The Sciences

Found: The Man Who Made Earth Move

By Maia WeinstockMar 3, 2006 12:00 AM


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Nicolaus Copernicus died relatively unknown, buried in an unmarked grave. Four and a half centuries later, archaeologist Jerzy Gasowski of the Pultusk School of Humanities in Poland says he's tracked down the remains of the man now revered as one of history's greatest astronomers.

Fearing religious persecution, Copernicus waited until just before his death in 1543 to publish his heretical theory that Earth circles the sun—and so is not at the center of the universe. He was entombed at the cathedral in Frombork, Poland, where he had been the canon, but no epitaph indicates his place among the many burials there. Gasowski began his search by scanning the cathedral's floor with radar. The 3-D map showed only one plot that held the remains of a man 60 to 70 years old, the age of Copernicus when he died. So Gasowski sent the skull to the forensic laboratory of the Polish police in Warsaw for a facial reconstruction.

The resulting visage, created using software that superimposed facial features on a photograph and assigned skin thicknesses based on a database of human faces, strongly resembles known paintings of Copernicus. What ultimately convinced the researchers was a small scar above the right eye socket. "A self-portrait depicts a similar defect near the eyebrow," Gasowski wrote in his report.

Although he has not yet taken DNA from the skull, Gasowski hopes to collect samples and compare them with the DNA of Copernicus's known relatives.

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