Saturday, May 22, 2010

Copernicus Buried Again

On May 22 in Poland, astronomer Nicholas Copernicus was reburied as a hero. Copernicus will forever be known for introducing a cosmology that was not centred on the Earth. He was originally condemned as a heretic. (Did you hear the one about the Polish astronomer? He thought that Earth circled the Sun! LOL!) Astronomers of his time preferred the complexity of epicycles, spheres within spheres. Observations made after his death, like those of Galileo, would prove Copernicus right. Isaac Newton would show how a simple law of gravity could explain the motions of planets, moons and apples. 500 yerars after his death the world has acknowledged that Copernicus was right.

To those who knew him, the man who would revolutionise astronomy seemed most unrevolutionary. Nicholas Copernicus quietly moved through society in the honoured position of a churchman. This quiet man led a secret life of science--his nights were spent on the church walls observing the sky. Quietly he collected and checked his observations for a book, but delayed publishing until the end. "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium" argued that Earth is not the centre of everything, but circles the Sun. It was published in 1543 the day before Copernicus died quietly in bed.

A quiet end was not in store for another man of the church. Giordano Bruno was born 5 years after Copernicus died, educated as a Dominican, and eagerly embraced the Copernican theory. Bruno’s own ideas went even further—he speculated that the Universe was boundless, our solar System was one of countless others, and these other systems could be home to life! These seemingly heretical ideas caused Bruno big trouble with authorities. Unable to lead a steady life, Bruno taught and traveled from Italy to Switzerland to England to stay ahead of his persecutors. Finally a local official of the Inquisition ordered him burned at the stake. Revolutionary ideas nearly always meet with opposition.

Born in 1564, Galileo Galilei was fascinated by experimentation since childhood. Though he was an excellent student, financial reasons forced Galileo to leave university before graduating. Among his many experiments, Galileo attempted to measure the speed of light. Most likely he learned of the new invention called a telescope from sailors, and was the first to turn it toward the sky. Galileo’s telescope saw craters on the Moon and the phases of Venus. He was the first human to glimpse the main satellites circling Jupiter, and the strange protuberances of Saturn’s Rings. Though Galileo was initially skeptical of Copernican theory, observations led him to eagerly accept it.

After his death, Copernicus was buried in an unmarked grave. In 2004, urged by a local bishop, scientists began searching for the remains. Thanks to modern day CSI, the skeleton of a 70-year old man was positively identified as Copernicus. Saturday Copernicus was reburied with the help of an honour guard and the blessing of Poland's highest ranking priest.

Copernicus' theory conflicted with the Earth-centred cosmology of the time. At the time of his death it was incomplete, lacking a mechanism such as gravity. It was easier for scholars of the day to reject Copernicus and preach about epicycles. Today scientists try to sell "dark energy" to the public, while insisting that the speed of light is constant. Nicholas Copernicus showed that truth can't be buried forever.



Blogger Kea said...

And may he now rest in peace.

It is interesting to observe how the modern Church tries to improve its image in the scientific age. Forgive me if I am a little cynical as to its true motive: saving the Patriarchy.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Ulla said...

It is not only the patriarchy, it is the whole church dogmas. They have painted themselves into a corner :)

These kinds of gestures will not be enough to save the Church. They wake up too late.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...


Copernicus was never condemned as a heretic. He was somewhat of a slacker, neglecting entreaties by his superiors in the Church--remember, he was a cleric--to publish for decades. When he finally submitted his work to Catholic censors it was approved without a hitch. There wasn't any religious controversy over heliocentrism in his time, this developed in Galileo's time...and Galileo wasn't condemned as a heretic either, the issue is more subtle--and interesting--and another story altogether. Perhaps your readers would enjoy Singham's article in the December 2007 Physics Today.

Keep up the blog!

9:39 AM  

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