Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Monument to Kopernik, a.k.a. Copernicus

Posted by Darin Hayton on 11/20 at 10:53 PM

On the corner of 18th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, next to the Cathedral of Peter and Paul in downtown Philadelphia stands a sculpture celebrating Mikołaj Kopernik, commonly referred to by his Latinized name Nicolaus Copernicus. The idea to erect a monument to Copernicus was largely the idea of a young city councilman, Joseph L. Zazyczny. In 1972 as president of the Polish Heritage Society, Mr. Zazyczny and the society wanted to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’s birth and to “acquaint our American friends about the contributions of Poles and Polish Americans.”

Dudley Talcott’s sculpture “Kopernik” (Source: Author’s photo)

The society commissioned the artist Dudley Talcott to build this sculpture. The central disc is the sun, while the 16-foot diameter metal circle represents the earth’s orbit about the sun.

On a recent afternoon two people sit at the base of “Kopernik,” seemingly oblivious to the sculpture. (Source: Author’s photo)

The Fairmont Park Art Association includes “Kopernik” in its “Museum without Walls” and “Discover Public Art in Philadelphia” projects. The “Museum without Walls” has a nice lesson plan for primary school children that is accompanied by an audio introduction by Derrick H. Pitts, Chief Astronomer and Director of the Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute as well as Mr. Zazyczny.

The page introducing “Kopernik” from the “Museum without Walls” tour of art in Fairmont Park (Source: Museum without Walls)

Perhaps predictably, both the lesson plan and the audio introduction locate Copernicus in a contest between science and the Church. The audio guide points out that the sculpture is located next to the Cathedral of Peter and Paul and across from the Franklin Institute, the “temple of science in Philadelphia, if you will.” While gesturing to the problematic nature of the standard story about some historical and continuing tension between the church and science, they cast Copernicus as building bridges between science and the Church:

It’s a great story to have the church pitted against science all the time, particular in the case of astronomy where there’s this titanic battle of cosmic forces of God and the astronomers. But Kopernic was not an antagonistic person toward the Church at all.

Because “Copernicus sort of makes a junction between the church and science. And the work of Copernicus stands at a vertex of these two sides of that view of the universe,” it’s appropriate that the sculpture is located next to the cathedral and across from the Franklin. The lesson plan explicitly prompts students to think about the significance of the sculpture’s placement between the cathedral and the Franklin Institute. It is unclear what goal is served by once again invoking a tension between science and religion, but it must be doing some work because that tension seems ubiquitous.

In any case, “Kopernik” is just a few blocks from the Priestley Chapel and E.D. Cope’s house, making it easy to walk by all three on your history of science tour in Philadelphia.

Tags: monuments, nicolaus copernicus, science vs. religion