Warsaw – Home of Chopin, Copernicus and Curie

The people of Warsaw are not just a people who suffered tremendously, they were also a people who contributed tremendously to the world. Across generations, people from the Duchy of Warsaw and Warsaw itself have changed the way we do things in this world, here are three of them.

Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473-1543 (Polish name: Mikołaj Kopernik)

Copernicus was a polish cleric who moonlighted as a polymath. He was an expert in Canon Law, spoke multiple languages, dervied key economic principles (Quantity Theory of Money and Gresham’s Law), but his greatest deed was for something he himself did not dare to publish a treatise on Heliocentrism that established the way we see the world today (with the earth revolving round the sun).

Portrait of Nicolaus Copernicus at the Torun Town Hall (his place of birth)

Educated at Krakow and later Padua, Bologna and Ferrera in Italy, Copernicus returned to Warmia to serve as a priest at the age of 30. A highly educated man of the cloth he was soon to be secretary and physician (he was also trained as a doctor) to his uncle the Prince-Bishop of Warmia, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger. He was in effect a cleric, scientist, economist, politicians and physician. And somehow he still found time to observe the planets.

Painting of Copernicus (Source)

Copernicus main idea was that the original planetary scheme by the ancient Greek philosopher Ptolemy was too cumbersome and complicated and had to be wrong. And he sought a simpler way to explain the planteray system. The system he hit upon was beautiful in its simplicity, if we stop thinking that the earth is the centre but that it is a middle part (Copernicus’ Mediocrity principle) than a very simple planetary system could be drawn. Practically the same one we use today.

Screengrab from a Youtube video showing the difference between Heliocentrism (Copernicus’ idea) and Geocentrism (Ptolemic/Aristotelian idea) (Source)

He did not want to publish his work because his idea was counter to the prevailing wisdom of the day and he was afraid of being laughed out of the room by his contemporaries. The reason is that he had a lot o math to support his idea, but at that time, without the knowledge of gravity for example and a way to prove his theory the ideas that he had proposed were, to put it mildly inane to the scientific establishment. His work also went against theological ideas (then backed by established science) that the earth was the fixed by God.

De revolutionibus orbium coelestium by Copernicus (1543) (Source)

His book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was only published after his death and a small band of Copernican scientists the most famous (and at that time, obnoxious) being Galileo would go on fighting to argue that is was the correct stance without proof (i.e. Galileo insisted that it was fact, without being able to provide proof that it was fact, and called the then Pope a simpleton in his own work). In fact 60 years after his death, scholars estimate that only 15 scientists around Europe were espousing the Copernican world view.  It would be a 150 years later when Newtwon described the laws of Gravity that the proof for Copernicus’ idea was found.

For our view of the world today we have this man to thank, for starting it with the book nobody read.

Frederic Chopin, 1810-1849 (Polish name: Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin)

There was no Polish nation during the time of Chopin, Poland was partitioned by other invading powers for a third time during his birth. In 1810, the Warsaw that Chopin was born into was a puppet state under the control of Napoleon, called the Duchy of Warsaw. Barely a few years after he was born, the Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo and the Duchy of Warsaw was carved again into a new nation called Congress Poland.

It was into these tumultuous years that one of the most genius musicians of our time was born. Young Frederic’s talent for music was spotted quickly and the child prodigy completed all his musical education in Warsaw by the age of 20.

Frederic Chopin (Source)

With the influence of Napoleon’s client state still present in his mind and the strength of music that France had at the time, Chopin found himself in Paris and spent the remainder of his short life performing mostly in salons and teaching music. The musician suffered from a troubled love life and had failed marriages and heartbeaking affairs to remember. A particular trip to Majorca in Spain with the female writer George Sand (her pseudonym) was considered particular stormy but also his most musically productive.

But he was a sickly man and suffered from illness his whole life, dying in Paris at the height of his powers at the age of 39. Chopin suffered from weak pulse before his death and was very afraid that his family would mistake his lack of strength as death and bury him alive by mistake. To ensure he would be died by the time he was buried, he begged his sister to take his heart back to Warsaw after his death, keeping the heart in a bottle of alcohol. His heart is today stored in the walls of the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw.

He may not have had a family to survive him, but he did arguably something more powerful – he bequeathed the world his compositions.

Marie Skłodowska Curie, 1867-1934

Another of Warsaw’s proud native was born again at the turn of Poland’s history. In 1867, the year Marie Sklodowska was born, the Congress Poland was gone and after a number of failed uprisings, the latest then being in Jan 1867 against the Russian conquerors, a new country was formed – Vistula Land.

Marie Sklodowska studied in the clandestine Flying University, the aim of which was to provide Polish youth with polish style quality higher education in a time when such education was banned in Poland. These universities were revived on an off as a way to resist Germanisation when Poland was under the control of the Prussians and to protect against Russification when Poland was under the control of the Russians. Both conquering nations had tried to wiped away the cultural memory of the people. At the age of 24 she followed her sister to France where she began studying for advanced degrees.

Marie Curie (Source)

She enrolled in the University of Paris in 1891 to read physics, chemistry and mathematics and lived through her student years by braving the torture of winter cold, hunger etc all the while emerging as an excellent student. Her research work brought her in contact with Pierre Curie and the two got closer and closer as they spent more and more time collaborating, eventually marrying each other in a private ceremony.

Marie began her PhD in Paris and was searching for a PhD Thesis. At the same time another French physicist Henri Becquerel had discovered uranium radiation. Intrigued, Marie focused her PhD on Uranium rays. She later, together with Pierre, discovered two radioactive elements – Radium and Polonium (named for the then partitioned Poland). For her work on radiation and the discovery of Radium and Polonium, Henri Becquerel, Marie Sklodowska and Pierre Curie were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903.

Marie was a trailblazer, and in a era of extreme scientific sexism established her self as the first woman Professor in the University of Paris, was the Director of the Radium Institute. Despite a series of scandals, a xenophobic French country and a hostile press she was awarded a second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in Chemistry. Her work made her the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes and two of them in sciences (the only other Laureatte who was awarded Nobels in two fields was Linus Pauling in Chemistry and Peace).

Marie Sklodowska died in 1934 from what is suspected to be long term radiation exposure. A museum is dedicated to her memory in Warsaw today.


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