Saturday, November 22, 2008

Copernicus Remains Identified

The AP reported yesterday that the remains of Nicolaus Copernicus have been identified. It took longer than I expected. They were found about two years ago, shortly before a couple other ladies from my church and I went to Poland for the 60th anniversary celebration of the Polish church we support. I didn't blog about it at the time.

Copernicus did much of his astronomical work in Frombork (see green arrow), because his uncle was the bishop there. This map is of the northeast part of Poland at the time of Copernicus. The tan area was occupied by the Teutonic knights, and the green area, Warmia, was in Polish control. The Teutonic knights would invade Warmia frequently, and with Frombork so close to the border region, it came under attack sometimes.

Copernicus owned a tower in the castle, which he purchased when he first came to Frombork (I believe from Lidzbark-Warminski, over in the green area, where he had lived for a time), and then later he bought a house outside the castle walls. Whenever Frombork was under attack, the people escaped to the safety of the castle, and with his tower, Copernicus was able to continue his studies of the heavens.

This is Frombork castle, side view:

The main entrance to the castle is made up of apartments, and many of the scientists who work there live in the apartments.

Inside the castle is the Copernicus Museum, where they have replicas of the three instruments he used for studying the stars. He used this one for viewing. The long diagonal bar has measurement marks, and the "horizontal" bar has two eyepieces that he looked through.

He used this board, with a peg in the upper left corner and a measured arc drawn on it, to track the sun's position.

Then somehow he recorded the measurements of the other two instruments on this thing, which gave three dimensions to space. And with just these three, he was able to map out space and determine that the sun--not the earth--was the center of the solar system, and that the stars were beyond the solar system. Amazing! (Please forgive my vagueness. I don't know where I put my journal from that trip when I packed up my stuff to put my house up for sale last year, so I'm working from two-year-old memory.)

We got a special treat, because our tour guide Andrzej ("Ahnd-zhay") is a member of the church we were visiting in Lidzbark, so he was able to get us permission to see Copernicus's tower room even though it was closed to tourists. The furniture is from that time period, but did not belong to Copernicus. These are small models of his instruments.

The view from a higher tower in the castle includes the cathedral (right) where Copernicus helped his uncle the Bishop.

Copernicus was a canon of the church, a lay position at the time. Now it's a priestly function. What he did as his duty was care for this altar inside the cathedral.

The AP article has this to say about the burial of Copernicus:

Copernicus was known to have been buried in the 14th-century Frombork Cathedral where he served as a canon, but his grave was not marked. The bones found by Gassowski were located under floor tiles near one of the side altars.

According to Andrzej (actually his daughter, Magda, who spoke English beautifully--Andrzej only reads English, which he uses for translating scientific articles into Polish), when a canon died, it was customary to bury him near the altar he cared for. Over the centuries, many canons were buried by each of the altars.

What threw things into confusion at Frombork was that there was a plaque on the wall saying that Copernicus was buried there, and the plaque was in a different part of the cathedral, so all previous efforts at finding his body were focused there by the plaque. They were never able to find him.

Finally, they gave up and started looking by his altar, and by the outer cathedral wall they found a mistreated, unidentified body that could have been him. Magda and Andrzej were excited about it and were confident they had found Copernicus (the mistreatment was from later people being buried on top of and around the earlier bodies, not from any antagonism). He was found about a month before our tour.

They hoped to be able to find Uncle Bishop, so they could do DNA comparisons, but nobody knew where the uncle was buried. They expected there to be some investigating of the uncle's whereabouts. As it turned out, they must not have found him.

So, in the next stage [after examining the bones for reasonable identification], Swedish genetics expert Marie Allen analyzed DNA from a vertebrae, a tooth and femur bone and matched and compared it to that taken from two hairs retrieved from a book that the 16th-century Polish astronomer owned, which is kept at a library of Sweden's Uppsala University where Allen works.

"We collected four hairs and two of them are from the same individual as the bones," Allen said.

Magda and Andrzej--and all of Poland for that matter--have to be thrilled.


Bekah said...

I love reading about your travels! That is great that you got to go extra places in the castle!! Beautiful pictures...

Korisëntvie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This isn't related to your post, but I thought you might find this article interesting, especially #20.


SkyePuppy said...

My son,

Yes, that sure is interesting. Did you notice that most of those places are buried by snow 10 months of the year? And the ones that aren't are either in the Mosquito Belt or are in the... er... less attractive parts of Texas Oil Country (though I can vouch from personal experience that Odessa has a multiplex movie theater).

Plus, I'd have to sell my house to be able to go there to get a job. Of course, a sidebar in the Top 25 article had some creative ideas for selling a house...