May 23, 2010

Copernicus’ Remains Reburied In Polish Cathedral

The remains of Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th century father of modern astronomy, were finally laid to rest in a marked grave the day after the 467th anniversary of his death in a Polish cathedral Saturday.

His coffin was entombed in the 14th century cathedral of Frombork, his northern Polish hometown, with his grave marked by a black granite headstone engraved with a map of the solar system.

The coffin had been taken on a tour Friday of the towns and villages of the northern Polish region around Frombork which Copernicus had known as a canon of the cathedral and an administrator of Church property.

In 1616, the Vatican labeled as sacrilege the Copernican theory that the sun, rather than the Earth, is at the center of the universe. It banned his pioneering work De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres), which shocked contemporaries when it was published shortly before his death in 1543 at the age of 70.

Copernicus had proposed that the Earth rotated on its axis once a day and traveled around the sun once a year, opposing the Church-backed Ptolemaic theory that the Earth was the center of the universe, with the sun and stars revolving around it.

In 1999 Polish Pope John Paul II visited the astronomer's birthplace in Torun and praised his scientific achievements. In an address at the burial service, archbishop of Lublin Jozef Zycinski disapproved of the "excesses of the self-proclaimed defenders of the Church" in condemning Copernicus's theories.

Copernicus was buried like many other priests and laymen of Frombork in an unmarked tomb beneath the cathedral floor. Researchers spent two centuries trying to find his grave, before finally locating it in 2005.

The remains were positively identified by DNA testing on two strands of hair and a tooth.

The grave was discovered by Jerry Gassowski of the Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology in Pultusk, Poland. He pointed to a square of marble flooring at the foot of one of the cathedral's a6 altars, saying "I found it right here."

Gassowski located the skull and bones of a man in his seventies in a pile of other remains. The skull was sent to a forensics laboratory in Warsaw, where experts created a computer-rendition of what the man's face would have looked like. The result bore a startling resemblance to portraits of Copernicus.

"Only DNA tests could offer certainty. But we needed to find some genetic material to allow comparison. And that seemed impossibly difficult, because casting a wide genealogical net failed," said Gassowski.

But the precious genetic material was located however -- in Sweden.

During their 17th century war with Poland, the Swedes carried off some artifacts which included the Calendarium Romanum Magnum, an ancient tome published in 1518 by Johannes Stoeffler that belonged to Copernicus for many years.

The book found its way to the library of Sweden's University of Uppsala. "I had the idea to go and get the book, just in the hope of finding something by chance. And I did. There were some strands of hair in it," said Goran Henriksson, a University of Uppsala astronomer.

Swedish and Polish scientists compared the hair with a tooth from the skull found in Frombork and made a positive DNA match in 2008.