Sunday, November 23, 2008

Remains identified - Copernicus

Finally, found Copernicus!
Researchers said Thursday they have identified the remains of Nicolaus Copernicus by comparing DNA from a skeleton and hair retrieved from one of the 16th-century astronomer's books. The findings could put an end to centuries of speculation about the exact resting spot of Copernicus, a priest and astronomer whose theories identified the Sun, not the Earth, as the center of the universe.

Polish archaeologist Jerzy Gassowski told a news conference that forensic facial reconstruction of the skull, missing the lower jaw, his team found in 2005 buried in a Roman Catholic Cathedral in Frombork, Poland, bears striking resemblance to existing portraits of Copernicus.

The reconstruction shows a broken nose and other features that resemble a self-portrait of Copernicus, and the skull bears a cut mark above the left eye that corresponds with a scar shown in the painting.

Moreover, the skull belonged to a man aged around 70 — Copernicus's age when he died in 1543.

"In our opinion, our work led us to the discovery of Copernicus's remains but a grain of doubt remained," Gassowski said.

So, in the next stage, Swedish genetics expert Marie Allen analyzed DNA from a vertebrae, a tooth and femur bone and matched and compared it to that taken from two hairs retrieved from a book that the 16th-century Polish astronomer owned, which is kept at a library of Sweden's Uppsala University where Allen works.
But Julianne at Cosmic Variance asks a more relevant follow-up question:

While exercises like this are of historical interest, to me they’ve always raised the question as to when a set of remains becomes fair game for mucking about. If you were to dig up poor great aunt Edna, extract her skull, and sent it off to a lab in Sweden, you might be looked upon as being disrespectful or worse. But, digging about to find the remains of Copernicus is apparently completely OK, and was actually ordered by the local Catholic bishop. So when does this happen? Is there something like the copyright system where the right to be outraged by disturbance of a grave expires after a certain number of years? Is it more like radioactivity of the soul, where the connection to something sacred fades with an e-folding time?

It’s certainly a culturally loaded question as well. Locally, a set of 9000 year old remains found in the Pacific Northwest were the subject of dispute. Local tribes claimed Kennewick Man as one of their ancestors, and requested that the remains be given back to the Umatilla tribe for reburial. Scientists, on the other hand, wanted to continue to study the remains, and argued that testing showed that the skeleton was unlikely to have actually been a member of one of the tribes. There are on-going law suits to repatriate native american skeletons to their tribes. So obviously different cultures have different standards for when it’s acceptable to study their dead, and Copernicus lost out.

Hey - don't assume what Copernicus wanted. May be he enjoyed being dug out - it may have gotten a bit boring being under the Earth since the 16th century.

Read the full story here.