Famous Astronomer Nicholas Copernicus Reburied After Scientists Use DNA to ID Remains

In yet another neat DNA story, scientists have recently used the building blocks of life to help identify the remains of the famous Renaissance Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), who, with his theory of the heliocentric or sun-centered universe, is often credited with starting the scientific revolution.

Alas, poor Copernicus died shortly after De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), his seminal work, was published.  During Galileo’s day, when findings with the telescope began to add weight to Copernicus’ ideas, On the Revolutions was deemed heretical by a then very conservative Roman Catholic Church.  

But with no little irony (at least in view of the Church’s later action against the work), Copernicus was buried on sacred ground beneath the floor of the cathedral of Frombork, located in Northern Poland.  Long since rehabilitated by the Church and honored for his landmark contributions to modern science, there had periodically been efforts to locate his remains there, but these had failed.  Furthermore, previous efforts to locate his tomb had made it clear that it would be difficult to distinguish Copernicus’ remains from many other anonymous burials. 

Nonetheless, in 2005 some bones were located which looked especially promising, since a facial reconstruction as well as the presence of some scars on the skull seemed to match up nicely with surviving contemporary portraits.  But the excavators still weren’t absolutely sure they had found the famous astronomer.

That’s where the DNA came in.  As it turned out, some volumes from Copernicus’ personal library, including the Magnum Romanum Calendarium (A Proposal for a Calendar Revision), had made their way to Uppsala University in Sweden — and this particular volume contained some human hairs from which DNA could be recovered.  (And as a librarian and long-time book collector, I can tell you from personal experience that lots of stuff can end up in books!)

Anyway, analysis established that some of the hair DNA matched the DNA from the remains recovered at Frombork and voilà:  proof that Copernicus’ remains had definitely been found.

And so it was that just a few days ago a man once branded as a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church was honorably reinterred               

If you’re interested, Greensboro Public Library has a number of books on Copernicus, including:  Copernicus by Jack Repcheck; The First Copernican:  Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution by Dennis Danielson; Uncentering the Earth:  Copernicus and the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by William T. Vollmann; and On the Shoulders of Giants:  The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy, edited, with commentary, by Stephen Hawking. 

We’ve also got some juveniles such as Copernicus:  Founder of Modern Astronomy by Catherine M. Andronik and Nicolaus Copernicus:  The Earth is a Planet by Dennis Brindell Fradin.

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One Response

  1. That is fascinating. Thank you.

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