Copernicus Studied Coinage Along With Heavens|
January 26, 2009
UNESCO has designated 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy. On Dec. 5 the Cook Islands followed the Royal Australian Mint in marking the worldwide event with an issue of coins. The Cooks have chosen to celebrate the genius who really got modern astronomy up and running in the west: Nicolaus Copernicus, aka Nicolai Copernici, aka Nikolaus Kopernikus, aka Mikolaj Kopernik.
The two coins mark Copernicus' great contribution to science: that the sun is the center of our solar system with the Earth and other planets rotating around it. Up until this point, the West believed the Earth lay at the center of all things.
Each coin contains a red crystallized Swarovski element representing the sun, with the planets in orbits about it - along with an effigy of Copernicus himself. On the 38.61 mm, 25 gram, .999 silver $5 coin the solar system is selectively gold plated. The 12.6 mm, 1/25 ounce, $10 gold coin picks out the planets selectively in silver, the first time this has been attempted on any coin. Mintage of the silver is 2,500, with 7,500 of the gold.
Copernicus the Civil Servant
For Nicolaus Copernicus, gazing at the heavens was but a part-time avocation. Over the years he earned his daily bread as a physician, classical scholar, priest, jurist, governor, military leader, diplomat and economist.
He was born on Feb. 19, 1473, in the Polish-Prussia city of Torun. He was the son of a wealthy copper merchant, hence the name Copernicus, one who works with copper. He was 10 when dad died, whereupon he came under the wing of his maternal uncle, a church canon, who saw to his education and future career.
He went from the Krakow Academy to study canon law and medicine at the universities of Bologna and Padua. He then returned to Polish Prussia, where he remained for the rest of his life, serving variously as secretary to his uncle, the Bishop of Warmia, as administrator and burgher of Warmia itself, and at the Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross in Breslau. At the siege of Olsztyn, he commanded the defenses as head of Royal Polish forces. He traveled extensively on government business, often as a diplomat.
His public life gave him wide experience of financial matters, in particular the chaotic state of the coinage throughout East Prussia, where the question of who had the right to mint coin was much debated. These difficulties were compounded by the political upheavals wrought by the Reformation that saw the Duchy of Prussia become a Protestant state in 1525.
Copernicus and Coins
As early as 1517, Copernicus saw a need for a unified currency in Eastern Europe and became an advocate of currency reform. He presented his ideas to the local parliament in Torun in 1519 and in subsequent years advised both the Royal Prussian Diet and Poland's King Sigismund I on the matter.
Copernicus took the time for a dispassionate analysis of circulating money. In particular he recognized the need to control the minting of coins, both as to their quality and quantity. He realized that money loses its value when it is in too great a supply. With too much cash around, prices tend to rise rapidly. In short, he diagnosed the prime cause of inflation. And he appreciated inflation's consequences, not only the collapse of living standards and the economic well-being of a nation, but the likely fall of the government.
In 1526 he put his ideas on the value of money into print in a major treatise: Monetae cudendae ratio. Among other matters, he pointed out that debased coins drive the good from circulation. This was 70 years before Thomas Gresham came up with the same idea that gave us Gresham's Law. Perhaps it should be known as Copernicus' Law.
Copernicus' views became widely read by leaders in both Prussia and Poland desperate to stabilize their currencies. On several occasions he presented arguments for restricting the amount of money in circulation before the Prussian Diet. Resolution of the situation required a delicate and diplomatic touch. That this was finally achieved in 1530 owed much to the efforts of Copernicus. When the rate of the minting of new coins was restricted, inflation fell rapidly, financial order was restored and economic growth and well-being returned.
Copernicus the Part-Time Astronomer
During his student days, Copernicus had become captivated by the stars. In this he was influenced by astronomers Albert Brudzewski at Kraków and Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara at Bologna. He made various astronomical observations, including a lunar eclipse while in Rome. Over the years he built up a large private library on the subject. It is now housed in Uppsala University, as a result of being looted by the Swedes.
Copernicus' notion that the sun lay at the center of our spheres took root during his time in Padua. He was not the first to suggest this. Greek, Indian and Arab philosophers had discussed the concept centuries before. Copies of a six-page outline of his ideas entitled Commentariolus were circulated throughout Europe in 1510. Over the next 20 years he slowly gathered material to support his theory as rumors about it spread among the educated of Europe. In 1536 Cardinal Schönberg wrote asking Copernicus to communicate his discovery of a new astronomy to all scholars.
Copernicus was reluctant to do so. Eventually he produced a shortened version, Narratio Prima, in 1540. In 1543 a full version was printed in six volumes, but it contained some changes made without Copernicus' consent. It was entitled De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), despite the original manuscript lacking a title page.
Essentially Copernicus stated that the Earth rotates daily on its axis and revolves yearly around the sun, along with the other planets. Such a proposition was revolutionary, if not heretical, but Copernicus pointed out that it best explains the motions of the planets. The proposal was to stand science on its head, particularly when taken up by Galileo Galilei. However, that's quite another story.
Copernicus is now claimed as a native son by Poland, where he has figured on numerous coins, medals and bank notes. They make a historically important collection that is of particular import in this international year of star gazing.
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