Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature - David Quammen (1996)
PROPHETS AND PARIAHS
The Man with the Metal Nose
A GOOD FRIEND OF MINE CLAIMS, among other matters of wild and ornery personal ethic, that he chooses his friends strictly by smell. I’m not sure what this says about my personal odoriferousness, but I do understand, and endorse, his point in principle: The ineffable qualities are the ones that count, not the objective characteristics that can be captured in an introduction or on a résumé or during two hours’ conversation over cocktails. Those qualities will answer the more crucial questions upon which friendship is based, such as Would this person instinctively step between me and a charging elephant? or Can I trust him to borrow a book without turning the page corners down? And the nose, being humanity’s most under-developed sensory organ, is perhaps the only apt emblem for our groping and sniffling efforts to register the ineffable. Which is why I can’t stop wondering about one particular nose that occupies an intriguingly prominent place in the history of scientific inquiry.
It was an artificial one, this nose, a prosthesis made of gold and silver alloy. It was worn by an aristocratic Danish astronomer of the sixteenth century, a portly and sybaritic man named Tycho Brahe, who had lost his own God-given schnozzle in a duel. History does not record whether the replacement was held in position by a leather thong (like that curiously similar one worn by Lee Marvin in the movie Cat Ballou), or if not, then how. We do know that all his life Tycho carried a small snuffbox full of ointment with which, like one of those people compulsive about Chapstick, he kept his metal nose constantly lubricated. There is likewise no testimony as to what purpose this cold piece of technology might have served. The surviving portraits of Tycho suggest that its role was not to support eyeglasses. Did it smell? Did it run? Could it be turned up disdainfully? Was it often out of joint? We’ll never know. Tycho himself, with or without his peculiar nose, would probably be forgotten by history if it weren’t for two important considerations. The second of these was a set of notebooks full of numbers, and we’ll come to them in a moment. The first was a galactic event of large magnitude.
Step outside on a summer night and look off toward the northeastern part of the sky. Not far below the Little Dipper you’ll see the constellation Cassiopeia, easily recognizable in the shape of a W. Back in early November of 1572, when Tycho Brahe was still a young amateur stargazer of twenty-five, a bright new star appeared suddenly in that constellation. Flaring into view, it shone with more brilliance than any other star, more brilliance than the planet Venus, so brightly that it could be seen even during daylight. Furthermore, it gleamed from a spot where, just a week earlier and throughout the centuries before, no star at all had ever been visible. This phenomenon posed a serious philosophical problem in the late sixteenth century, when Aristotelean cosmology as sanctioned by the Catholic Church decreed that the upper celestial spheres—everything out there beyond the moon—were absolutely immutable. On the fourth day of Genesis, God had created the lights in the firmament, and that was that. Now suddenly here was a big new dot of fire flaunting its power in Cassiopeia. The star attracted attention and concern, not just among astronomers and theologians. It was a popular event of mythic resonance. And it made the reputation of Tycho Brahe.
Tycho wasn’t the first knowledgeable watcher to spot the new star, but he noticed it for himself one night before the news had gone public, and it left him agape. Over the next sixteen months, while the star changed color and rapidly dimmed, he performed a continuous sequence of very precise measurements, using a fine sextant he had crafted from walnut wood (the best available technology at the time, given that telescopes hadn’t yet been invented). Those measurements allowed him to speak of this new star more authoritatively than anyone else in Europe. It was immobile relative to Cassiopeia, Tycho reported; it was not in the sublunary atmosphere but far beyond, amid the other stars; it was not a comet lacking a tail, as some thought, but a true star. Tycho’s book, De Nova Stella, made him internationally famous. He had charted all apparent aspects of the star with surpassing accuracy; but he had no idea what the heck it was.
Today we know: a supernova explosion. Only five such events have been visible from Earth during the past thousand years, and of those, Tycho’s in 1572 was the fourth. What it signified was that, some thousands of years earlier at a very great distance, a gigantic star (much larger than our sun) had come to the end of its life span—the hydrogen nuclei at its core all “burned” by fusion to form helium nuclei, and the helium further fused into still bigger nuclei. The star had then fallen into a terminal sequence of convulsions, alternately expanding and contracting, gravitational compaction seething down against rising internal pressures, which led to a final cataclysmic thermonuclear explosion. That explosion flashed out perhaps a billion times brighter than the normal intensity of the same star during its previous life. And the flash, having traveled across all the light-years of distance between, eventually reached retinas on Earth from the direction of Cassiopeia. Then, by 1574, it was gone. No one knew why. Not even Tycho Brahe.
But Tycho, having so faithfully measured and plotted the thing, was now a national hero in Denmark. The king gave him his own island, as well as lavish financial support with which to construct a great astronomical observatory that would be Tycho’s private scientific demesne. Tycho built a castle in Gothic Renaissance style, with spires and gables and cornices, and at the apex an onion dome topped by a gilt vane in the shape of Pegasus. There were guest rooms and aviaries and fountains, formal gardens and neat orchards laid out within a perimeter wall, fish ponds, English mastiffs to stand guard, a paper mill, a print shop for his publications, and from ceiling to floor in the main workroom an oversized mural of Tycho himself. He called the place Uraniborg. The various chambers and towers he furnished with all the best astronomical instruments a king’s money could order up: sextants of walnut, quadrants of brass and steel, armillary spheres ornamented with his own portrait, triquetrums and azimuth circles and astrolabiums—who knows what they all did. In this setting Tycho commanded his many assistants, threw grand parties for visiting nobility, rubbed ointment on his metal nose, and tossed scraps of meat to his attending dwarf, Jeppe, who served as official court fool. Tycho, in other words, was not a scientist in the ascetic vein.
But during the next twenty years at Uraniborg he also performed the most precise and potentially useful collection of continuous astronomical observations that mankind up to that date had achieved. Where other astronomers (including most recently Copernicus) had been casual and sporadic about their observations, Tycho was thorough, punctilious, indefatigable. Where others had tracked the planets with only their unaided eyes, or occasionally a primitive sextant, Tycho devised his ingenious new instruments. Where others watched for a few nights or a few months, then went inside to dream up more or less misguided theories, Tycho kept watch relentlessly for over two decades, all the while recording his careful notes. The large quarto volumes containing those notes were his treasure. His contribution to science lay in recognizing that serious astronomy required data-gathering of such precision and continuity, and in marshaling the financial resources, the elaborate equipment, the patience, to make it possible. But again, as with the star of 1572, Tycho never knew what he had.
He was not persuaded by the Copernican theory of celestial organization (which had been published quietly about fifty years earlier) and was dissatisfied with the old Ptolemaic view. So in 1588 Tycho announced his own version. Earth, according to him, was stationary in space, as Ptolemy had thought. The other planets, he said, moved in uniform circular motion around the sun. And the sun in turn orbited, pulling its satellites along, in a great graceful circle around Earth. This Tychonic system supposedly explained all the complex planetary motions that Tycho’s sky-watching over the years had so accurately mapped. It was mathematically sweet and theologically acceptable. Its only drawback was that it was wrong.
After two decades at Uraniborg, where Tycho was a greedy and irresponsible landlord to the island’s peasants, putting himself gradually into disfavor with the new Danish king, those munificent cash subsidies ended. So the astronomer felt obliged to pack up his gear and his entourage and leave. He went shopping across Europe for another royal patron willing to support him in similar high style, and two years later he found one: Rudolf II, king of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. Tycho settled into a new castle just outside Prague, on the River Iser. Again there was money enough to pay for lordly living and a staff of assistants, among whom now was a twenty-nine-year-old German who had already earned modest recognition as an astronomer in his own right. This man’s name was Johannes Kepler, and he had some ideas about celestial organization himself.
Kepler had abandoned everything to join Tycho in Prague for a single ulterior reason: He hungered to see the data in those precious notebooks. But Tycho let him go hungry, assigning Kepler to some demeaning lesser chores while refusing to share information with him as a colleague. Then, in October 1601, Tycho Brahe suddenly died. And Kepler got hold of the notebooks.
Within eight years, using Tycho’s data, Johannes Kepler had formulated and published two laws that for the first time accurately explained the dynamics of our solar system, and thereby began the modern age in astronomy. The laws were as simple, once recognized, as they had been inscrutable before. First, said Kepler, the planets (including Earth) travel around the sun not in circles but in ellipses, great oval orbits with the sun nearer one end. Second, each planet moves not at uniform speed but at a velocity that changes according to its distance from the sun. Today those statements might seem unexceptional. But in 1609, how many minds could have guessed that God would design a universe using ovals and irregular motion?
Something more was at work here than just astronomical training, hard thinking, and Tycho Brahe’s data. What else? In many of the great scientific discoveries there seems to have been an additional mode of perception that took up in the shadowy zone where pure rationality ended, a further faculty that helped point the way to a revolutionizing insight. The word “intuition” is sometimes applied but, like a paper label on a bottle, only obscures what’s inside. Arthur Koestler, in his intriguing book on the early astronomers, calls it “sleep-walking.” Einstein spoke in his own case of “the gift of fantasy.” As a young man of twenty-three, Isaac Newton suddenly glimpsed his law of gravity in little more time than an apple would take to fall from a tree (though the literal falling-apple anecdote seems to have been apocryphal). Alfred Russel Wallace got the idea of evolution by natural selection (though that wasn’t his term) with the same suddenness, during an attack of fever, after Charles Darwin had labored over the same question methodically for years. Watson and Crick found the structure of DNA using Tinkertoys, youthful cockiness, and someone else’s x-ray crystallographs—crystallographs that until then had not been correctly interpreted. In each of these entries upon the ineffable, something more was at work than mere cerebration.
Likewise with Johannes Kepler. He shaped his inherited Tychonic data into a vision of cosmological order that was ingeniously simple, drastically unorthodox, and true. But Tycho himself, evidently, just didn’t have the nose for it.