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Nicolaus Copernicus - Pioneering Cosmologist

We commonly accept, today, that the Earth moves around the Sun. For thousands of years, however, this was not the case. The first man to work out the mathematics to show the arrangement of the planets in our solar system was Nicolaus Copernicus.

Copernicus was born in Thorn, on the Vistula in Poland, in 1473. His father, who had moved there from Krakow, worked as a merchant. Copernicus had three siblings, Andreas, Barbara and Katharina. Their father died when Nicholas was 10 years old. Copernicus' maternal uncle, Lucas Waczenrode (Bishop of Ermeland), raised the orphans. Copernicus attended the University of Krakow in 1491. In 1494 he went on to Bologna to study, at his uncle's insistence, for a life as a Canon in the Roman Catholic Church. Copernicus trained in law and medicine there, but he had a heart for astronomy and excelled at mathematics.

In 1497 the Chapter of Frauberg named him a Canon of the Church, and, in the spring of 1500 he went to Rome to celebrate the Jubilee of the Church. While there he reportedly gave lectures on astronomy. After leaving Rome he studied further in law and medicine and received a Doctorate in Canon Law. Copernicus spoke and read several languages and, in 1509, set his mind to translating the Greek letters of Theophylactus.

From 1504, until his uncle died in 1512, Copernicus often accompanied his uncle to the Royal Prussian Diet1 where he got involved in the political wrangling between Poland, Prussia and the Grand Duchy of Moscow. He may also have attended the coronation of a Polish King2 in 1507. He then moved to Heilsburg, where he practised medicine for six years.

In 1514 a papal council3 asked Copernicus to state his views on revising the calendar but, being the cautious person he was, Copernicus simply said that he didn't have enough information to make a recommendation. According to the records at the Nicolaus Copernicus Museum in Frombork, Poland, Copernicus then returned to observing the planets, after a gap of several years, in 1518.

In those years, the kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania united into one empire and Copernicus spent time drawing maps of the area. In 1520 he was part of the Polish Embassy to the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights4 requesting he give back the town of Braniewo, which his forces had taken. In the year after that, Warmia appointed Copernicus their commissioner to negotiate on behalf of their land. Now, in his mid-forties, astronomy became little more than an avocation for him. He held positions as administrator in the diocesan castle of Allenstein and after that administered the diocese of Frauenburg. This work led him to study finance and, in the year 1522, he wrote a memorandum on monetary reforms, which in 1528 got him a nomination for Deputy Councillor on the financial regulations of Prussia.

His Astronomical Theory

The key point in his theory is that all the planets revolve around the Sun. Despite the fact that the Greek Aristarchus had once proposed the same thing, it was the model set forth by Ptolemy, placing the Earth at the centre of the Solar System, that represented the accepted view for more than a thousand years.

The writings of Aristotle supported Ptolemy's view and insisted that the visible universe was finite. If the Earth did not sit at the centre then we would see the stars change position in relation to one another as they were viewed from opposite sides of the Sun. For a world with no conception of the true distance to the nearest stars, Aristotle's view seemed self-evident. Aristotle's logic appeared perfectly valid if all the stars were as close as he thought, given he believed the celestial bodies sat on the surface of a series of more than 50 concentric, crystalline spheres. This also suited a world view in which the leaders of the church considered man the 'Crown of Creation' and had assumed that the maker of all things would have placed him in the centre of everything: a view that even coloured their interpretation of holy scripture.

Popes in the 1800s and 1900s would realise the fallacy of this view but, in the 1500s they would not challenge what the church had taught for over 1,000 years. Copernicus, on the other hand, concerned himself less with doctrine and more with what he could see with his own eyes and what his own mathematics told him.

For some years, Copernicus watched the sky from a turret above the Frombork Cathedral where he was a Canon. He calculated the motion of the planets and, by 1530, convinced himself that Ptolemy and Aristotle were wrong. Quite simply, the Earth did not occupy the centre of the universe. Another decade would pass, however, before his calculations saw print. One of Copernicus' pupils, Georg Joachim von Lauchen Rheticus, who stayed with him in his final years, wrote a book, Narratio Prima (First Account), outlining the essence of Copernicus' theory.

In 1542 Rheticus published a treatise on trigonometry by Copernicus (later included in the second book of De Revolutionibus) and provided a driving force in getting Copernicus to publish the book for which he would be remembered: De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium. After securing a publisher, and having to return to the University of Leipzig to teach, Rheticus allowed the supervision of this matter to fall to a man by the name of Andreas Osiander. Osiander kept Copernicus as author of the work, but replaced the preface with one of his own making, attempting to downplay the veracity of the theory.

For at least three decades Copernicus continued to teach and profess that the Earth did not occupy the centre of the universe, but was instead one of six (known) planets that revolved around the Sun. The Pope gave his approval to Copernicus to make these views known and was even advised as early as 1536 by a Cardinal of the Catholic Church5 to publish the work, but did not do so.

Copernicus meticulously worked out the planetary orbits by means of trigonometry and shared this information with his followers. He worked out the relative scale of their orbits with Mercury closest to the Sun, followed by Venus, then Earth, then Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Copernicus did all this before the invention of the telescope.

Since his calculations were based on perfect circles, rather than ellipses, they were less accurate at describing the orbits. This may be one reason that the Church did not feel threatened by his findings. Only when Kepler started using ellipses and Galileo started using telescopic sightings, including the moons of Jupiter, did Pope Paul V issue an order that 'heliocentric ideas could not be defended'.

Final Resting Place

Copernicus died on 24 May, 1543, at age 70, probably from a stroke. His bones lay at rest long before the 1616 edict from the Vatican that decreed his perception of the Solar System to be heresy. His book sat on the Vatican's banned list until 1835. As later astronomers credited him for his work his fame spread. In time the Vatican revoked the ban and monuments were built - first at Warsaw in 1830 and then in Torun in 1853.

For over 500 years, Copernicus' bones sat in an unmarked grave beneath a cathedral in the city of Frombork, 180 miles north of the Polish capital, Warsaw. In 2005 archaeologists discovered remains suspected to be those of Copernicus. In 2008 scientists compared DNA from the remains with hairs found in one of Copernicus's books, establishing a match and a forensic model to be certain that it was him. Finally, in 2010, the remains were re-interred with honour and a tombstone was installed. On the stone is a model of the Solar System, showing the Sun circled by six of the planets.

On the Moon

During the 1600s, Giovanni B Riccioli named a 93km (58 mile) wide crater on the moon after Copernicus. With the exception of Tycho, it is perhaps the most visible crater on the entire moon. Some speculate that Riccioli placed it squarely in the Ocean of Storms (Oceanus Procellarum) because of his own personal opposition to the heliocentric theory.

In the Music World

A musical project also bears his name - Project Copernicus.

Project Copernicus is a professional chamber orchestra and ensemble based in Miami, Florida. We take our inspiration from the vision and courage of the great astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. In the same way that Copernicus the astronomer realigned our perception of the physical universe, Copernicus the project strives to realign the musical paradigm
- MySpace, About Project Copernicus.

1 A Diet was a political assembly where laws were ironed out and proposed to the King. Smaller units of government, such as the one Nicolaus's uncle presided over, also had such assemblies.
2 Sigismund I King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.
3 The fifth Lateran Council.
4 Later known as the Duke of Prussia.
5 Cardinal von Sch�nberg, Archbishop of Capua.

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Entry Data
Entry ID: A71569218 (Edited)

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Date: 27   September   2010

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Referenced Guide Entries
The Solar System
Warsaw, Poland
What's the Point of Astronomy?
The Sun
Krakow, Poland
Roman Catholicism
Galileo Galilei - Father of Modern Science

Related BBC Pages
Forensic Model

Referenced Sites
Orbital chart
Crater image
Chamber Music

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