Embracing Nicolaus Copernicus in Toruń

Avi Loeb
7 min readFeb 19, 2024
A presentation by Avi Loeb to space leaders at the 60th Munich Security Conference (February 16, 2024).

Imagine learning for the first time that you are not as privileged as you had imagined through the belief that the Universe centers on you. This is hurtful news even for children, judging by the response of my daughters to their first day away from home. Politicians or unyielding believers would deny this ego-devastating message and punish the messengers. But reality bites even if we ignore it. Counterintuitively, adapting to the humbling knowledge that Mars does not revolve around the Earth enabled us to design rockets that would reach Mars. This is what I told space leaders at the Munich Security Conference on February 16, 2024. Evidence-based knowledge on the reality we share, is best suited for serving the long-term future of humanity.

Avi Loeb next to a portrait of Nicolaus Copernicus under his illustration of the heliocentric system, located at the old city hall of Toruń. (Image credit: Patricia C. Lopes)

From there, I arrived at the Polish town of Toruń where Nicolaus Copernicus was born on February 19, 1473. Half a millennium ago, he used data to suggest the heliocentric view that the Sun — and not the Earth — is at the center of our planetary system. If we had lived on the surface of the Sun, our ego wouldn’t have been hurt by the Copernican revolution. And if the speed of the Earth relative to the Sun was boosted by the square root of 2, his thesis that the Earth revolves around the Sun would have been wrong because the Earth would have escaped the Solar system.

Avi Loeb at the front door of the family home of Nicolaus Copernicus (Image credit: Patricia C. Lopes)
Avi Loeb at the church where Copernicus was baptized on the left (Image credit: Patricia C. Lopes)

Most of my academic colleagues still argue that humans are likely privileged. They suggest that human intelligence might be unprecedented since the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago. This sense of self-importance is an extraordinary claim that defies the Copernican principle. Here again, our illusion of being privileged can be removed by the Copernican approach of gathering data; this time, on an interstellar artifact in the background of solar system rocks.

Life is sometimes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We can only find a partner if we seek it. By searching for technological products of extraterrestrials, our Life in the Cosmos could become more meaningful than the lonely and pointless appearance that cosmologists revealed so far.

For me, vibing with Copernicus implies that we are not central to intelligence in the Universe. Recovering clues and adapting to this reality has the benefit of allowing us to be inspired by our neighbors. I am not naïve enough to believe in the wishful thinking of John Lennon: “Imagine all the people livin’ life in peace.” Instead, I believe in shock therapy. Finding a technological package in our back yard will inspire us to do better, live peacefully with each other, and focus on imitating a smarter student in our class of intelligence.

Avi Loeb under a statue celebrating Nicolaus Copernicus at the old city of Torun. (Image credit: Patricia C. Lopes)

Most stars formed billions of years before the Sun and their space programs could have been active for a thousand times longer than the age of the human species, bringing their space trash to our doorstep. Astronomers might be missing most of this debris because our best survey telescopes can only detect reflected sunlight from objects bigger than a football field at the Earth-Sun distance. We never launched a probe bigger than a football field, so there are likely many more smaller artifacts from interstellar polluters like us that we miss.

Life is not easy for original thinkers who challenge the status-quo. The church used the heliocentric model of Copernicus to predict the time of Easter but regarded the model as unrelated to reality and classified his book De revolutionibus as forbidden until the 19th Century. Copernicus remarked in the preface to the book that he had chosen to withhold publication, not for merely the nine years recommended by the Roman poet Horace but for four times longer. He used an image from Horace’s Ars poetica (“Art of Poetry”) to explain that the theories of his predecessors were like Mary Shelley’s image of Frankenstein: a human figure in which the components were put together as a disorderly monster. It is believed that a copy of De revolutionibus was placed in Copernicus’s hands a few days after he lost consciousness from a stroke. Copernicus was a priest, yet he followed the implications of his calculations honestly even as they violated religious dogma. He displayed the trademark of scientific integrity and the only way by which we can correct our illusions.

And so, I paid tribute to Copernicus by visiting in person his birth place. At Toruń, I was greeted by Jan Świerkowski, the scientific curator of the “De Revolutionibus” public event of the Year of Nicolaus Copernicus, organized by the Polish government in celebration of 550 years to the birth of a scientist who told us that we are not as central to the cosmos as we had thought.

The day of my lecture was lit by a bright sun. The schedule was packed with five interviews by journalists, radio broadcasters, educators and reporters from the national Polish television. But gladly, my hosts allocated a full hour to a tour of the Old City of Toruń where the beautiful family home of Copernicus resides. If I ever had an opportunity to promote an intellectual center to the Universe, Toruń would have ranked high on my list.

The title of my keynote lecture in the evening was: “The Next Copernican Revolution.” During the lecture I provided details about our findings from the Pacific Ocean expedition to recover materials from the first recognized interstellar meteor. The analysis results were reported in the extensive paper that we completed a few days ago, suggesting that recovered materials came from outside the solar system based on their anomalous chemical composition.

Avi Loeb delivering a keynote lecture on “The Next Copernican Revolution” in Toruń on the last day of 550 years celebration of the birth of Copernicus (February 18, 2024).

At the end of my talk, the local governor Piotr Całbecki noted the historical significance of the expedition findings, as they may represent the first time that humans put their hands on materials from a big object that originated from outside the solar system. To my surprise, Piotr awarded me with a leather bounded copy of De revolutionibus. In thanking him, I admitted that this was the most inspiring gift I had received in my life, second only to my wife giving birth to our two daughters.

The governor Piotr Całbecki (left) awards Avi Loeb (middle) with a copy of De revolutionibus, as the event coordinator Jan Świerkowski (right) watches the exchange.

Subsequently, about fifty people waited in a long line for me to sign copies of the Polish translation of my book “Extraterrestrial” and have photos with them. Two of them whispered in my ear: “We follow all your writings and you are our rock star.” I confessed that I had never imagined that my writings would appeal to young students in Toruń, and advised them to maintain their scientific curiosity and never become the “adults in the room”.

The copy of De revolutionibus, on its way to Avi Loeb’s office at Harvard University.

My stay in the lovely red-bricked Toruń was limited to a day because a day later, a National Geographic filming crew is expected to arrive to the doorstep of my home at 8 AM for a full day interview about my research. As short as my visit was, the warm and generous hospitality at Toruń will inspire me to keep working on the next Copernican revolution. I promised to visit Toruń again if we find large pieces of the interstellar meteor in our next expedition.

We learned a lot since the Copernican revolution half a millennium ago. Will our species survive for another half a millennium? Possibly, as long as we act intelligently and learn from our cosmic neighbors, rather than engage in territorial disputes on Earth. Lets celebrate the benefits of science rather than the wounds of political conflicts. This was the main message that I conveyed at the 2024 Munich Security Conference, during the 45 minute conversation with Rolf Dobelli, founder of WORLD.MINDS — available at this link.


Image credit: Chris Michel (October 2023)

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.



Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".