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The Straight Dope

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Tycho Brahe, the astronomer, is buried here in Prague in a church. That's not so unusual. What is rather strange is the persistent rumor that he had a silver nose, something to do with a duel. Did it tie on around his face with silk strings? Did it have little hooks that went around his ears, like eyeglasses? Was it surgically attached? I'm truly curious. I also wonder if it tarnished, and whether he had to polish it. Did it make a note like a whistle when he blew his nose?

--Raymond Johnston, chief copy editor, Prague Post

Glad to be of help, Ray. I know how tough it is for journalists to come by this kind of information. What you heard was no rumor. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), the father (or at least the godfather) of modern astronomy, really did wear an artificial nose, owing to the fact that the real one had been sliced off in a duel. You may think: this does not sound like the scientists I know. Maybe not, but Tycho Brahe was no ordinary guy.

It happened in 1566 while the 20-year-old Tycho was studying at the University of Rostock in Germany. Attending a dance at a professor's house, he got into a quarrel with one Manderup Parsbjerg, like himself a member of the Danish gentry. Over a woman? Of course not. Tradition has it that the two were fighting over some fine point of mathematics. (My guess: it was Fermat's Next-to-Last Theorem, which posits that 2 + 2 = 5 for very large values of 2.) Friends separated them, but they quarreled again at a Christmas party a couple weeks later and decided to take it outside in the form of a duel. Unfortunately for Tycho the duel was conducted in pitch darkness with swords. Parsbjerg succeeded in slicing off the bridge (apparently) of Tycho's nose.

Reconstructive surgery then being in a primitive state, Tycho concealed the damage as best he could with an artificial bridge made of precious metals. He carried some nose goop with him always, either to polish the nose or to glue it more firmly in place. But no hooks or string, and probably no whistling either.

High-handed and irascible, Tycho Brahe was the kind of guy who got into duels. Luckily he was also a genius. Fascinated by the stars since his youth, he discovered that existing astronomical tables were grossly inaccurate and set about making his own meticulous observations of the heavens, a project that occupied him for most of his life. To keep him from going abroad the king of Denmark and Norway gave Tycho a prodigious quantity of cash ($5 billion in today's money, by one estimate) and his own island. There Tycho constructed an observatory where for 20 years he compiled the impressive body of astronomical data that his assistant Johannes Kepler subsequently used to deduce the laws of planetary motion. All this, mind you, with the naked eye; the telescope hadn't yet been invented. He didn't marry the mother of his eight children, employed a dwarf as a jester, kept a pet elk (which died after breaking a leg while going downstairs drunk), dabbled in alchemy, and tyrannized the local peasantry. After his royal patron died of excessive drink Tycho managed to tick off everyone in Denmark, had his subsidies revoked, and eventually found it wise to leave the country. Having relocated to Prague, he died after drinking heavily at dinner, a pretty common fate in those days.

Tycho's tomb was reopened in 1901 and his remains were examined by medical experts. The nasal opening of the skull was rimmed with green, a sign of exposure to copper. Presumably this came from the artificial nose, which supposedly had been made of silver or gold. The experts put the best face on this, as it were, saying that Tycho was an expert in metallurgy and probably wanted an alloy that was durable and skin colored. Sure, guys. I say Mr. Astronomy got nicked in the nose department twice.

I've always wondered how sunscreen works. As I understand it, it keeps your skin from burning (and, to an extent, tanning), but it doesn't seem to reflect the light away (you don't shine that much with sunscreen on). So the light is getting through, but it's not affecting your skin. This doesn't make sense to me. Any straight dope on that?

--Chuck Keller, Washington, D.C.

There are two kinds of sunscreens, physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens are opaque formulations such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide; they completely block sunlight but because of their cakey appearance are used mostly by lifeguards and such. Chemical sunscreens reflect or absorb the ultraviolet light that causes tanning and burning. The absorbed energy is reemitted in a harmless form, either heat or fluorescence, neither of which is perceptible. The effectiveness of a chemical sunscreen is indicated by its SPF (sun protection factor): a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 will allow you to stay in the sun 15 times longer than you could if you didn't use sunscreen at all. Thus, if ten minutes in the sun without sunscreen will produce a modest tan, a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 will produce the same results in 150 minutes. But there are numerous qualifications and exceptions, so I wouldn't push it if I were you.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

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