There is something about the physical reality of places and things that makes history come to life more than all the lectures and movies and scholarship.
Walk through the streets of Krakow and hear your companion point out the building where Copernicus went to school . . . and you gulp. Suddenly he is not a name in a book but an actual person, young Nick Copernicus sitting at his desk (at the very moment when Columbus was setting sail) . . . right there, in that room, gazing out this ancient window. . . .
Maybe you can't get to Poland this spring, but the next-best thing is the "Heralds of Science" mini-show at the Smithsonian (History and Technology) through June 6.
There in the case is Copernicus' great work, "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium," published in 1543, the year he died, and it's open to the key page, showing the map of the planets with the sun, not the earth, in the middle.
It is part of a collection of books that blew the mind of the world in one century or another, a collection given to the museum by Bern Dibner, inventor, collector and scholar.
There's Newton's "Principia," his book on optics published in 1704. There's Darwin's "Origin of Species" with the modest words, "This principle of preservation I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection. . . ."
There's a wonderful book by Vesalius published in 1543, the same year as Copernicus' work, including a 15-inch anatomical drawing of the human blood vessels. There's Galileo's book on his discoveries (1610) which outraged the Western world, and an illuminated manuscript of "De Rerum Natura" (1486), and Boyle and Agricola and Virchow and Harvey and Hertz and Faraday and Napier, the man who invented logarithms and earned the hatred of unborn generations of schoolchildren.
Artifacts are casually thrown in: an early static machine, Pasteur's microscope, some antique medals.
And at the end of the line, a booklet, "Notes on Motor Carriages" by one John Henry Knight, 1896. Sometimes you can be looking right at a revolution and not even see it.