Nicolaus Copernicus

more than a year ago
Head 100km east of Gdańsk and you’ll come across Frombork, a pleasant little town that hit world news in November. That’s down to Nicolaus Copernicus, the founder of modern astronomy, whose bones were finally identified, thereby solving a mystery that had confounded scientists for centuries.

To the beginning, and Nicolaus Copernicus was born the youngest son of a copper trader in Torun on February 19, 1473. His father died when he was just 10, and in 1488 the young Nicolaus was sent by his uncle, the canon at Frombork Cathedral Lucas Watzenrode, to the Cathedral school of Wloclawek where he received a first class humanist education. In 1488 Copernicus began his studies at Krakow University, learning his astronomy from Johannes de Sacrobosco’s 13th-century book, Tractatus de Sphaera.

In 1509 Copernicus began publishing serious works, the first being Latin translations of the work of an obscure Greek poet, Theophylactus Simocattes. Copernicus dedicated more and more of his time to the study of astronomy. It’s believed that he lived in one of the towers in the Cathedral complex and built an observatory there, but no proof exists that this was ever the case. In 1514 Copernicus published a hand-written book, The Little Commentary, setting out his theories of a universe with a sun at its centre, and it’s generally believed that he started writing the book that made him so infamous, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, in the same year. His fame as an astronomer had by now reached the highest circles, and in 1514 (the same year he published what was essentially a heretical work) Copernicus was approached by the Pope for his advice on improving the calendar, which was known to be out of phase with the Moon.

De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium was eventually published in Nuremburg at the very end of his life in March 1543, almost 30 years after he started writing it. Although many before him had hinted at the unthinkable, that the Earth wasn’t the centre of the Universe, it was Nicolaus Copernicus who first stated it so publicly. Nicolaus Copernicus outlived the publication of his masterwork by just two months. His final resting place was never recorded. Shortly after WWII workmen in Frombork Cathedral discovered human remains hidden under the floor. Originally believed to be the remains of Copernicus, the bones turned out to be those of soldiers from the 20th century. During further work in the building in 2004-5, scientists discovered a skull and other bones of a male of about 70 years old, the same age as Copernicus when he passed away.

Subsequent forensic facial reconstruction of the skull revealed a startling similarity with portraits of the great man, an event that led to a subsequent series of DNA tests. In November 2008, Polish scientists matched the DNA of a tooth and femur bone from the remains with several strands of hair found inside a book in Sweden’s Uppsala University that once belonged to Copernicus, proving once and for all, perhaps, that the mystery is finally solved.
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