Nicolaus Copernicus, a polymath with an impressively large scope of interests in various branches of science, a distinguished scholar numbering amongst the most important thinkers in the history of the world, was born in 1473 in Toruń, began his studies in 1491 in Kraków, and spend forty years of his life in service to his fellow countrymen in Warmia and Olsztyn. Three Polish higher education representing these regions – the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń and University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn, together with the Polish Academy of Science Institute of History of Science, celebrate the 550th anniversary of the birth of the great astronomer by organising the World Copernican Congress.
The events of the Congress, which began on 19 February in Toruń, are hosted in turns by the participating universities. The Kraków part, organised by the Jagiellonian University, is divided into two sections: on philosophy (‘The Copernican Heritage’) and economics (‘On Money’). Both of them aim to provide modern context for the main theories developed by Nicolaus Copernicus: his heliocentric theory (described in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium) and his views on economics (featured in the treatise Monetae cudendae ratio).
‘The World Copernican Congress is an extraordinary event which brings together people of science and everyone who is convinced of its importance’, said JU Rector Prof. Jacek Popiel, stressing that the centuries-old legacy of Nicolaus Copernicus, a scholar who was fully aware of his responsibility to society, is not only a source of great privilege and invaluable insight, but also clear and concrete guiding principles for the academic community.
‘Our work, the purpose and effects of which are not always immediately observable and understandable for the lay person, must be well-grounded in a broad social context. In our search, we should not cease to advocate for laws and values the are fundamental for the entire democratic world, and engage personally in the defence of norms and rules that are essential to Western culture and civilisation. Nicolaus Copernicus shows new generations of people that science should be about openness, and a scientist needs not only to be free, but also extremely brave, because even though his contemporaries might reject his ideas and even persecute him (as in the case of Galileo), in time these very ideas might change the face of the Earth’, said Prof. Jacek Popiel.
The World Copernican Congress was symbolically opened by JU Rector Prof. Jacek Popiel together with the Rector of the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń Prof. Andrzej Sokala, Rector of the University of Warmia and Mazury Prof. Jerzy Przyborowski, Secretary of State in the Polish Ministry of Education and Science Prof. Włodzimierz Bernacki and Prof. Jarosław Włodarczyk from the Polish Academy of Science Institute of the History of Science.
The scientific part of the Congress began with Rev. Prof. Michał Heller’s lecture entitled Nicolaus Copernicus’ Theory of Relativity, in which Copernicus was presented as one of the precursors of Einstein’s theory of relativity formulated in the 20th century. As Rev. Prof. Heller discussed in his presentation (the main points of which are featured below), the concept was in development since the times of ancient Greece and evolved over time.
The essence of Copernicus’ revolution is that he moved the reference frame from the Earth to the Sun. He violated Aristotelian dogma. The centre of the Earth ceased to be the absolute standard of rest. Indeed, it is not only that he moved the Earth, but that he shook the entire edifice of Aristotelian science, and thus initiated an avalanche of further transformations. In this sense, he is a key figure in the whole process.
In fact, it was not so important whether the centre of the world was associated with the Earth or with the Sun. The next move would be to remove all privileged points from the Universe. Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, and a few other thinkers, preached that the universe had no centre, or what comes to the same thing, that every point in the universe is its centre. This was an important but not revolutionary step. If we tie reference frames to every point, democratically aligned with all other – but stationary – points in space, we gain nothing.
No new invariant is associated with this procedure. Interesting things start to happen when we consider frames of reference moving relative to one another.
At first glance, this seems totally surprising, but – after a moment of reflection – it turns out to be quite logical: We look at the world from a certain reference frame. When we move to another frame, our perspective changes, the world looks different. However, if we carefully compare the pictures of the world obtained from different inertial reference frames, we find that there are some elements that do not change; they are the same in all inertial reference frames. From the sea of details, changing from frame to frame, we extract a certain constant pattern, which does not change with the change of our perspective. This pattern is therefore not something subjective, related to a particular point of view, but an objective property of the world. Nothing prevents us from calling it a set of laws of physics.
At the end of the nineteenth century, it turned out that certain results of newly made measurements, related to the propagation of electromagnetic waves in space, conflicted with the then known laws of physics. And the conflict looked as a genuine crisis in the foundations of physics.
In today’ s fashionable lingo, modern physics has entered its post-relativistic phase. It turns out that the new strategy (initiated by the general theory of relativity) of compensating local modifications of a given physical field with other geometric structures can be successfully extended to other fields.
In a situation where something remains the same despite changes in other elements, we face a certain symmetry. For example, the reflection of a face in the mirror retains the essential features of the original, although its left side turns to the right, and vice versa.
Scientists believe that once the problem of finding the correct symmetry is solved, the unification of physics will be just a matter of a few technical steps.
We have gone far beyond Copernicus, but the measure of genius is the distance to which the effects of his achievements reach.