The husband and wife team of Joshua and Anne-Lee Gilder are a couple of latter-day Heinrich Schliemanns, and their Troy is the mysterious death of Tycho Brahe, the 16th-century astronomer. Heavenly Intrigue: Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, and the Murder Behind One of History's Greatest Scientific Discoveries is the story of that death, the events leading up to it, and the use of 21st-century technology to get at the truth, some 400 years after the fact.

Tycho Brahe was a larger-than-life figure. A Danish nobleman, he rejected his cultural peer pressure and studied astronomy, astrology and alchemy instead of soldiering, the usual occupation of his class. He married a commoner whom he loved and spent a good deal of his life securing noble rights for his wife and children. Yet, though he abhorred politics, Brahe was skilled in the ways of the court, and though he cast his lot with science, he was able with a sword, and once had the bridge of his nose sliced off in a duel. True to his nature, rather than wearing a flesh colored prosthesis (which was available at the time), he chose instead to wear one of solid gold. This against-the-grain attitude carried over into his research, and after realizing the gross inadequacies of the astronomical observations of the ancients, he set about his life-long task: creating an accurate map of the motions of the planets.

Enter Johannes Kepler. William Shakespeare himself could not have created a more slippery, conniving villain than this German astronomer. Born of a poor family, abused and hated by his parents, Kepler emerges in his correspondence as nothing less than a Renaissance sociopath. The Gilders create a portrait of man driven by a desire for greatness in astronomy, whose half-baked theory of cosmic spheres was treated with characteristic gentleness by Tycho Brahe, who offered his own home and more to Kepler, who in turn immediately set about dreaming up ways to wrest Brahe's observational data from him. That after Brahe's death Kepler discovered that planets have elliptical orbits, one of the touchstones of science, seems almost accidental.

Historians have long regarded Brahe's sudden illness and death in 1601 as, at the very least, dubious. The Gilders explore recent research into this event, and, like a historical CSI team, make a very good case for Brahe's death by poisoning with Kepler as the poisoner. Isaac Newton once humbly said that his accomplishments were due to his "standing on the shoulders of giants." One giant he was referring to was Tycho Brahe. It could be said that Johannes Kepler was a giant as well, as Newton's theories were a direct result of Kepler's discovery, but in Heavenly Intrigue, Kepler comes across more as a a very small man indeed.

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