Legend has it that Nicholas Copernicus didn't see a printed copy of his world-shaking De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) until hours before his death at age 70 on May 24, 1543.
You'd think that someone who rocked the foundations of astronomy would have been buried in a conspicuous place of honor. But, in those days, it was customary for local church officials (Copernicus was a canon) to have unmarked graves. Historians assumed that the Polish astronomer had been buried somewhere beneath the floor of Frombork Cathedral, but for centuries his remains' whereabouts were an archaeological mystery.
At the urging of Jacek Jezierski, a local bishop, the hunt for Copernicus's remains began anew several years ago — no doubt aided by Galileo's improved standing with the church and advancements in forensic technology. Sure enough, in 2005 archaeologist Jerzy Gassowski unearthed the cranium and bones of a 70-year-old man whose DNA matched that of a hair found inside a book in Copernicus's library. Real-world CSI!
Yesterday, amid considerably more pomp than he got 467 years ago, Copernicus was again laid to rest in the cathedral. This time Poland's highest-ranking clergymen officiated as an honor guard escorted his casket to the original burial site. The grave's black granite tombstone, adorned with six planets encircling a golden sun, now trumpets his authorship of the modern heliocentric theory.
"Today's funeral has symbolic value in that it is a gesture of reconciliation between science and faith," noted Jezierski. "Science and faith can be reconciled."
One of the attendees was Harvard-Smithsonian astronomer Owen Gingerich. "The coffin with the bones was carried to the crypt at the end of a long requiem Mass," Gingerich reports. "Within a few hours the granite slab was in place over the crypt, and the tiles of the floor were cemented into place over it, leaving a glass window the exact size of the large tiles so that it is possible to look down to the coffin. The position of the crypt was within a meter of the original place where the bones were found."
Gingerich knows the triumphs and tribulations of Copernicus as well as anyone. In 2002 he completed his quest to find and inspect all known original copies of De Revolutionibus, more than 600 in all. Two years later he chronicled that decades-long obsession in The Book Nobody Read.
In his book, Gingerich also clarifies what Copernicus really saw while on his deathbed. "He must have been receiving batches of printed pages regularly so he could prepare the errata sheet," Gingerich explains. "What he got on his dying day were the final pages printed, that is, the front matter."
The ceremony in Frombork underscores how the Catholic church has sought rapprochement not only with Copernicus but also with other astronomers it once considered heretical: Galileo and (to a degree) the outspoken Giordano Bruno, who espoused an infinite universe filled with planetary systems like our own.