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What does Nicolaus Copernicus teach us?

31 August 2023

Rector Jacek Popiel, Jagiellonian University in Krakow

The current year has been declared the Year of Nicolaus Copernicus in Poland. This decision was made to honour the 550th anniversary of birth of a figure thoroughly deserving recognition for science, whose achievements undoubtedly transcended the horizons of his own era.

A special place in the calendar of events accompanying the celebration of this jubilee is reserved for the World Copernican Congress, an international scientific event organized by three Polish universities: Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Jagiellonian University in Krakow and the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn. I say “international”, because scientists from almost every corner of the globe, representing leading scientific and academic institutions from Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and Italy, have chosen to pay tribute by their presence. 

Scheduled for almost the entire year of 2023, the World Copernican Congress (the “Krakow” part took place between May 24 and 26) represents an attempt to encompass Nicolaus Copernicus’ heterogeneous and multidisciplinary work from the broadest possible perspective. It allows for the exploration of themes and aspects beyond just the astronomical, such as economic, social, philosophical, historical, literary, and artistic dimensions.

However, the World Copernican Congress primarily serves as a reminder of the never-fading relevance of Nicolaus Copernicus’ original and timeless ideas. Simultaneously, it highlights that groundbreaking concepts leading to paradigmatic shifts and transformations in the realm of science often result from both intellectual independence and genius (understood as a particular mental disposition) as well as from the specific qualities of individuals: their boldness, tenacity, non-conformity, and even audacious courage. Only such a personality is capable of overcoming social and environmental ostracism. As history shows in numerous scientific cases, discoveries challenging established beliefs can sometimes subject their authors and continuators to painful persecutions.

I have absolutely no doubt that Copernicus, confined to his private workshop atop a tower in the picturesque seaside town of Frombork, would never have presented his monumental, groundbreaking work “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” to the world if he had lacked the courage of a true scientist. Moreover, he probably would not have done so, had he not travelled across late-Renaissance Europe (studying at the University of Krakow, the University of Bologna and the University of Padua – all three Coimbra Group Universities, and obtaining doctorate at the University of Ferrara), and had he not possessed a unique gifted mind, delving into medicine, economics, philosophy, and military art parallel with his pursuits of astronomy.

After so many years, it is worth exploring the mysteries of Nicolaus Copernicus unique biography to find the origins of ideas – ideas that were considered heretical by many of  his contemporaries – which changed the order of the world forever.