The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus is often considered the founder of modern astronomy. He is best known for his astronomical theory that the Sun is at rest near the center of the universe, and that the Earth, spinning on its axis once daily, revolves annually around the Sun. This is called the heliocentric or Sun-centered, system.
The Copernican theory was contrary to the Ptolemaic theory. (Claudius Ptolemy was an astronomer living in Alexandria at about 150 A.D. Astronomers did have ideas similar to those more fully developed by Copernicus but they were rejected in favour of the geocentric or earth-centered scheme espoused by the likes of Pythagoras and Aristotle. Ptolemy’s findings were that the earth was a fixed, inert, immovable mass located at the center of the universe, and all celestial bodies, including the sun and the fixed stars, revolved around it. It was a theory that appealed to human nature, it fit with the casual observations that a person might make in the field, and it fed man’s ego.)
Early Life and Education
Nicolaus Copernicus was born on February 19, 1473, in Torun, Poland, to a family of merchants and municipal officials. Copernicus’s maternal uncle, Bishop Watzenrode, saw to it that his nephew obtained a solid education at the best universities. Copernicus entered the University of Krakow, then famous for its mathematics and astronomy, studied the liberal arts for four years without receiving a degree, and then went to Italy to study medicine and law. Before he left Poland, his uncle had him appointed a Church administrator in Frauenberg; this was a post with financial responsibilities but no priestly duties. In January 1497 Copernicus began to study canon law at the University of Bologna while living at the home of a mathematics professor, Domenico Maria de Novara. Copernicus’s geographical and astronomical interests were greatly stimulated by Domenico Maria, an early critic of the accuracy of the “Geography” of the 2nd-century astronomer Ptolemy. Together, the two men observed the eclipse by the Moon of the star Aldebaran on March 9, 1497.
In 1500 Copernicus lectured on astronomy in Rome. The following year he gained permission to study medicine at Padua (the university where Galileo taught nearly a century later). It was not unusual at the time to study a subject at one university and then to receive a degree from another—often less expensive—institution. And so Copernicus, without completing his medical studies, received a doctorate in canon law from Ferrara in 1503 and then returned to Poland to take up his administrative duties.
Return to Poland
From 1503 to 1510 Copernicus lived in his uncle’s bishopric palace in Lidzbark Warminski, assisting in the administration and the conflict against the Teutonic Knights. There he published his first book, a Latin translation of letters on morals by a 7th-century Byzantine writer, Theophylactus of Simocatta. Between 1507 and 1515 he completed a short astronomical treatise, De Hypothesibus Motuum Coelestium a se Constitutis Commentariolus (known as the Commentariolus), which was not published until the 19th century. In this work he laid down the principles of his new heliocentric astronomy.
After moving to Frauenburg in 1512, Copernicus took part in the Fifth Lateran Council’s commission on calendar reform (1515); wrote a treatise on money (1517); and began his major work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), which was finished by 1530 but first published by a Lutheran printer in Nuremberg, Germany, just before Copernicus’s death on May 24, 1543.
The Copernican System and Its Influence
The major premises of Copernicus’s theory are that the Earth rotates daily on its axis and revolves yearly around the Sun. He argued, furthermore, that the planets also encircle the Sun, and that the Earth wobbles on its axis like a top as it rotates.
Copernicus’s heliocentric theories of planetary motion had the advantage of accounting for the apparent daily and yearly motion of the Sun and stars, and it neatly explained the apparent retrograde motion of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, and why Mercury and Venus never move more than a certain distance from the Sun. Copernicus’s theory also stated that the sphere of the fixed stars was stationary.
Another important feature of Copernican theory is that it allowed a new ordering of the planets according to their periods of revolution. In Copernicus’s universe, unlike Ptolemy’s, the greater the radius of a planet’s orbit, the greater the time the planet takes to make one circuit around the Sun. But the concept of a moving Earth was difficult to accept for most 16th-century readers who understood Copernicus’s claims; instead, parts of his theory were adopted, while the radical core was ignored or rejected.
There were but ten Copernicans between 1543 and 1600. Most worked outside the universities in princely, royal, or imperial courts. The most famous were Galileo and the German astronomer Johannes Kepler. These men often differed in their reasons for supporting the Copernican system. In 1588 an important middle position was developed by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in which the Earth remained at rest and all the planets revolved around the Sun as it revolved around the Earth.
After the suppression of Copernican theory occasioned by the ecclesiastical trial of Galileo in 1633, some Jesuit philosophers remained secret followers of Copernicus. Many others adopted the geocentric-heliocentric system of Brahe. By the late 17th century and the rise of the system of celestial mechanics propounded by Sir Isaac Newton, most major thinkers in Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark were Copernicans. Natural philosophers in the other European countries, however, held strong anti-Copernican views for at least another century.
Strong theoretical underpinning for the Copernican theory was provided by Newton’s theory of universal gravitation (1687).
Copernicus was in no hurry to publish his theory, though parts of his work were circulated among a few of the astronomers that were giving the matter some thought; indeed, Copernicus’ master work might not have ever reached the printing press if it had not been for a young man who sought out the master in 1539.
Nicolaus Copernicus died in 1543 and was never to know what a stir his work had caused. It went against the philosophical and religious beliefs that had been held during the medieval times. Man, it was believed (and still believed by some) was made by God in His image, man was the next thing to God, and as such, superior, especially in his best part, his soul, to all creatures – this part was not even part of the natural world. Copernicus’ theories might well lead men to think that they are simply part of nature and not superior to it and that ran counter to the theories of the political powerful churchmen of the time.
Two other Italian scientists of the time, Galileo and Bruno, embraced the Copernican theory unreservedly and as a result suffered much personal injury at the hands of the powerful church inquisitors. Giordano Bruno had the audacity to even go beyond Copernicus, and, dared to suggest, that space was boundless and that the sun was and its planets were but one of any number of similar systems. He also said that there even might be other inhabited worlds with rational beings equal or possibly superior to ourselves. For such blasphemy, Bruno was tried before the Inquisition, condemned and burned at the stake in 1600. Galileo was brought forward in 1633, and, there, in front of his “betters,” he was, under the threat of torture and death, forced to his knees to renounce all belief in Copernican theories, and was thereafter sentenced to imprisonment for the remainder of his days.
The most important aspect of Copernicus’ work is that it forever changed the place of man in the cosmos; no longer could man legitimately think his significance greater than his fellow creatures; with Copernicus’ work, man could now take his place among that which exists all about him, and not of necessity take that premier position which had been assigned immodestly to him by the theologians.
Nicolaus Copernicus Changed The World!
16th Century Renaissance Man
The Renaissance resulted in great achievements in esthetic and literary interests, but advances in science moved slowly during the period. The era, however, opened a door for individuals—like Copernicus—to express beliefs they found contrary to what was accepted.
Their views most often placed these great thinkers at odds with the Church. Fearful of being labeled heretics, many kept their ideas to themselves or within a close circle of friends. Embracing the views of alleged heretics also placed one out of favor with the church, making support for radical ideas hard to come by.
He Moved the Earth!
Initiated Great Thinking
Because his presentation of De Revolutionibus lacked both observational data and mathematical underpinning (at that time, the gathering of meager data was not part of the scientific system, nor was the practice of justifying laws with countless mathematical proofs)—yet with models and proofs so convincing—it sparked future astronomers and mathematicians to justify his findings, and in effect served as an catalyst for the great inventions and theories in centuries to come.
In putting out his theory of the ordered movement of the planets around the sun, Copernicus stimulated investigation into the whole body of phenomena connected with matter in motion. These researches, conducted by many scholars, among them Kepler, Galileo, and Newton and the most shining names, culminated in the theory of gravitation and the recognition of an eternally established, majestic universe of law.
These brilliant physical-astronomical discoveries allowed the development of mathematics. Mathematics reached its eighteenth century culmination with the invention of the calculus by Newton and Leibnitz. It was calculus that made possible the complicated measurements demanded by the study of moving objects and it was in mathematical terms that the laws of motion—not only of solid bodies, but also of such physical phenomena as sound, heat, and light—were seated.
Throughout the world, there are many monuments, observatories, and buildings named after the famous astronomer. Here are few of the more notable ones:
• In Torun, Poland, his birthplace, a University named in his honor was organized in 1945. A monument to Copernicus stands in front of the town hall.
• A statue in front of the College of Physics in Planty, Poland shows Copernicus as a young student.
• A statue of Copernicus by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, stands in downtown Warsaw.
• The Copernicus Foundation of Chicago was established in 1971. In 1980, the foundation renovated an old theater (complete with a replica of the Royal Castle Clock Tower in Warsaw) and opened The Copernicus Cultural and Civic Center.
• Also in Chicago is one of the most readily recognizable statues of Copernicus. It is located on Solidarity Drive.
• An orbiting space laboratory named after Copernicus is on display at the Air and Space Museum at Independence and 6th St. in Washington, D.C.
• At the main entrance to the Dag Hammarskjold Library at the United Nations Building, is a large bronze head of Copernicus. It was sculpted by Alfons Karny, and was a gift to the U.N. from Poland in 1970. Karney is one of the world’s greatest sculptures of the 20th century. The bust is on permanent display.
• The Kopernik Polish Cultural Center, located in the Polish Community Center in Utica, N.Y., is operated by the Kopernik Polish Cultural Center Committee of the Kopernik Memorial Association of Central New York. It contains a fine permanent collection of Polish works of art, books, artifacts and videotape.
• In 1973, Central New York’s Polonia formed the Kopernik Society to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Copernicus. The society raised money to build the Kopernik Observatory in Vestal, New York, the only one built in the 20th century without support from major donors and government funding. The Kopernik Observatory is next to the planetarium complex at the Roberson Center, making the site to be one of the best public astronomy facilities in the Northwest. Currently, the Kopernik Space Education Center project is underway to expand the original facility.
• A memorial to Kopernik stands in Fairmont Park in Philadelphia. It was erected under the auspices of the Philadelphia Polish Heritage Society.
• The Copernicus Society of America (CSA), established by Edward Piszek, has played a major role in the promotion of Polish heritage in the United States. In 1977, Piszek and the Copernicus Society were instrumental in enabling Fort Ticonderoga to purchase Mount Defiance, near the historic Revolutionary War fortress at which Tadeusz Kosciuszko played a critical role in 1777 to halt the British advance up Lake Champlain. Fort Ticonderoga was the “location” for filming a PBS special on Kosciuszko, a bicentennial project sponsored by the Copernicus Society and the Reader’s Digest Foundation.
Most recently, the Copernicus Society was the motivating force behind W.S. Kuniczak’s translation of the Henryk Sienkiewicz “Trilogy.”
• A copy of the Warsaw, Poland statue of the Polish astronomer is in the square by the Dow Planetarium in Montreal, Canada.
+ The first edition copy of Copernicus’ “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” is on permanent display on the main floor of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
“Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe. Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind – for by this admission so many things vanished in mist and smoke! What became of our Eden, our world of innocence, piety and poetry; the testimony of the senses; the conviction of a poetic – religious faith? No wonder his contemporaries did not wish to let all this go and offered every possible resistance to a doctrine which in its converts authorized and demanded a freedom of view and greatness of thought so far unknown, indeed not even dreamed of.” [Goethe.]
Quote from Chambers Biographical Dictionary: “Copernicus … was born at Torun, Poland. His father was a Germanized Slav, his mother a German; and Poland and Germany both claim the honour of producing him.”
Personally, I believe that Nicolaus Copernicus really is a great man. He wasn’t an ordinary astronomer; he is one of the greatest. He also was a bold and daring man for he challenged the Church and the theological thoughts of his time with his revolutionary views and theories. He was able to break out of the chains and head for the truth, and found it. When he brought the truth back to the others, they rejected it and ignored him. The good thing is that Copernicus later had followers which proved him right, making him fully deserve the names 16th Century Renaissance Man and the father of modern astronomy. He changed the world.
Compton’s Encyclopedia 1995
Encyclopedia Encarta 1999
World Wide Web (all the Yahoo search results for Copernicus)