Friday, December 05, 2008

Rip a Hole in the Sky

Here is an (x-ray) picture of the remnants of a star that exploded in November 1572 -- one that shone so brightly in the immediate wake of its supernova that it could even be seen in broad daylight. Astronomers have now studied the remnants of "Tycho's Supernova" (so named for its most celebrated observer, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe) and published their results in the journal Nature.

As some astronomers have been arguing for more than ten years, Tycho's Supernova also makes an appearance in Hamlet, when Bernardo stands on the Elsinore battlements and describes the brilliant blaze in the sky at the time Hamlet's father's ghost appeared to him:

BERNARDO Last night of all, When yond same star that's westward from the pole Had made his course to illume that part of heaven Where it now burns, Marcellus and myself, The bell then beating one, - [enter GHOST]...

Tycho's Supernova was a foundation-shaking event, ripping a gigantic hole in the static, geocentric view of the cosmos that then prevailed. Nothing could explain how a "new star" might emerge, or how it might even shine during the daytime. Scores of astronomical observations were recorded across the European continent in 1572, coordinated by Tycho at his royally subsidized observatory in Denmark.

Edward de Vere's brother-in-law Peregrine Bertie visited Elsinore in 1582 on a royal embassy to the King of Denmark, a visit that included a dinner that Bertie recorded with Danish courtiers, including two named Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. The King brought Bertie out to Tycho's observatory to meet the fabled astrologer -- as practitioners of the nascent science were then known.

Conventional scholars have long wondered how the author of Hamlet could have known about peculiar details of Danish royal culture, including King Claudius's bizarre drinking ritual involving firing cannon blasts with every downed shot of liquor, a true-to-life drinking game of the convivial Danish king at the time, Frederick II.

Add to that list a supernova observed in great detail by the Danish courtly astrologer, a supernova that, like Hamlet's ghost, tore down the veils of polite society and upended the very order of the -- courtly and physical -- universe of its time.

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