Nicolaus Copernicus / koo-PURR-na-cus /
Polish Astronomer and Mathematician
Mathematics Ranking 13th of 46
Overall Ranking 36th out of 500
Copernicus with his sun-centered universe. German stamp commemorating the 500th anniversary of his birth.
Nicolaus Copernicus was the canon of the cathedral at Frauenberg. Copernicus first published his astronomical theories in outline in 1530, and more fully in De Revolutionibus Orbiu Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, 1543, 338 pages). In order to avoid the complex system of epicycles required to explain planetary motions in Ptolemaic theory, he proposed a simpler model in which the planets orbited in perfect circles around the sun. Copernicus’s work ultimately led to the overthrow of the established geocentric cosmology.(1) His heliocentric (sun-centered) theory had far-reaching implications for the rise of modern science. Henceforth, the Earth was no longer the center of the cosmos; rather, as one celestial body among many, it became subject to mathematical description.(2)
Copernicus’s father was a merchant of social standing, and his maternal uncle was the bishop of Ermeland. At 18, he attended the University of Krakow for three (or five) years. At 24, his uncle sent him to the University of Bologna, where he studied the Greek language, mathematics, and the writings of Plato. He also became further acquainted with the astronomical thought of the day. From 1501 to 1503, Copernicus studied law and medicine at the University of Padua. On returning to Poland in 1503, he settled permanently at Frauenburg, where he acted as representative of the cathedral chapter, his medical skill being used particularly in aid of the indigent.
As a result of his studies in Krakow and Padua, Copernicus basically mastered all the knowledge of the day in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and theology. Copernicus appears to have planned a systematic program of astronomical work. Although he did not make extensive observations, he did enough to recalculate the major components of the supposed orbits of the sun, moon, and planets around the Earth. Copernicus’s fame as an industrious student of astronomy rapidly increased, and in 1514 he was invited to give his opinion on calendar reform, which was being considered by the church authorities. However, he refused to give any firm views because he believed the positions of the sun and moon were not known with sufficient accuracy to permit a proper reassessment.
Copernicus hesitated to publish his great work, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. In 1540, Rhaticus, who studied with Copernicus for two years, went to Nurenberg, Germany, to publish Copernicus’s manuscript, but because of opposition from Martin Luther and other reformers, he went to Leipzig, where he passed on the task of publication to Andreas Osiander. Apparently fearing criticism of a treatise that proposed an annual motion of the Earth around a stationary sun, Osiander, on his own, inserted a preface emphasizing that the hypothesis of a stationary sun was only a convenient means for simplifying planetary computations.
His treatise, however, was revolutionary, a complete mathematical reinterpretation of Ptolemy. He could no longer accept the old arrangement—Earth, moon, Mercury, Venus, sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—since this had been a consequence of a geocentric system. He found it necessary to adapt it to his heliocentric system and adopted the following order from the stationary sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth with the moon orbiting around it, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. A copy of the great work supposedly came to Copernicus at Frauenburg on the last day of his life, May 24, 1543.
The other three planets in the solar system are Uranus, the first planet discovered by telescope, by William Herschel in 1781; Neptune, discovered in 1846 by Johann Galle at the Berlin Observatory; and finally the ninth planet from the sun, Pluto, discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh. In August 2006, the International Astronomical Union decided that Pluto is not a planet.
Scientifically, the Copernican theory demanded two important changes in outlook. The first had to do with the apparent size of the universe. The stars always appeared in precisely the same fixed positions; but if the Earth were in orbit around the sun, they should display a small periodic change. Copernicus explained that the stars were too distant for the change to be detected. His theory thus led to the belief in a much larger universe than previously conceived. In England, where the theory was openly accepted with enthusiasm, it led to the idea of an infinite universe with the stars scattered throughout space. The second change concerned the reason why bodies fall to the ground. Aristotle had taught that they fell to their “natural place,” which was the center of the universe. But because, according to the heliocentric theory, the earth no longer coincided with the center of the universe, a new explanation was needed. This reexamination of the laws governing falling bodies led eventually to Isaac Newton’s concept of universal gravitation. The successful challenge to the entire system of ancient authority required a complete change in man’s philosophical conception of the universe. This is what is rightly termed “the Copernican Revolution.”(3)
(1) Judy Pearsall and Bill Trumble (editors), The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary (New York, 1996), p. 316.
(2) Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia, Volume 16, 1993, 15th Edition, p. 760.
(3) Ibid., p. 761.