Remembering Nicolaus Copernicus

The Polish scientist was a "heretic" who changed the world.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Jose Vargas
    A statue of Nicolaus Copernicus stands outside the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

    Nicolaus Copernicus was born on the 19th of February 540 years ago.

    And scholars are still awed by this Polish scientist who stubbornly stuck to his beliefs when the whole scientific world seemed to be against him. He said that the sun was at the center of the solar system and that the earth and other planets revolved around it. This defied the prevailing belief that the earth was at the center of the system.

    Just before he died in 1543, he published a book called “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Sphere’’ -- an explanation of heliocentrism that challenged the way we thought about the solar system and the earth’s place in it.

    A half a century later Galileo became the first person to study the planets using a telescope. He proved that Copernicus was right: the earth did revolve around the sun.

    As Michael Kokowski of the Copernicus Center for Interdisciplinary Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences has pointed out in his article, “The Importance of Copernicus Discovery for the Development of the Humanities,” the Copernican theory had a profound effect on later thinkers, philosophers and scientists, including Goethe, Nietzsche, Freud and Einstein.

    The formulation of the Copernican theory undermined the central position the world considered man held in the universe. Freud believed, said Kokowski, it destroyed the “narcissistic illusion of man certain about his imaginary greatness.”

    So, Copernicus caused a revolution in the way the way the world viewed itself. Yet it took time before people appreciated what he had done.

    Indeed, Galileo, wrote in a letter to German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1596: “I have for many years been a partisan of the Copernican view because it reveals to me the cause of many natural phenomena that are entirely incomprehensible in the light of the generally accepted hypotheses…I am deterred by the fate of our teacher Copernicus who, although he won immortal fame with a few, was ridiculed and condemned by countless people [for very great is the number of the stupid]."

    In 2011, the 16th-Century astronomer whose findings were condemned by the church as heretical, was reburied by Polish priests as a hero. They found his remains in an unmarked grave in a remote part of northern Poland.

    Some of Poland’s highest ranking clerics blessed the remains.A black granite tombstone identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory. The monument is decorated with a golden sun encircled by six of the planets.