Born: February 19, 1473
Died: May 24, 1543
Frauenberg, East Prussia (now Frombork, Poland)
The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was the founder of the heliocentric ordering of the planets, which at the time was a revolutionary idea that stated the Earth and other planets revolve around the Sun.
Nicolaus Copernicus was born on February 19, 1473, in Torun, Poland, about 100 miles south of Danzig. He belonged to a family of merchants. His uncle, the bishop and ruler of Ermland, was the person to whom Copernicus owed his education, career, and security.
Copernicus studied at the University of Cracow from 1491 to 1494. While he did not attend any classes in astronomy, it was during his student years there that Copernicus began to collect books on mathematics and astronomy (the study of the universe). Copernicus returned to Torun in 1494. In 1496, through the efforts of his uncle, he became a canon (priest) at Frauenburg, remaining in that office for the remainder of his life. Copernicus then set out for Bologna, Italy, to study canon law. In Bologna Copernicus came under the influence of Domenico Maria de Novara, an astronomer. There Copernicus also recorded some planetary positions, and he did the same in Rome, where he spent the year of 1500.
Upon returning to Ermland in 1506, Copernicus stayed in his uncle's castle at Heilsberg as his personal physician (doctor) and secretary. During that time he translated from Greek into Latin the eighty-five poems of Theophylactus Simacotta, the seventh-century poet. The work, printed in Cracow in 1509, demonstrated Copernicus's interest in the arts.
At this time Copernicus was thinking about problems of astronomy, and the heliocentric system in particular. The system is outlined in a short manuscript known as the Commentariolus, or small commentary, which he completed about 1512. In it there was a list of seven axioms (truths), all of which stated a feature specific to the heliocentric system. The third stated in particular: "All the spheres revolve about the sun as their midpoint, and therefore the sun is the center of the universe."
The Commentariolus produced no reaction, either in print or in letters, but Copernicus's
Copernicus could pursue his study only in his spare time. As a canon he was involved in various affairs, including legal and medical, but especially administrative and financial matters. For all his failure to publish anything in astronomy, his manuscript studies presented in Commentariolus continued to circulate, and more and more was rumored about his theory.
Not all the comments were flattering, though. German religious reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) said Copernicus was "the fool who will turn the whole science of astronomy upside down." In 1531 a local schoolmaster produced an unflattering play about him in Elbing, Prussia. In Rome things went better, for the time being at least. In 1533 John Widmanstad, a secretary to the pope, lectured on Copernicus's theory before Pope Clement VII (1536–1605) and several cardinals (religious leaders ranking just below the pope). Widmanstad's hand was behind the letter that Cardinal Schönberg sent from Rome to Copernicus in 1536 urging him to publish his thoughts, or to share them with him at least.
In 1539 Georg Joachim (Rheticus), a young scholar from Wittenberg, arrived in Frauenburg and printed an account, known as the Narratio prima, of Copernicus's book, which was nearing completion. Rheticus was also instrumental in securing the printing of Copernicus's book in Nuremberg, Germany, although the final supervision remained in the care of Andrew Osiander, a Lutheran clergyman (religious leader). He might have been the one who gave the work its title, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, which is not found in the manuscript. But Osiander certainly had written the anonymous preface (the introduction to the book written by an unknown author), in which Copernicus's ideas were claimed to be meant by their author as mere hypotheses (theories) that had nothing to do with the physical reality.
Copernicus received the printed copy of his work in six books, only a few hours before his death on May 24, 1543. Although there were many gaps in Copernicus's theories, he could have done a better job as an observer. He added only twenty-seven observations to the data he took over from Ptolemy (c. 100–c. 165 C. E.), a second century astronomer, and from more recent astronomical tables. The invention of the telescope was still more than half a century away. To explain the absence of stellar parallax (a change in the direction) due to the orbital motion of the earth, Copernicus could only say that the stars were immensely far away. Here, the observational evidence would not come for another three hundred years. Also, while Ptolemy actually used only forty epicycles (describes the orbit of planets), their total number in Copernicus's system was eighty-four, hardly a convincing proof of its greater simplicity.
Still, the undeniable strength of Copernicus's work lay in its appeal to simplicity. The rotation of the earth made the daily revolution of thousands of stars unnecessary. The orbital motion of the earth fit perfectly into the sequence set by the periods of other planets with its period of 365 days. Most importantly, the heliocentric ordering of planets eliminated the need to think of the retrograde motion (direction opposite of the earth's motion) of the planets as a physical reality. In the tenth chapter of the first book Copernicus made the straightforward statement: "In the center rests the sun. For who would place this lamp of a very beautiful temple in another or better place than this wherefrom it can illuminate everything at the same time."
The thousand copies of the first edition of the book did not sell out, and the work was reprinted only three times prior to the twentieth century. No "great book" of Western intellectual history circulated less widely and was read by fewer people than Copernicus's Revolutions. Still, it not only instructed man about the revolution of the planets but also brought about a revolution in human thought by serving as the building block of modern astronomy.
Andronik, Catherine M. Copernicus: Founder of Modern Astronomy. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2002.
Hallyn, Fernand. The Poetic Structure of the World: Copernicus and Kepler. New York: Zone Books, 1990.
Koyré, A. The Astronomical Revolution: Copernicus, Kepler, Borelli. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973.