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On the occasion of the four-hundredth anniversary of Nicolaus Copernicus' birth in 1873, the Municipality of Kraków established a foundation in his name and entrusted the Academy of Arts and Sciences with the task of awarding prizes from its funds every five years for work in astronomy and related sciences, namely astrophysics, geodesy, physical geography, earth magnetism, and meteorology. World War II interrupted the awarding of these prizes. Kraków City Council wished to continue this tradition. Therefore, on the five-hundredth anniversary of Nicolaus Copernicus' attending university in Krakow, it established – by Resolution No. XC/581/93 of 9 July 1993, amended by Resolution No. XXIX/274/95 of 6 September 1995 and Resolution No. XXXVII/971/20 of 11 March 2020 – the Nicolaus Copernicus Prize for astronomy and other sciences practised by Copernicus and entrusted the PAU with the task of awarding it every five years beginning from 1995.
The prize is awarded in nine equal categories to scholars connected with Polish science who, in the five years preceding the year of the award, have published works of outstanding scientific value in the fields of (1) astronomy (2) economics (3) classics (4) natural philosophy (5) cosmology and astrophysics (6) mathematics (7) medicine (8) earth sciences and (9) law.