoroughly debunked, is now just pathetic but continues to ghost through cyberspace as a #histsci zombie. Where does it come from, who put it into the world and did it ever have any validity?

Portrait of Kepler by an unknown artist, 1610 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Kepler by an unknown artist, 1610
Source: Wikimedia Commons

After protracted negotiations and a return to Graz to fetch his family Johannes Kepler began to work with Tycho Brahe in Prague as his assistant in late 1600, not as his student as is often falsely stated. In September 1601, Tycho managed to negotiate an official position for Kepler at the Imperial Court of the German Emperor Rudolph II. Their partnership was however short lived, as Tycho died 24 October 1601. According to Kepler’s account Tycho had retained his urine during a banquet eleven days earlier, so as not to breach etiquette by leaving the table. Upon returning home he was unable to urinate, fell ill and falling into delirium died, apparently of some sort of urinary infection. This was the state of play in 1601 and remained unchanged until 1901.

Tycho Brahe Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tycho Brahe
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1901 Tycho’s body was exhumed and an autopsy carried out that failed to establish a cause of death. However when the corpse was reburied a sample of his beard hair was retained. In 1990 this hair sample was analysed and found to contain abnormally high levels of mercury, which led to the speculation that Tycho had died of mercury poisoning. At this point there was no real suspicion of murder but more speculation about an accidental mercury poisoning. Tycho was a Paracelsian pharmacist, who along with his observatory on Hven ran a pharmacy that produced various medical remedies. The speculation was that he had either poisoned himself whilst working with mercury, a not uncommon problem amongst pharmacists in the Early Modern period when mercury was used extensively in medicines, or that he had poisoned himself by taking one of his own mercury containing remedies.

The first real accusations that Tycho had been murdered, that is poisoned by another person, came with the publication in 2004 of Joshua & Anne-Lee Gilder’s book Heavenly Intrigue: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History’s Greatest Scientific Discoveries. Put simply the Gilders claimed that Kepler had poisoned Tycho to gain access to his astronomical data. The first part of their book, in which they outline the lives of Tycho and Kepler is actually well researched and well written but it’s when they come to the cause of Tycho’s death the book goes of the rails.

The Gilder’s build a chain of speculative, unsubstantiated, circumstantial evidence leading to their conclusions that Tycho was murdered and Johannes Kepler did the evil deed. Any able defence lawyer or competent historian of science could dismantle the Gilder’s rickety and highly dubious chain of evidence without too much effort leading to a full acquittal of the accused. Unfortunately most book reviewers are neither lawyers nor historians of science and the popular press reviewers jumped on the book and swallowed the Gilder’s arguments hook, line and sinker. The result was that Kepler went from being a hero of the scientific revolution to being a perfidious murderer, almost overnight.

Fascinatingly, the furore created by the popular press led to an international team of experts being granted permission to exhume Tycho’s corpse and to carry out yet another autopsy. The noble Dane would not be allowed to rest in peace. This was duly done in 2010 and the corpse, or what was left of it, was subjected to a battery of scientific tests. All of this activity led to the popular science press publishing a cart load of articles, many of them on the Internet, asking if Kepler had indeed poisoned Tycho most of them skewing their articles strongly in the direction of a guilty verdict.

The international team of archaeologists, forensic anthropologists, pathologists and whoever took their time but in 2012 they finally published their results. There was not enough mercury present in the samples to have caused mercury poisoning and there were no other poison found in any quantities whatsoever. Tycho was not poisoned by Johannes Kepler or anybody else for that matter. A second independent team re-analysed the beard hairs taken from the corpse in 1901 and confirmed that there was not enough mercury present to have caused mercury poisoning.

The press outlets both popular and scientific that had trumpeted the Gilder’s highly dubious claims out into the world did not apply the same enthusiasm to reporting the negative results of the autopsy. Those lengthy articles in the Internet claiming, implying, insinuating or suggesting that Kepler had done for his employer were not updated, amended or corrected to reflect the truth and the Gilder’s book was not withdrawn from the market or consigned to the wastepaper basket, where it very definitely belongs. Below is part of the sales pitch for that book taken just a couple of hours ago from Amazon.com:

But that is only half the story. Based on recent forensic evidence (analyzed here for the first time) and original research into medieval and Renaissance alchemy—all buttressed by in-depth interviews with leading historians, scientists, and medical specialists—the authors have put together shocking and compelling evidence that Tycho Brahe did not die of natural causes, as has been believed for four hundred years. He was systematically poisoned—most likely by his assistant, Johannes Kepler.

An epic tale of murder and scientific discovery, Heavenly Intrigue reveals the dark side of one of history’s most brilliant minds and tells the story of court politics, personal intrigue, and superstition that surrounded the protean invention of two great astronomers and their quest to find truth and beauty in the heavens above.

The result of all this is that historian of astronomy of the Early Modern period are forced to indulge in a game of historical Whac-A-Mole every time that somebody stumbles across one of those articles in the Internet and starts broadcasting on Twitter, Facebook or wherever that Johannes Kepler murdered Tycho Brahe.

 

 

 

20 Comments

Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science

20 responses to “How do we kill off myths of science zombies?

  1. Fascinating – I must admit, I’ve never seen this claim. I would put this in the same class of book as the ‘Who was Jack the Ripper?’ titles – a shame it is being classified as serious history of science.

  2. Jeb

    Early modern history is not alone. I remember laughing when I read a press report in which my old tutor was phoned by the reporter to ask if a proposed attempt to dig Roslyn chapel in an attempt to find the holy grail had any historical credibility.

    I suspect his first response was probable not fit for publication.

    John Morris a perfectly respectable historian wrote. The Age Of Arthur: A History of the British Isles. Its still on sale and the advertising reads. “A lifetime’s scholarship enabled John Morris to recreate a past hitherto hidden in myth and mystery.”

    It destroyed his reputation as a historian among historians, the work is unusable as a historical source.

    Still in print still popular.

  3. Jeb

    ” historical Whac-A-Mole”

    This can lead to errors on both sides.

    If you have someone who researches a subject well debating against a historian, who can point to the error but does not have the same grasp of historical detail as its outside his subject area.

    Can lead to a dreadful car-crash in which the academic will win based simply on authority, identifying correctly the error but giving a contextual rebuttal which is nonsense and leaves the other party feeling bruised but vindicated as they have correctly identified the historical detail which has been denied by the professional who is ignorant of the specific context.

  4. Jeb

    I think these are issues that history and historians have rather than other people who don’t do history. They are an internal aspect of the subject rather than an external one. Becoming a member of the historically un-dead is an occupational hazard with a wide inclusive potential membership base.

  5. Hi Thony!
    The book you speak about, luckly, wasn’t translated into italian language!
    Anyway nobody here accuse Kepler of Murder, he is a very appreciated astronomer!… there was only a funny story about the King of Denmark, Christian 4th, who sent a killer to murder Tycho!
    Only one thing about your post, when you says :” he had poisoned himself by taking one of his own mercury containing remedies”
    Tycho was an alchemist and knew very well how dangerous mercury could be!
    Ciao! Patrizia

    • guthrie

      You know of alchemical writings from the period which say that mercury is dangerous?

      As for the discussion below, I’ve had a look in the Libellus de Alchimia and the Summa Perfectionis, and they don’t mention the dangers of mercury. Many other texts are rather more allusive than practical, and therefore the dangers to the alchemist just don’t feature at all.

      Biringuccio on the other hand writes “It is used for many things in medicine on account of its coldness. It is numbered among the poisons. It has the property of contracting the nerves of those workers who extract it from ore if they are not very careful, and it makes the limbs of those who continually handle it weak and paralysed.” (Page 81 of the paperback Dover edition)
      The above being in a context which makes it clear he means Hg by “mercury”.

  6. Would Kepler even have known that he could use mercury as a poison? Early modern doctors seemed to have used so much of it, that I always figured it’s toxicity was a more recent discovery.

    • Good question to which I don’t know the answer

    • laura

      hhmmm. The paracelcians (or at least Paracelsus himself) were pretty obsessive about proper dosage and the anti-paracelcians were always attacking them for killing their patients with medicine, so it was probably pretty well known that too much mercury at once would kill you. They definitely didn’t know it would accumulate in the body though. Probably wouldn’t have been Kepler’s poison of choice, though I think the bigger problem with this particular myth is that Kepler (who was pretty clear that he didn’t see himself as a prophet for whom exceptions might be made) would have assumed he would go to hell if he committed a murder.

      • Not if he thought that in killing Tycho he would be doing God’s work

      • laura

        That’s my point. There’s really nothing in Kepler’s writing to suggest he saw himself as prophetic and possibly exempt from the commandments. He certainly thought he was a genius, and a very good Christian, but he always denied having any direct revelation from on high, “I lack all enthusiasm” etc. If he had committed a murder he probably would have had an elaborate theory, like he did for most things, for how certain types of men are exempt from the moral teachings of the patriarchs and the bible.

  7. David K Love

    You are, of course, absolutely correct in your conclusions on this, and I emphatically reach the same conclusions in my book “Kepler & the Universe”. It’s sad that Kepler’s name has been dragged through the mud in this way. Simplicio raises a very good point, which I hadn’t thought of before. When did we come to realise that mercury was so toxic?

    I rely on the news story at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20344201 as a useful statement of the position.

  8. I was thinking about Tycho’s false nose, which was traditionally an alloy of gold and silver (presumably to match his skin colour). Could this have included mercury to create an amalgam, which would have made moulding it easier? If so, it might explain why Tycho had low levels of mercury in his hair.

    • The autopsy revealed that Tycho’s artificial nose was more likely brass

      • Tycho wore the gold nose only in special situations, because it was too heavy! For everyday use he wore a copper nose (color similar to gold)…the brass is yellow! This is proved by 1901 autopsy, when a green deposit (copper oxide) was found on bones around the nose.

  9. As for the question in the title, I shall expand a little on my tweet.

    Firstly whac-a-mole is necessary, so that some people in the future might find your response and not fall for the lies. In fact what is required is total media dominance, so that wherever an uninformed member of the public goes for information, they find only correct stuff, or else the lies are so pushed out that they are ignored.
    This is of course difficult with the current media culture. One way around that is to feed them contant drips of real historical scandal and weirdness, the difficulty being how to phrase it such that most people get the right idea (There will always be someone who misinterprets what you have written, even if you just answer yes or no) and yet the situation about which you are writing isn’t blown out of all proportion.

  10. I hadn’t heard the murder story before, hilarious. I had certainly heard the standard account of Tyco’s death, and don’t imagine that K made it up – but was there any evidence from the autopsy that the standard account was true?

  11. Tom Metcalfe

    Reblogged this on The Somnium Project.

  12. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol: #44 | Whewell's Ghost

  13. Pingback: How do we kill off myths of science zombies? — The Renaissance Mathematicus | alparslankarabacak

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