Here’s a question nobody, not even Steven Hawking (A Brief History of Time) nor Erich von Daniken (Chariots of the Gods), can answer: how large is the universe? How can it be infinite if it's simultaneously expanding?
I decided the only scientist worth his salt who could posit a viable theory of time and space would be none other than Polish astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus (1473-1543). Unlike the alchemists who were so popular in his day, attempting unsuccessfully to turn base metals into gold and unlock the secret of eternal life, Copernicus risked heresy to search the heavens in order to astound the established order and figuratively bump the earth off its axis.
Proposing a heliocentric model of the solar system—wherein the sun was the center of the universe rather than the earth as ancient Ptolemaic wisdom held—Copernicus changed the Weltanshaung of the entire world. By delaying publication of his masterwork De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Sphere) until the year of his death in 1543, Copernicus avoided pissing off traditionalists who could dump spiritual mavericks in cold dungeons, dunk them in wine barrels, gouge their eyes out in inquisitional iron masks, or expand them on racks like Stretch Armstrong™ the rubbery action figure.
I arrived in the famed hometown of Copernicus, Torun Poland, on the wrong day. The gray angry sky threatened rain. The clouds were the color of colostomy bags. Still, I ditched my vehicle and clambered over the cobblestones (usually the sign of a historic district), until I reached the Hotel Kopernik in the New Town, careful to remain a bearded stranger to the overhelpful and inquisitive management.
Nearby in New Town Square, I ate at what some boldly claim is the world’s oldest restaurant, the 15th-century Gospoda Pod Modryn Fartuchen: kielbasa sausages, borscht, and pivo polska pilsener. The magical atmosphere is enhanced by the fountain, a bubbling brood built in 1914 to commemorate Torun’s version of the Pied Piper legend. The peasant Janko Muzykant drove out a plague of frogs released by an ornery witch with his melodic fiddle music.
At last ogling Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), I avoided the closed planetarium and plowed on until I stood near Old Town Hall, face to face with a stately stargazing statue of Copernicus (known as Mikolaj Kopernik in Polish). The sculpture seemed to move slightly as I studied it. I asked my burning question then imagined him smirking, but I got my revenge later by biting off the head of a piernik, a Copernicus-shaped gingerbread popular with dirtbag tourists and friendly locals alike.
I wondered what it would be like to live in the Hanseatic League port town of Torun as a fabulous knight errant on the fabled Vistula River, surrounded by Touch Gothic architecture, redbrick churches and revisionism. I went gaga over the Cathedral of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, built from the 12th to 15th centuries, which features the 7,238-kilogram Tuba Dei (God’s Trumpet), the 2nd-largest bell after the one in Krakow’s Wawel Castle.
Finally I visited what is (conveniently) believed to be the former residence of Copernicus (whom I nickname Copper). It's an ancient MTV-like crib, now housing the Muzeum Mikolaj Kopernika. Unfortunately, this was not the highlight of my trip. Nice taste in art and furniture, Copper, but where are your tools of the trade: cool telescopes, fiery alembics, forbidden books, and jarred homunculi?
Fast forwarding, I plopped down at a lively club with no apparent name, where I began conversing with two Polish students who posited with surprising hubris, “Maybe things were better during Communism? Now, there is no work for us!”
“But now you can say what you want without any danger of being arrested by secret police,” I countered. “Forget the Soviets, today you're proudly EU!”
A terrifyingly-handsome blond German, resembling a cross between Billy Idol and Sting, interrupted: “I could not help but overhearing. Ven I lived in East Germany under Hoenicker, I vas a guard on the Berlin Vall. Ve had orders to shoot anyone who trying to escape.” The ex-Stasi secret policeman looked sadly into his suds, suddenly resembling a medieval Teutonic Knight. “Things are wery wery better now I think.”
He seemed to be the philosophic product of German Romanticism—a cant Kant. How could these cats have trusted Marx in the first place, holed up in a London flophouse, burning with revenge for the bourgeoise who made fun of him. Marx famously quipped “Religion is the opium of the people,” but any import-export specialist (an international euphemism for chronic unemployment) knows that opium is the opium of the people.
I later discovered that all my musings on Nicholaus Copernicus had been scooped by Dava Sobel in her excellent book A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos.
I further theorized about the secret of international time travel—moving faster than a photon. So, I once again boarded the relativistic time-lapsed train out of Torun. Safely on board the machine, I imagined I glimpsed that Hermés-heeled mercurial heretic Copernicus in the maelstrom of smoke and mirrors, fashionably cloaked in a plush Renaissance robe, holding up an antique globe and (yes) laughing at me. This aint over yet, Copper, not by a longshot.
John M. Edwards is a writer and photojournalist. He has traveled five continents with experiences ranging from surviving a ferry sinking off Siam to getting caught in a military coup in Fiji. His writing has appeared in CNN Traveller, Entertainment Weekly, Salon.com, Condé Nast Traveler, Islands, Matador, World Hum, BootsnAll, and other publications. He received five NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Awards, two TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Awards, and three Solas (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He edits the Rotten Vacations anthology.