Monday, December 15, 2008

Copernicus Rests in Peace

A great news article (and a nice confirmation of the historical method) from Science magazine:

Nicolaus Copernicus died in 1543, decades before his book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium changed the world with the idea that Earth orbits the sun. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

In 2005, archaeologists from the Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology in Pultusk, Poland, used church records and ground-penetrating radar to unearth a skeleton from under a medieval cathedral in the Polish town of Frombork whose age matched the 70-year-old Copernicus. Analysis of the bones and a reconstruction of the face supported the identification. But without DNA evidence, the team couldn't be sure--and Copernicus, a Catholic priest, left no known heirs.

He did leave hairs, however. In the archives of the University of Uppsala in Sweden, researchers found several nestled deep in the binding of Copernicus's well-thumbed copy of a standard astronomical reference, Calendarium Romanum Magnum. Uppsala geneticist Marie Allen extracted and amplified mitochondrial DNA from the badly degraded hairs and compared it with mtDNA from the skeleton's tooth. The results, announced last week in Warsaw, were positive.

Pultusk archaeologist Jerzy Gassowski, who led the 2005 excavation, says Copernicus's bones will be reburied in Frombork in 2010.

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