Copernicus at 493

Copernicus at 493[1]

The whole world should observe along with the Poles, the birthday of Copernicus, and should continue to celebrate the 19th of February in his memory so long as the Earth swings in its orbit.; for what this boy, born 450 years ago yesterday [article written February 20, 1923; Copernicus born, February 19, 1473 and in 2017 he would be 493], and christened Nichola Koppernick, son of a native of Cracow, conceived as the order of the universe is “the capital event of modern thought.” By it mankind’s outlook on the universe has been fundamentally changed. The young Koppernick was a student in the University of Cracow the year in which Columbus discovered America, giving himself to mathematical science and painting. He afterward studied law and attended mathematical lectures in Bologna and still later studied music in Padua and took his degree in canon law in Ferrara. He then devoted his medical skill to the service of the poor, his economic knowledge to the reform of the currency in the Prussian provinces of Poland, and his astronomical genius to the development of a new cosmic theory which has come to bear his name.

It was while he was in the midst of such studies and ministries that the name “America” was first given by others to the fringe of this continent and graven on a map published at St. Dié, at the foot of the Vosges Mountains, in Southeastern France. Our continent was thus christened under the Ptolemaic geocentric system. But our national life made its beginnings under the Copernican system and had from the first a “shuddering sense” of physical immensity. It is inconceivable that this new physical conception has not mightily affected man’s social and religious conceptions, and especially those of Americans. With the enlargement of the universe under it, and the accompanying diminution of the relative size of Earth—made still smaller by man’s improved means of communication—we no longer picture our planet as a flat area divided into exclusive, provincial or national strips spanned by a Ptolemaic sky. We find ourselves “in the same boat” on a sea of practically infinite space.

In observing the birthday of Copernicus, the Polish astronomers have fitly gathered in their first congress[2] and proudly remembered what their science has given to mankind; and the Polish people have with good reason held their celebrations all over Poland in honor of the son of the city of Thorn[3] (again in Polish territory in 1923, 5 years after the end of WWI) and the academic son of the University of Cracow (once more a Polish university). But it would be profitable for the whole world—scientists, statesmen, warriors, philosophers, teachers, pupils and the people in general—to pause and consider what was the real significance of the gift of Copernicus. The corollary of his theory is a world-wide solidarity of human interest. There is no escape from it. If an international holiday were to be added to the many holidays in the various calendars of the world, it should be one on which the birthday of Copernicus is solemnly observed—for he discovered the universe.

[1] Published in the New York Times (February 20, 1923, p. 16)

[2] First Polish Philosophical Congress held in Lvov, 1923.

[3] Thorn is the German name. In Polish, it is Toruń, a city in northern Poland, on the Vistula River. In the aftermath of World War I, the Polish people broke out in the Greater Poland Uprising on December 27, 1918, in Poznań after a patriotic speech by Ignacy Paderewski, a famous Polish pianist. The fighting continued until June 28, 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, which recreated the nation of Poland.


Image of Scientists in “Big Bang Theory”

“The Image of Scientists in The Big Bang Theory”, by Margaret A. Weitekamp (in Physics Today, January 2017, 70, 1, pp. 40-48) See the entire articles at

What is your image of scientists? Do you think they are the nerdy, socially inept characters portrayed in The Big Bang Theory?

In some ways, the hit TV show reinforces popular stereotypes about scientists. In others, notably in its affectionate portrayals, it plays against type.

Contemplating a heavy, oversized box that needed to be moved up several flights of stairs, the lead characters in the popular CBS television comedy The Big Bang Theory (2007– ) established their primary identity as scientists. It was the show’s second episode. Eager to impress the pretty woman across the hall, Leonard Hofstadter (portrayed by Johnny Galecki) appealed to his apartment mate, Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), by calling on their shared vocation. “We’re physicists. We are the intellectual descendants of Archimedes. Give me a fulcrum and a lever, and I can move the Earth,” Leonard declared, just before he was almost crushed by the box.

In dramatic portrayals, particularly in films, scientists typically appear as stereotyped characters influenced by the long-standing figure of the “mad scientist” in literature, film, and television. And yet, one of the most successful comedies on television today features as its central characters a group of scientists, with several physicists among them. How should those characters be understood? The Big Bang Theory’s affectionate depictions of scientists have tapped into the contemporary popularity of nerd culture to create comedy grounded, especially in the early seasons, in authentic scientific content. Strikingly, when all the supporting players are accounted for, The Big Bang Theory portrays a group of scientists who are more diverse in gender, ethnicity, and especially disciplinary focus than is often seen on television. The characters and comedy of The Big Bang Theory both build on and play against enduring stereotypes of scientists as depicted in popular culture.