Copernicus Rediscovered?

What are the chances of digging up the remains of the man who revolutionized astronomy in your local church? Doubts have swirled around the 2005 claim of a Polish archaelogical team that they had unearthed skeletal remains of the 16th century astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) [1]. A team of forensic experts, including the Central Forensic Laboratory of the Warsaw Police, examined the claims by investigating the bones and teeth of a 60 to 70-year old man found in Frombork Cathedral, Poland.

The task at hand was daunting, as outlined in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) journal article [2]. Copernicus died in 1543, at age 70, and was interred at Frombork Cathedral, which unfortunately has a large percentage of unnamed tombs. Scientists used facial reconstruction and comparisons with paintings, including a self-portrait, to narrow down the list of skeletons to one individual. They struck gold with the discovery of a seeming match. There was a forehead scar and evidence of a broken nose between one cranium and a key portrait. The next step involved DNA analysis. Here, the team was aided by Swedish researchers who retrieved hairs from a book annotated by Copernicus (on exhibit at Museum Gustavianum in Uppsala, Sweden). Genetic detective work enabled them to match two of the hairs to DNA segments from a well-preserved cranial tooth, thereby adding to the notion that the remains of Copernicus had finally been discovered.


Interestingly, the authors point out that Copernicus may have had blue eyes, even though early portraits of the astronomer show him with dark eyes. The authors explain their findings by noting that the painting technique, chalcography, used during the lifetime of Copernicus, does not reflect actual color. Therefore it is possible that science has now corrected an artistic impression reproduced in the ensuing centuries of dark eye color by showing that Copernicus, in fact, had light-colored eyes. The editorial commentary accompanying the article was favorable, with doubts mainly centering on the number of hairs and books tested before zeroing in on the Calendarium, the book which contained the jackpot hairs; however, the debate over different interpretations of the data continues in academic corridors.


Clearing up the mystery of the astronomer’s remains may eventually put him to rest, but he will remain immortal in our minds. Like Darwin, he ushered in the modern scientific era with the heliocentric theory, i.e. placing the sun at the center of our solar system and relegating the Earth to the position of another planet orbiting the sun. His findings did not endear him to contemporary critics, e.g. Scaliger, who noted the name of Copernicus next to the recommendation that “certain writings should be expunged or their authors whipped” [3]. Nowadays scholars and laymen applaud his discoveries.

Helping to feed the hungry with Big Data

Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, American computer scientist and serial entrepreneur, Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, American computer scientist and serial entrepreneur, holds the view that human nature thrives through interaction and trading with trusted others – an idea that he wants to incorporate into sustaining our digital ecology. What does this mean in a world where every phone call, credit card transaction, idle thought posted on social media leave hackable imprints mirroring the best and worst in human nature. Our physical selves may become numb to the zettabytes of information streamed and stored for 24/7 consumption, to the point that wars and natural disasters become pixelated noise on a slowly-buffering YouTube video. For those of us suffering from post-Orwellian fatigue over the many ways in which Big Data cataloging our lives can be misused, it comes as heartening news that visionaries at the intersection of information science, humanitarian aid, and Big Data analytics are stepping up with concrete plans to provide humanitarian aid to poor countries.

One example is Chamutal Afek-Eitam, the thirtysomething founding CEO of the 3 Million Club, a non-profit startup cut from a different cloth. Her LinkedIn profile cites “15 years of work in the international aid sector with 10 years working in development and emergency practice for a variety of INGOs and UN bodies while living in Kosovo, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Democratic Republic Congo and, six years in specialist consultancy services and academic research in disaster, dev and innovation management.” The academic research refers to her work at the cusp of information and the social sciences at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands eg, The Humanitarian Genome Project. Think of humanitarian aid as the building blocks of effective giving to others. By analogy, the segments of DNA that form genes encoding specific proteins, are the regions of the world where aid will be delivered to fulfill a specific need. What are the dominant patterns that may streamline effective delivery of aid from a charity’s headquarters to the field? Are there recessive traits that could be enhanced to improve the local economy at the individual and community levels? The project aims to develop open-source technology in which such behavioral evaluations will be made easily and widely accessible to the humanitarian community.

Drawing upon her academic and humanitarian aid background, Eitam, formed the 3 Million Club, possibly a reference to the fact that an estimated 3 million children across the globe die due to hunger each year. She has already started a campaign drive to raise money for food packages that would be used to feed starving children. In an interview with the Israeli press, Eitam, says that, for $60, donors can purchase ready-to-use therapeutic food (RTUF) that may feed malnourished children for three months – possibly enough time for many kids to recover from severe malnutrition.

Her business model is to cut out the middle man and international bureaucracy and keep everything local. The only fee her organization takes is a $3 bank transfer fee for every $60 donation. Food is purchased locally, thus helping to support the local economy, and donors or “humanitarian shareholders” receive word when ‘their’ child gets the food. The investment opportunity lies in providing field workers with devices to record information about the socioeconomic status of each child and community member in the RUTF distribution areas. The sale of data providing governments and companies with real-time snapshots about the needs of communities and effectiveness of humanitarian aid, will provide donors with short- and long-term returns on their investments. This no-frills and no-waste donation program differs from the well-meaning top-down approaches of the past and may impact a sector where many people may be sick of seeing how much money goes to waste.

Once word of this project spreads, one can only hope that it inspires others to similar actions. Beyond telling governments or corporations whether you are likely to repay your loans or get diabetes, Big Data may become part of the digital conversation lifting millions of people out of poverty.