• Dr. Timothy Smith

Who Says That Math and Science Cannot Bring about Strong Emotions?

When I was in college studying chemistry, I had a friend who was a year ahead of me and a chemistry student as well. One day, my friend asked me if I had been to any of the departmental chemistry seminars held once a week in the late afternoon. I had not because I thought that these seminars were only for graduate students and professors. My friend said they were for everyone in the department and they could be pretty exciting, since there were two professors who had some sharply differing opinions, and that they would often debate each other openly during the seminars. Well, out of curiosity, I went to one of the seminars and while the invited speaker was presenting his research one of the professors interrupted the speaker with a question. Just as the speaker was responding, the other speaker responded to the question somewhat harshly. Before long the two professors were yelling at each other across the lecture hall. The poor despondent speaker stood hapless and quiet at the front of the room while the warring professors had it out. I had always believed that science and math were debated by solemn scholars using logic and not volume to make their case, but I was wrong. Since then I have enjoyed reading about some of the more spirited debates in math and science.

One of my favorite stories of spirited debate has to be the story of how the famous Danish astronomer, alchemist and astrologer Tycho Brahe lost his nose. Tycho remains one of the most colorful characters in astronomy. He was born Tycho Ottesen Brahe on the 14th of December, 1546 as a nobleman in the family castle, Knutstorp in Scania. On one of his travels through Europe he observed a solar eclipse and was impressed by the ability of astronomers to predict, although not perfectly, the timing of the eclipse. Brahe was the last of the great pre-telescope astronomers. His passion for accurate measurement led him to collect what would be at his time the finest and most thorough records of celestial movements ever assembled. As a matter of fact, it was his meticulous measurements that helped his student Andreas Kepler, yes, the Kepler, define the three laws of planetary motion that contributed to the scientific revolution and establish the ideas that placed the sun, not the earth, at the center of the solar system. Tycho devoted great effort in engineering better tools for measuring the movement of the stars and built an observatory funded by King Frederik of Denmark. Now, Tycho was certainly not a cold scholar only spending his nights measuring the universe. He kept varied company including a dwarf named Jepp as his jester, and he had a tame elk (or moose, sources vary on this) that lived and partied with him and traveled with him trotting alongside Tycho’s coach. Sadly, once Tycho had sent the elk in his place to a friend’s house for dinner, and the elk drank too much beer and had a fatal fall down the stairs. According to various accounts, Tycho was also at a party and had a huge disagreement with his cousin about a mathematical equation resulting in a duel with swords. In the duel, Tycho lost his nose. For the rest of his life he would use a prosthetic nose made of brass, silver, or gold (for special occasions) nose.

The world of science and mathematics often appears to be cool, logical and impersonal. Although there are many cases of cool Commander Spock type researchers and scholars, science does have it passions and disagreement about mathematical equations, the interpretation of data, disputes about who discovered what first, and even personal idiosyncrasies. I have witnessed firsthand when passions flare about differences of opinion about chemistry hypothesis. Tycho Brahe lost his nose in a mathematics fueled duel. Once the cool façade of logic is peeled back it does not take long to find very strong human emotions burning right alongside cool objectivity.