Thursday, January 19, 2017
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Contribution of Poles into Astronomy

Poles and Polish Americans have been pious Christians for centuries, but their fascination with the heavens has also extended beyond the religious sphere. Of course, one of the most outstanding astronomers in history was the Pole Mikołaj Kopernik, commonly known by his Latinized name, Nicholas Copernicus. It was he who in the sixteenth century put forth the idea that the Earth was not the center of the universe but that it and the other planets revolved around the Sun. This was a revolutionary concept at the time which totally changed the study of the heavens.

But even before Copernicus came the astronomer and mathematician Wojciech of Brudzewo (1445-1495). A professor at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, one of his students was Copernicus. Wojciech had doubts about the Earth being the center of the universe and no doubt influenced his famous pupil. He was the first person to state that the Moon always shows the same side to the Earth. There was also Marcin Bylica (1433-1493), a teacher who developed astronomical tables and donated instruments to the university, still on display today, including one of the earliest known celestial globes. And Jan of Głogów (1445-1507), another teacher of Copernicus, was another noted professor of astrology and astronomy in Kraków who wrote extensively on those subjects.

Following Copernicus was the great Jan Heweliusz (1611-1687) who was born and spent most of his life in Gdańsk, a Pole of possible German ethnicity. A brewer by trade, he dedicated most of his life to astronomy. His achievements included the construction of a large astronomical observatory that housed the world's largest telescope of the time; the first observation of the phases of Mercury; publication of the first detailed map of the Moon in which he named many features; study of comets and discovery of at least four; publication of a history of astronomy and of a precise atlas of the sky in which he named seven new constellations including Sobieski's Shield. His wife Elizabeth Korpman helped him in his work and is considered to be one of the earliest female astronomers. Polish King Jan III Sobieski supported Heweliusz with a regular salary.

Stanisław Lubieniecki (1623-1675) was a Polish nobleman who studied comets and compiled a history of all comets from A.D. 1 to 1665. Other prominent Poles were Adam Prażmowski (1821-1885) who discovered polarized emissions from the Sun's corona; Tadeusz Banachiewicz (1882-1954) who developed the cracovian calculus to determine planetary orbits and was the first to calculate the orbit if Pluto; Michał Kamieński (1897-1973) who studied the motion of comets and was the world's leading authority on Halley's Comet; Bogdan Paczyński (1940-2007), a professor in Warsaw and Princeton who developed the Paczynski Code that computes the structure and lifetime of a star; Ary Szternfeld (1905-1980) who devised a way to calculate orbits of artificial satellites; and the Polish Australian Antoni Przybylski (1913-1985) who discovered Przybylski's Star, one of the most unusual ever found, composed of heavy rare earth metals as opposed to lighter ones such as hydrogen, common in almost all stars.

In more contemporary astronomy there was Polish American Charles Kowal who at Cal Tech discovered many comets, asteroids and supernovae and a new class of solar system body, the Centaurian Object; Aleksander Wolszczan, a Pole who has taught at American universities since 1982 co-discovered the first planet orbiting another star besides our Sun in 1992; Maciej Konacki who discovered a planet orbiting a three-star system; and Andrzej Udalski of the University of Warsaw who has discovered at least fourteen extra-solar planets.

In the spirit of Mikołaj Kopernik, these Poles and Polish Americans have helped the world to open new doors to the understanding of the mysteries of the universe.

Recommended reading(s):

The Book Nobody ReadThe Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus , by Owen Gingerich

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