Did you know that Nicolaus Copernicus, the Renaissance astronomer who argued Earth and other planets orbit the sun, lived, worked and died in Poland?
Until recently I never gave it much thought—but when I traveled to his country in August, I couldn’t stop following him around.
His likeness is painted on buildings and memorialized in statues in multiple Polish cities. His name graces street signs, museums and a fancy hotel. There’s even a rock-salt Copernicus in one of the subterranean caverns of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Just as there’s no escaping the fact that the sun is the center of the solar system, you’re bound to run into at least one tribute to the legendary scientist somewhere around Warsaw, Kraków or Toruń.
But Copernicus is perhaps the biggest star in the town where he wrote his most influential work, and where he’s buried. That place is Frombork, a red-roofed seaside village far removed from the soulless skyscrapers of Warsaw. My friend Dan Falk and I, both writers and science history geeks, decided to venture to this Baltic outpost to see where the great heliocentrist had worked out his worldview. Perhaps we, too, would have a moment of Copernican insight about our place in the cosmos.
WHO WAS THIS COPERNICUS GUY, ANYWAY?
Copernicus was born in Toruń, Poland, in 1473. He began his studies at Kraków University, now called Jagiellonian University, in 1491, and then headed to the University of Bologna to study law. He also studied medicine and received a doctorate in canon law. As canon of the Frombork cathedral, his role was largely administrative, but it guaranteed him a livable salary while he pursued astronomy as a hobby.
At that time, the widely accepted wisdom was that the planets and the sun revolved around a stationary Earth. But not everyone had always believed this. The ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus, for example had proposed back in the third century BCE that Earth revolves around the sun instead. Whether he knew about Aristarchus’ idea or not, Copernicus built upon it in his book De revolutionibus orbis coelestium (On the revolution of heavenly bodies)—and rather than just wax philosophical, Copernicus worked out detailed mathematics describing the solar system, based on the assumptions that the Earth spins on its axis, orbits the sun and has a tilt.
Copernicus kept the manuscript for this book hidden for more than a decade, perhaps because he feared being ridiculed or condemned as a heretic. The book did get out, however, because toward the end of his life, his student Georg Rheticus convinced him to publish it. Copernicus didn’t live to see the volume’s impact; he died shortly after its publication, in 1543.
Although Copernicus erroneously assumed the heavenly bodies orbited the sun in perfect circles, he correctly moved the Earth from its presumed location in the center of the universe to a relatively insignificant backseat. This was foundational for the influential astronomers who followed—including Galileo, who was put under house arrest for affirming the same truth. Today, understanding our solar system isn’t the only one in the Milky Way by a long shot, and that the Milky Way is one of many billions in the universe—and that perhaps there are even multiple universes—scientists use the phrase “Copernican Principle” for the idea that Earth has no special cosmic significance (except, of course, for us).
HOW FROMBORK CELEBRATES COPERNICUS
To get to Frombork, Dan and I had to catch a train to a town called Elbląg and then get a bus out of Elbląg’s tiny terminal. The bus followed a two-lane country road on a journey that included at least two farms with cows. Had we continued on this road beyond Frombork by car, it would be only about 11 more miles to a small part of Russia totally cordoned off from its motherland by other national borders. But we knew we were in the right spot when we saw a small bus shelter labeled Frombork, and subtitled “Kopernika.”
As we walked uphill, Dan giddily started snapping photos of the red brick fortress walls that surround the cathedral complex. There was a lot to see, for sure, including a giant statue of Copernicus welcoming visitors on the main street; a museum in the Palace of the Bishops of Warmia; and the tomb of Copernicus himself, in the cathedral. The “Copernicus Tower” is the part of the complex where Copernicus may have done his work, although no one knows for sure. But this much is clear: in Frombork, Copernicus is king.
Inside the cathedral, there were at least two different Polish tour groups taking turns crowding around the tomb. While I waited for them to move along, I found an 18th century epitaph for Copernicus on one of the pillars of the nave—a small circular portrait surrounded by gold with a Latin inscription. A midday organ concert filled the vaulted Gothic ceilings with sounds from a 17th century masterwork.
The highlight was surely Copernicus himself. His grave is marked with an enormous modern epitaph, and there’s a small viewing window in the floor so visitors can peek at a portrait of his face resting on his coffin. In contrast to the antique splendor of the Gothic basilica, the resting place of Copernicus lies below a towering black monolith with a representation of the sun and the orbits of planets radiating out from it. Between Jupiter and Saturn is a depiction of Copernicus, with information about his birth and death, identifying him as “astronomer,” “creator of the heliocentric theory” and “Warmian canon,” which refers to the region of Poland containing Frombork. Having traveled so far and heard so much about Copernicus in the past, Dan and I were awestruck as we stood atop the heliocentrist’s resting place. “I can’t believe we made it!” I blurted out.
With all that has happened in astronomy in the intermittent centuries—as we have come to understand how truly vast the universe is compared to the solar system—one might rhetorically say that Copernicus could have rolled over in his grave if he knew. In fact, in 2005 archaeologists dug up anonymous skeletal remains from beneath the Frombork cathedral, and DNA testing suggested they belonged to Copernicus (it’s a good thing he left some hairs in one of his books: they served as fodder for the genetic analysis). Historical portraits also allowed scientists to match the shape of the skull with Copernicus’ head. He was ceremoniously reburied in 2010, and his grave was outfitted with the large epitaph we saw.
In the museum, visitors can also see a reconstruction of what Copernicus’ study might have looked like, including books from his time and reproductions of some of the instruments of astronomy’s past—a spherical device called an astrolabe, a wooden square called a quadrant, and a giant contraption called a parallactic triangle, one of which Copernicus used to measure the distance to the moon. Several paintings of Copernicus watched over us as we admired these objects.
The most striking thing about Frombork was its sheer remoteness. It’s a place where almost everything seems to close by 5 P.M., including the museums and the outdoor cafés, and the last bus back to Elbląg was around 5:45. Walking down to the harbor area, we found little boats that were docked and empty. At the water’s edge, Dan and I were the only ones standing by a tiny strip of sand, admiring the sun’s reflection. At the top of the Belfry Tower, with the seemingly infinite Vistula Lagoon on the left and farmland everywhere else, I felt like we were at the edge of the world. After the visit I read that, more than four centuries earlier, Copernicus had shared my sentiment, calling Frombork “the most remote corner of the Earth.” How fitting that in this place that so clearly not the center of anything, Copernicus wrote about how the Earth is not the center, either.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
A few days later, I had another moment of Copernican awe at the Collegium Maius at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, where the astronomer had studied (if you go, don’t forget to take a selfie with the Copernicus mannequin in the gift shop!). This museum has a photo of Earth seen from space, signed by Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. The message from Armstrong notes he donated this picture on the occasion of Copernicus’s 500th birthday in 1973. It was like a bridge through time connecting these two space pioneers.
For me, the photo underscored how, in the 475 years since Copernicus’ book was published, we have “uncentered” ourselves as people in so many ways. We have sent spacecraft to other planets and even to interstellar space. We know that at the largest scales there are likely billions of planets orbiting other stars (one of which is named Copernicus), more than 100 billion other galaxies, and a mysterious “dark matter” that greatly outweighs the ordinary atoms and molecules we’re made of.
At small scales, we know that there’s a whole world of tiny microbes with profound influence on our health and our bodies, and that we share a planet with countless organisms that all rely on the same basic biochemistry in order to be called “life.” But Earth’s life may not be the only form life can take, and our planet may not be the only place in space for life, as Caleb Scharf stresses in his aptly named book The Copernicus Complex. And as we develop faster computers and more sophisticated artificially intelligent systems, we will have to confront the notion of whether humans are even the dominant “center” of complex conscious thought.
We may be on the verge a lot more “uncentering” in the near future. I am proud to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which continues to push exploration and our understanding of the universe forward.
Today, I appreciate more than ever that the name Copernicus means much more than the man who looked at the stars above a vast Baltic lagoon. The astronomer could have never have imagined all the ways in which he has become a symbol for all of this modern perspective-changing.
We needed that kind of symbol, so I’m glad his home country of Poland honors him in so many ways. Dreams of seeing beyond our immediate surroundings are built on the foundation that Copernicus laid.
Let us embrace being off-center!