Some of Us Are Looking at the Stars

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Kids sitting in science classes nowadays read a passage in their textbooks that runs something like this: Once upon a time, there lived a guy that said that the planets moved around the sun and not the other way around, and this caused quite a lot of ruckus in the science world.

Most kids say, well, duh, the planets move around the sun. Sure took them long enough to figure it out. What these kids don’t realize – mostly because the textbooks don’t explain this – is that someone figured this out largely while sitting in his bedroom, using a couple pieces of wood and some fancy math work.

The city of Toruń (tor-oon; the ń is pronounced kind of like the ñ in Spanish) in Poland is home to a university. Even back in the day, this university was well-respected and attended by students from all over. So imagine their surprise when young Mikołaj (mee-koh-why; the Polish version of Nicholas) told his parents he was going to study in Kraków. To his credit, the university in Kraków had a better program for what he wanted to study: astronomy.

After starting his studies in Kraków, Mikołaj bounced around for a bit. He went to Bologna, from Bologna to Rome, from Rome to Frombork, from Frombork to Padua, from Padua to Ferrara, from Ferrara back to Prussia. All the while, he was working on a theory to explain away the problems that had been plaguing astrologers and astronomers for years: why don’t the planets bump into each other when they move across the sky?

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His research, observations, and fancy mathematical footwork led Mikołaj to understand that the planets don’t bump into each other because the universe isn’t ordered in the way that Aristotle thought it was. The planets are all different distances apart (meaning that they’re all different distances from Earth), and they don’t move in perfect circles. The biggest head cannon, though, was when all his work gave Mikołaj to understand that even the Earth was moving; it was the Sun that was staying still.

So now we have it: the theory of heliocentricity, or the idea that the Sun (helio) is at the center (centricity) or the heavens (space, at least as we see it from Earth), and everything revolves around it. Obviously, this idea has been tweaked a bit since Mikołaj came up with it; we now know that the Sun isn’t at the center of space, but rather the solar system, but the principle remains the same. Things move around the Sun, the Sun doesn’t move around things.

Even so, a modern science student might still say, So what? How does this affect anything other than the crazies and their telescopes? Ignoring the fact that this was one of the first steps in the direction of going to space, and consequently cell phone technology, this idea had huge ramifications for the scientific world of Mikołaj’s time. When he studied in Padua, he studied medicine. At the time, the stars and planets were believed to affect the human body and cause certain maladies. This means that, by suggesting that the universe isn’t structured in the way that everyone had thought that it was, Mikołaj upset the balance of almost all of the scientific fields, right down to the doctor who was applied leeches to your sickly kid. All of this is not to mention that he contradicted a literal understanding of the Bible, which the Catholic Church adhered to at the time, which made him a heretic and not acceptable in social fields. Had he not died shortly after publishing his findings, he would have been invited to have a sit-down with the Inquisition.

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Mikołaj published his findings in a book called On the Revolutions of Heavenly Bodies. However, the academic language of the time was Latin, so the book would actually have been published in Latin. Ergo, the Latinate version of Mikołaj Kopernik’s name would have appeared on the cover: Nicholas Copernicus.

That’s right, Copernicus was actually a Pole, and Poland hasn’t forgotten about that, especially the city of Toruń. Right on the main square in Toruń, there’s a statue of Kopernik (as the Poles call him), dressed up like an Aristotelian academic and holding one of the tools he would have used to make observations in the night sky. In any sweets shop you go into, you can find piernik toruńskie (pee-ehr-neek tohr-oon-skee-eh), or the famous Toruń gingerbread, in the shape of Kopernik’s stately noggin. And one street over from the main square, the house where young Mikołaj grew up is now a museum dedicated to his science.

The Copernicus House is, in fact, the actual house in which Mikołaj and his family lived in Toruń. It has, however, been renovated so as to make a better museum. Inside, you can find first editions of his books, illustrations that he or his partners made of the constellations he discovered, and see some of the instruments he used in his research. One of the displays that I found most interesting was a model of the solar system, based on Kopernik’s theories. In every room, there’s a small, laminated sheet of paper that describes, in English, what is on display in the room. Most of the signs, though, are in Polish.

And if, when you come out of the museum, you feel a bit overwhelmed by all of the abstract intelligence to which the museum is dedicated, there’s always the gingerbread.

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For more about Kopernik, click here.

For a timeline of Kopernik’s life, click here.

Wait, wasn’t that Galileo? Click here.

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