Archeologists are exhuming the body of 16th century astronomer Tycho Brahe from a tomb in Prague to solve long-standing mysteries over the famed Danish scientist's health — and possibly, his death.
The tomb of Brahe was opened today (Nov. 15) at the Church of Our Lady Before Týn (also known as Týn Church) in Prague by an international team of Danish and Czech archaeologists, doctors, chemists and medical anthropologists. The researchers hope to use DNA testing and other modern medical diagnostic tools to learn as much as possible about Brahe's medical history and life. [Portrait of Tycho Brahe]
The condition of Brahe's remains, which have been undisturbed for 109 years, is unknown, researchers said.
"We do not know what we are likely to find in terms of material, nor do we know how the bones have been preserved," said archaeologist Jens Vellev of Aarhus University, who is leading the work.
A film crew is following the project for a documentary on the Brahe investigation.
"This is an outstanding opportunity to follow a group of Danish and foreign researchers as they attempt to shed light on the Tycho Brahe era, his life and not least his death," said documentary producer Anna Elisabeth Jessen of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation.
Brahe was a prolific astronomer who died in 1601 and is known for making the most accurate measurements of stars and planets without the aid of a telescope.
During his career, he catalogued more than 1,000 stars, discovering a new star in the constellation Cassiopeia (actually a supernova explosion) in 1527, proving that comets are objects in space and not in Earth's atmosphere. He also hired another famous scientist — Johannes Kepler — as his assistant, according to NASA records. He is also known for having a silver prosthetic nose piece after losing part of his own nose in a duel. [Top 10 Mad Scientists]
Brahe's death has long been attributed to a bladder infection contracted after his bladder ruptured during a royal banquet where politeness and convention kept him from leaving the royal table to use the bathroom. Brahe was born in Denmark in 1546 and served as an astronomer for the king of Denmark before settling in Prague.
Brahe's tomb has been opened only once before, in 1901, to mark the 300th anniversary of his death. But records of that tomb opening are fleeting.
"No measurement data or photographical details exist from that time, only physical descriptions of the skeletal remains," Vellev said. "We can now supplement these with a number of analyses, so you could say that we are completing the investigation that was begun in 1901."
Vellev and his team plan to drill a hole into the bricked-up crypt at Týn Church containing Brahe's coffin. Brahe's remains were interred in a nearly 5-foot (1.5-meter) coffin made of tin.
Once the hole is drilled, a remote-controlled camera will be lowered into the crypt to inspect the condition of Brahe's coffin.
The coffin will be removed and transported to a laboratory in Prague before being opened.
"The team hope to find bones and remains of a beard, the earthly remains of Tycho Brahe," Aarhus University officials said in a statement.
Scientists are also interested in recovering any shreds of Brahe's burial suit that could allow them to reconstruct the astronomer's aristocratic outfit in patterned silk.
The science team has only four days to study Brahe's body. On Friday, the Brahe's remains and those of his wife – who was buried by his side in 1604 – will be reburied after a memorial ceremony.
The results from the new study of Brahe's remains are expected to be released sometime in 2011.
This article was reprinted with permission from SPACE.com.
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