Astronomer Biography Nicolaus Copernicus

About the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, history and biography of the man who discovered the true revolutions and orbits of the solar system.

THE EARLY SKYWATCHERS

NICOLAUS COPERNICUS

(1473-1543, Poland)

Major Discoveries: That the earth and its fellow planets revolve around the sun and that the earth rotates on its axis.

Means of Observation: Mathematical calculations, some primitive instruments, and the naked eye; the telescope had not yet been invented.

His Story: Copernicus was born during the Renaissance, when men were challenging many of the accepted ideas of the Middle Ages. A quiet man, not a fighter, he nevertheless started the Copernican revolution.

Copernicus's father died when he was 10 years old. The boy was raised by his uncle, a bishop, who naturally decided that young Copernicus should also have a career in the Church. But the bishop had been influenced by the humanism of the Renaissance and saw to it that his nephew got a good education. Copernicus went to the best universities of his day--first in Cracow, where he became excited by astronomy; then in Bologna, where he studied church law; and finally in Padua, where he became a physician.

Through all his other studies, Copernicus remained dedicated to astronomy and continued to spend most of his time thinking about it. He decided that the sun must be the center of the universe and that the earth and the other planets revolved around it. He also decided that the earth must spin on its axis. But these were only ideas, and Copernicus was not sure he was right. Nobody would be sure for another 100 years, until Galileo would study the movements of the planets through a telescope.

In the meantime, Copernicus refused to publish. Instead, he retuned to Poland and became a diplomat, an economist, a translator of poetry, and his uncle's personal physician. With all this activity he also managed to devote a great deal of time to studying the stars, trying by observation and mathematics to prove his theories.

By the time his uncle died in 1512, Copernicus had dared to write a short explanation of his ideas. To the modern mind, astronomy may not seem to have much to do with religion. But Copernicus's theory said that the earth was not the center of the universe, and if this were true, theologians saw that it might also be true that God had not created the universe for the use of man. And if the sun didn't move, how could Joshua have ordered it to stand still?

The pope treated Copernicus's theories as interesting hypotheses that weren't dangerous because they were not proven. But Protestant leaders attacked Copernicus. Luther said, "This fool wishes to reverse the entire scheme of astronomy," and Calvin said, "Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?" This reaction discouraged Copernicus, and he gave up trying to get his ideas accepted. He went back to more study and more observations of the stars, struggling with the crude, inaccurate instruments available to him, trying to obtain more exact sightings that would help prove his theories.

It wasn't until he was old and ill that Copernicus finally decided to publish a complete account of his work. Then he and his book had a race with death. On May 24, 1543, the first copy of the complete exposition of his theories, The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, was placed in his hands. He opened it to the title page, smiled, and died.

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