QOTM: What difference can one man make? by Dainius Balcytis

By Dainius Balcytis, a member of YEM Aberdeen

Some say that changing the world is a fool’s errand. Efforts of one man are just a drop in the sea, they don’t make a difference against the tides of history. However that’s not always true, and from time to time a man appears who simply refuses to play by the rules that world wants him to play by and makes his own way.

moon-231670_1920One such man was born in the second half of 15th century, in Royal Prussia, which at the time belonged to Poland. Nicolaus (or Mikolaj, in Polish) Copernicus lived during a time of great challenges and uncertainty. Nowadays we tend to associate Renaissance with cultural marvels and scientific discoveries, but we often forget that Europe back then was suffering a very hard transition period which was accompanied by struggles of Reformation, growing Ottoman threat from the east, dogmatic opposition to new ideas by the Catholic Church and other problems. Copernicus, who was born in a family of wealthy merchants, despite a promise of rich and relaxed life chose to be inspired by these struggles rather than to ignore or fear them. He became a true Renaissance Man also known as Homo Universalis or polymath, meaning that he mastered multiple disciplines and didn’t limit himself to just one field. While we mostly know him for his achievements as astronomer, during his life Copernicus has tried his hands at numerous other professions. For example he was very interested in economics and the way flow of money changed human behaviour and affected society. In this field he created the basis for Gresham’s law, claiming that circulation of fake money in the system will encourage other traders to use fake money as well. However he wasn’t just a theoretical academician, he was also a very politically active man. In his time he worked both as diplomat for the Polish Crown and could be often seen both at the meetings of the parliament and at the Royal Council. Because of this reason later on in life he even served in a few different public offices, even becoming a governor of a city at one point. In this capacity he proved himself to be more than just a scientist – during the Polish-Teutonic War of 1519-1521 the city under his rule, Allenstein (today – Olsztyn) , came under siege. Not only Copernicus himself directed successful defence of the city, but he also participated in the ensuing peace negotiations, making him one of the few warrior-scholars that have ever lived. In addition to that he was a great physician, healing people and also had a degree in canon law, meaning that he also knew theology and could have obtained priesthood if he would have chosen to do so. As if that wouldn’t be enough on his free time Copernicus was a classics scholar, learning new languages and translating ancient texts, such as Byzantine texts from 7th century AD. Because of this we know that Copernicus was fluent in at least five languages – Polish, German, Latin, Greek and Italian. Finally on top of that he also composed poetry and received four degrees from some of the oldest European Universities, such as Krakow, Bologna, Ferrara and Padua.

It has been nearly five centuries since the death of Copernicus, however we still remember him as one of the greatest people who have ever lived. His astronomic ideas of heliocentrism have sparked Copernican Revolution which significantly advanced the cause of Scientific Revolution which was just starting around that time (and is usually considered to have begun with publishing of Copernicus’ “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” in 1543). Even though he was just a single man before the age of Internet, personal computers or easily accessible knowledge, he alone managed to make a greater contribution to science than some modern Universities do in a decade. Not only did he excel at whatever he was doing, but he also managed to change the world by changing the way we see our place in the world. He could have spent his life trading silk and precious stones in the markets of Krakow, but he chose to improve himself in whatever the way possible. Was he planning to change the world when he started out? Probably not, but he did try anyway. In this regard we should all strive to be more like Copernicus. So let’s turn off Facebook and cat videos for tonight, we can use that time to do something awesome. I wrote this article and what will you do?