How (Not?) to Popularize the History of Science: Tycho Brahe (again)
Posted by Darin Hayton on 12/19 at 10:42 PM
How Stuff Works, part of the Discovery Channel empire, produces a podcast “The Stuff You Missed in History Class.” Narrated by co-hosts Sarah and Deblina, most episodes are between 15 and 30 minutes. Judging by the reviews, this is an ideal length for commuters and casual listeners. The favorable reviews often cite the hosts breezy, conversational style, interesting and unusual topics, and the fine research used to produce the shows.1
Capitalizing on the recent Tycho Brahe mania, “The Stuff You Missed in History Class” produced Tycho Brahe: An Astronomer’s Untimely Demise. The hosts claim that they are going to offer more insight into the unusual circumstances that surrounded Brahe’s death. They rehearse the traditional accounts—possible bladder infection, burst or torn bladder, or kidney disease—but then implicitly dismiss these by saying: “Even at that time though there were some rumors going around, some murmurings that maybe murder had been involved.” After all, they tell us, he had enemies. But who would want to murder him?
Before answering that question they offer a general biography, adding little that isn’t found in the wikipedia entry on Brahe. They take some license with the interpretation, the details and adding color to liven up the story. They make Brahe into something of a cross between a modern astronomer and a college student:
“He [Tycho] was living large out on the island of Hven, throwing parties, drinking, eating lots, and really not treating his tenants well at all.” When King Christian IV of Denmark withdraws his support, Brahe moves to Prague where, in 1600 he hires Kepler as an assistant. Kepler is very different from Tycho, different background, though he has a good reputation as an astronomer.
Here is, predictably, the key to the podcast: emphasizing the tension between Brahe and Kepler, from their very different social status to their competing theories about the solar system:
“He’s [i.e., Kepler] also a Copernican, so opposite. Opposite theories. They don’t believe the universe works the same way. So he thinks the planets orbit the sun. It seems like it would be really hard to have a productive partnership with another astronomer if you had such a fundamental difference.”
While they perhaps could have worked well together, Kepler ultimately sabotages any possible relationship by coveting Brahe’s observational data: “He [Kepler] really wanted to work with Tycho so he could use his data. But then of course he comes to Tycho and Tycho’s totally stingy with his observations and data.”
The two butted heads. They argued. Kepler even walked out and left at one point. Conveniently, “Tycho dies suddenly in 1601 and Kepler after that becomes the imperial mathematician in Prague, which gives him access to all of Tycho’s data.”
“Kepler’s work definitely benefits from having this data. Which comes of course from Tycho’s death. So, suspicious, so when these findings about the mercury poisoning came out a lot of people started thinking ‘What did this guy have to gain from it?’ But there’s no proof.”
Because there is “no real proof,” the hosts offer two other possible murders: the Jesuits who didn’t like Brahe’s Protestant influence over Emperor Rudolf II; Christian IV as mastermind who urged Erik Brahe to murder Tycho. Although they admit there is no proof of murder, and probably can never be any proof, they clearly build the entire show around Brahe’s murder. As an afterthought, the closing lines of the episode suggest that Brahe might have poisoned himself by ingesting his own mercury-based medicine.
What can we take from this podcast, and the apparent success these podcasts have? First, don’t make people read; instead, let them listen. But don’t make them listen for too long. Second, don’t lecture at your audience. There is a virtue to colloquial expressions and breezy presentation. The two hosts sound like they are gossiping about mutual acquaintances rather than presenting a 25-minute historical vignette. Third, some details matter but most can be fudged or ignored. And interpretations should be made to enhance enjoyment or add dramatic tension rather than to deepen understanding. Finally, historians of science have relinquished a vast domain in which they could exercise their expertise. Giving up this domain has real consequences: scores of people will hear “Tycho Brahe: An Astronomer’s Untimely Demise” and spread the word that Kepler probably poisoned Brahe to get his data. And if not Kepler, then the Jesuits (because we can blame the Church for everything), or Brahe’s own relative. That seems unfortunate.
1In the interest of full disclosure: I found the breezy tone and colloquialisms off putting, the topic trite, and the “research” superficial and problematic. I have no intention of listening to any more of these podcasts and don’t recommend them to anybody else.⇑