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Lock, Stock, and History

Tycho Brahe and the Mathematical Duel,

In the 16th century the Danish scientist Tycho Brahe was considered one of the great intellectuals of Europe.  Throughout his career as an astronomer, mathematician, and alchemist he developed several theories that kicked off a scientific revolution in the west.  He also created many theories and scientific laws that would form the foundations for modern astronomy and trigonometry today.  

Other than his scientific work, and the fact that he kept a beer drinking elk for a pet, the one aspect of Brahe that is most often mentioned was his metal prosthetic nose.  Throughout most of his life Brahe wore a prosthetic nose made of silver and gold, brass, or copper which his glued to his face.  While it is unknown today exactly what his nose was made out of, it would have been a prosthesis similar to this,

File:Artificial nose, 17th-18th century. (9663809400).jpg

In 1566 Tycho Brahe was a student at the University of Rostock in Germany.  On the night of December 10th he attended a dance hosted by one of his professors, when he became embroiled with a fellow student,  Manderup Parsberg, on the legitimacy of a mathematical equation.  Neither could disprove each others theories, so the two agreed to disagree and part ways.  Then on December 27th the argument flared again.  This time unkind words were spoken and satisfaction was demanded.  The two agreed that the debate over the mathematical equation would be settled in a method that many gentlemen used to settle their differences during the 16th century; with a duel.  In an age when gentlemen dueled to the death over minor points of etiquette, dueling over math was nothing unusual.

On the night of December 29th, the two mathematicians met was swords in hand.  At 7:00 in the evening the two engaged in a clash of steel, with the winner earning victory at first cut.  Under such rules opponents typically try to make a superficial wound rather seriously wounding or fighting to the death.  However it was a dark night and neither opponent could see very well.  In the midst of the fighting Parsburg’s blades sliced off Brahe’s nose.  

Despite marring his face, Tycho Brahe would become good friends with Parsburg, who would become one of his greatest supporters.  Unfortunately Brahe’s nose would ultimately be the loser of the mathematical duel.  

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