Copernicus. Portrait from Torun, beginning of the 16th century.Nicolaus
Copernicus (February 19, 1473 – May 24, 1543) was an astronomer
who provided the first modern formulation of a heliocentric (sun-centered)
theory of the solar system in his epochal book, De revolutionibus orbium
coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). Copernicus
was born in 1473 in the city of Torun (Thorn), in Royal Prussia, an
autonomous province of the Kingdom of Poland. He was educated in Poland
and Italy, and spent most of his working life in Frombork (Frauenburg),
Warmia, where he died in 1543.
Copernicus was one
of the great polymaths of the Renaissance. He was a mathematician, astronomer,
jurist, physician, classical scholar, governor, administrator, diplomat,
economist, and soldier. Amid his extensive responsibilities, he treated
astronomy as an avocation. However, his formulation of how the sun rather
than the earth is at the center of the universe is considered one of
the most important scientific hypotheses in history. It came to mark
the starting point of modern astronomy and, in turn, of modern science,
encouraging young astronomers, scientists and scholars to take a more
skeptical attitude toward established dogma.
Torun — Copernicus'
childhood home. Copernicus was born in 1473. When he was ten years old,
his father, a wealthy businessman, copper trader, and respected citizen
of Torun, died. Little is known of Copernicus' mother, Barbara Watzenrode,
who appears to have predeceased her husband. Copernicus' maternal uncle,
Lucas Watzenrode, a church canon and later Prince-Bishop governor of
the Archbishopric of Warmia, reared him and his three siblings after
the death of his father. His uncle's position helped Copernicus in the
pursuit of a career within the church, enabling him to devote time to
his astronomy studies. Copernicus had a brother and two sisters:
In 1491, Copernicus
enrolled at the Cracow Academy (today the Jagiellonian University),
where he probably first encountered astronomy, taught by his teacher,
Albert Brudzewski. This science soon fascinated him, as shown by his
books, which would later be carried off as war booty by the Swedes,
during "The Deluge", to the Uppsala University Library. After
four years at Cracow, followed by a brief stay back home at Torun, he
went to Italy, where he studied law and medicine at the universities
of Bologna and Padua. His bishop-uncle financed his education and wished
for him to become a bishop as well. However, while studying canon and
civil law at Ferrara, Copernicus met the famous astronomer, Domenico
Maria Novara da Ferrara. Copernicus attended Novara's lectures and became
his disciple and assistant. The first observations that Copernicus made
in 1497, together with Novara, are recorded in Copernicus' epochal book,
De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.
Statue of a seated
Copernicus, by Bertel Thorvaldsen, in front of the Polish Academy of
Sciences, Warsaw.In 1497 Copernicus' uncle was ordained Bishop of Warmia,
and Copernicus was named a canon at Frombork Cathedral, but he waited
in Italy for the great Jubilee of 1500. Copernicus went to Rome, where
he observed a lunar eclipse and gave some lectures in astronomy or mathematics.
He would thus have
visited Frombork only in 1501. As soon as he arrived, he requested and
obtained permission to return to Italy to complete his studies at Padua
(with Guarico and Fracastoro) and at Ferrara (with Giovanni Bianchini),
where in 1503 he received his doctorate in canon law. It has been surmised
that it was in Padua that he encountered passages from Cicero and Plato
about opinions of the ancients on the movement of the Earth, and formed
the first intuition of his own future theory. It was in 1504 that Copernicus
began collecting observations and ideas pertinent to his theory.
Having left Italy
at the end of his studies, he came to live and work at Frombork. Some
time before his return to Warmia, he had received a position at the
Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross in Wroclaw, Silesia, which he would
resign a few years before his death. Through the rest of his life, he
performed astronomical observations and calculations, but only as time
permitted and never in a professional capacity.
for years with the Royal Prussian Diet on monetary reform and published
studies on the value of money; as governor of Warmia, he administered
taxes and dealt out justice. It was at this time (beginning in 1519,
the year of Thomas Gresham's birth) that Copernicus formulated one of
the earliest iterations of the theory that 'bad' (or debased) money
will drive 'good' legal-tender money out of circulation, now known as
"Gresham's Law." During these years, he also traveled extensively
on government business and as a diplomat, on behalf of the Prince-Bishop
In 1514 he made
his Commentariolus (Little Commentary) — a short handwritten text
describing his ideas about the heliocentric hypothesis — available
to friends. Thereafter he continued gathering data for a more detailed
work. During the war between the Teutonic Order and the Kingdom of Poland
(1519–1524), Copernicus at the head of royal troops successfully
defended Olsztyn, besieged by the forces of Albert of Brandenburg.
Copernicus: Conversation with God. Painting by Jan MatejkoIn 1533, Johann
Albrecht Widmannstetter delivered a series of lectures in Rome, outlining
Copernicus' theory. These lectures were heard with interest by several
Catholic cardinals and Pope Clement VII.
By 1536, Copernicus'
work was nearing its definitive form, and rumors about his theory had
reached educated people all over Europe. From many parts of the continent,
Copernicus was urged to publish.
In a letter dated
Rome, 1 November 1536, the Archbishop of Capua Nikolaus Cardinal von
Schönberg asked Copernicus to communicate his ideas more widely
and requested a copy for himself:
learned man, without wishing to be inopportune, I beg you most emphatically
to communicate your discovery to the learned world, and to send me as
soon as possible your theories about the Universe, together with tables
and whatever else you have pertaining to the subject."
It has been suggested
that this letter may have made Copernicus leery of publication[citation
needed], while others have suggested that it indicated that the Church
wanted to ensure that his ideas were published.
from many quarters, Copernicus delayed with the publication of his book
— perhaps from fear of criticism delicately expressed in the "Dedication
to Pope Paul III" associated with his great book. About this, historians
of science David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers wrote:
had any genuine fear of publication, it was the reaction of scientists,
not clerics, that worried him. Other churchmen before him — Nicole
Oresme (a French bishop) in the fourteenth century and Nicolaus Cusanus
(a German cardinal) in the fifteenth — had freely discussed the
possible motion of the earth, and there was no reason to suppose that
the reappearance of this idea in the sixteenth century would cause a
religious stir." .
Copernicus was still
working on De revolutionibus (even if not convinced that he wanted to
publish it) when in 1539 Georg Joachim Rheticus, a great mathematician
from Wittenberg, arrived in Frombork. Philipp Melanchthon had arranged
for Rheticus to visit several astronomers and study with them. Rheticus
became a pupil of Copernicus, staying with him for two years, during
which he 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). Under strong pressure from Rheticus, and having
seen the favorable first general reception of his work, Copernicus finally
agreed to give the book to his close friend, Tiedemann Giese, bishop
of Chelmno (Kulm), to be delivered to Rheticus for printing by Johannes
Petreius at Nuremberg (Nürnberg).
Legend has it that
the first printed copy of De revolutionibus was placed in Copernicus'
hands on the very day he died, allowing him to take farewell of his
opus vitae (life's work). He is reputed to have woken from a stroke-induced
coma, looked at his book, and died peacefully.
Copernicus was buried
in Frombork Cathedral. Archeologists had long searched vainly for his
remains when, on November 3, 2005, it was announced that in August that
year Copernicus' skull had been discovered (see "Grave" below).
Much has been written
about earlier heliocentric theories. Early traces of a heliocentric
model are found in several Vedic Sanskrit texts composed in ancient
India before the 7th century BC: the Vedas, Aitareya Brahmana and Shatapatha
Brahmana. The 1st century Sanskrit commentary Vishnu Purana elaborates
on these earlier heliocentric concepts. Philolaus (4th century BC) was
also one of the first to hypothesize movement of the Earth, probably
inspired by Pythagoras' theories about a spherical Globe.
Aristarchus of Samos
in the 3rd century BC had developed some theories of Heraclides Ponticus
(speaking of a revolution by Earth on its axis) to propose what was,
so far as is known, the first serious model of a heliocentric solar
system. His work about a heliocentric system has not survived, so one
may only speculate about what led him to his conclusions. It is notable
that, according to Plutarch, a contemporary of Aristarchus accused him
of impiety for "putting the Earth in motion."
Aryabhata in India
anticipated Copernicus' discoveries by over 1,000 years and formulated
a heliocentric model in which the Earth was taken to be spinning on
its axis and the periods of the Earth and the planets were given with
respect to a stationary Sun. He was also the first to discover that
the light from the Moon and the planets were reflected from the Sun,
and that the planets follow an elliptical orbit around the Sun. The
14th-century Arab astronomer ibn al-Shatir developed mathematical techniques
similar to those used by Copernicus, and it has been suggested that
Copernicus might have been influenced by them.
Aristarchus and Philolaus in an early manuscript of his book which survives,
stating: "Philolaus believed in the mobility of the earth, and
some even say that Aristarchus of Samos was of that opinion." For
reasons unknown (although possibly out of reluctance to quote pre-Christian
sources), he did not include this passage in the publication of his
book. Inspiration came to Copernicus not from observation of the planets,
but from reading two authors. In Cicero he found an account of the theory
of Hicetas. Plutarch provided an account of the Pythagoreans Heraclides
Ponticus, Philolaus, and Ecphantes. These authors had proposed a moving
earth, which did not, however, revolve around a central sun. Copernicus
did not attribute his inspiration to Aristarchus as is sometimes stated.
When Copernicus' book was published, it contained an unauthorized preface
by the Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander. This cleric stated that
Copernicus wrote his heliocentric account of the earth's movement as
a mere mathematical hypothesis, not as an account that contained truth
or even probability. Since Copernicus' hypothesis was believed to contradict
the Old Testament account of the sun's movement around the earth (Joshua
10:13), this was apparently written to soften any religious backlash
against the book. However, there is no evidence that Copernicus himself
considered the heliocentric model as merely mathematically convenient,
separate from reality.
It has been argued
that in developing the mathematics of heliocentrism Copernicus drew
on, not just the Greek, but the Islamic tradition of mathematics and
astronomy, especially the works of Nasir al-Din Tusi, Mu’ayyad
al-Din al-‘Urdi and ibn al-Shatir.
The Ptolemaic system
The prevailing theory in Europe as Copernicus was writing was that created
by Ptolemy in his Alimagest, dating from about 150 A.D.. The Ptolemaic
system drew on many previous theories that viewed Earth as a stationary
center of the universe. Stars were embedded in a large outer sphere
which rotated relatively rapidly, while the planets dwelt in smaller
spheres between — a separate one for each planet. To account for
apparent anomalies to this view, such as the retrograde motion observed
in many planets, a system of epicycles was used, by which a planet rotated
on a small axis while also rotating on a larger axis around the Earth.
theory to Ptolemy's employed homocentric spheres: the spheres within
which the planets rotated, could themselves rotate somewhat. This theory
predated Ptolemy (it was first devised by Eudoxus of Cnidus; by the
time of Copernicus it was associated with Averroes). Also popular with
astronomers were variations such as eccentrics — by which the
rotational axis was offset and not completely at the center.
contribution to this theory was the idea of an equant — a complicated
addition which specified that, when measuring the rotation of the Sun,
one sometimes used the central axis of the universe, but sometimes a
different axis. This had an overall effect of making certain orbits
"wobble," a fact that would greatly bother Copernicus (such
wobbling rendered implausible the idea of material "spheres"
in which the planets rotated). In the end, after all these complications,
the astronomers could still not get observation and theory to match
up exactly. In Copernicus' day, the most up-to-date version of the Ptolemaic
system was that of Peurbach (1423-1461) and Regiomontanus (1436-1476).
Copernicus' major theory was published in the book, De revolutionibus
orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) in the
year of his death, 1543, though he had arrived at his theory several
Statue of Copernicus
next to Cracow University's Collegium NovumThe book marks the beginning
of the shift away from a geocentric (and anthropocentric) universe with
the Earth at its center. Copernicus held that the Earth is another planet
revolving around the fixed sun once a year, and turning on its axis
once a day. He arrived at the correct order of the known planets and
explained the precession of the equinoxes correctly by a slow change
in the position of the Earth's rotational axis. He also gave a clear
account of the cause of the seasons: that the Earth's axis is not perpendicular
to the plane of its orbit. He added another motion to the Earth, by
which the axis is kept pointed throughout the year at the same place
in the heavens; since Galileo Galilei, it has been recognized that for
the Earth not to point to the same place would have been a motion.
replaced Ptolemy's equant circles with more epicycles. This is the main
source of the statement that Copernicus' system had even more epicycles
than Ptolemy's. With this change, Copernicus' system showed only uniform
circular motions, correcting what he saw as the chief inelegance in
Ptolemy's system. But while Copernicus put the Sun at the center of
the celestial spheres, he did not put it at the exact center of the
universe, but near it.
was not experimentally better than Ptolemy's model. Copernicus was aware
of this and could not present any observational "proof" in
his manuscript, relying instead on arguments about what would be a more
complete and elegant system. From publication until about 1700, few
astronomers were convinced by the Copernican system, though the book
was relatively widely circulated (around 500 copies are known to still
exist, which is a large number by the scientific standards of the time).
Many astronomers, however, accepted some aspects of the theory at the
expense of others, and his model did have a large influence on later
scientists such as Galileo and Johannes Kepler, who adopted, championed
and (especially in Kepler's case) sought to improve it. Galileo's observation
of the phases of Venus produced the first observational evidence for
The Copernican system
can be summarized in seven propositions, as Copernicus himself collected
them in a Compendium of De revolutionibus that was found and published
The seven parts
of Copernicus' theory are:
There is no one
center in the universe
The Earth's center is not the center of the universe
The center of the universe is near the sun
The distance from the Earth to the sun is imperceptible compared with
the distance to the stars
The rotation of the Earth accounts for the apparent daily rotation of
The apparent annual cycle of movements of the sun is caused by the Earth
revolving around the sun
The apparent retrograde motion of the planets is caused by the motion
of the Earth, from which one observes
Whether these propositions
were "revolutionary" or "conservative" was a topic
of debate in the late twentieth century. Thomas Kuhn argued that Copernicus
only transferred "some properties to the sun many astronomical
functions previously attributed to the earth." Other historians
have since argued that Kuhn underestimated what was "revolutionary"
about Copernicus' work, and emphasized the difficulty Copernicus would
have had in putting forward a new astronomical theory relying alone
on simplicity in geometry, given that he had no experimental evidence.
puts Copernicus in a different light to what many authors seem to suggest,
portraying him as a coward who was reluctant to publish works due to
a crippling fear of persecution.
Torinensis De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Libri VI (title page
of 2nd edition, Basel, 1566).Main article: De revolutionibus orbium
work, (Six books) On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (first
edition 1543 in Nuremberg, second ed. 1566 in Basel), was the result
of decades of labor. It opened with an originally anonymous preface
by Andreas Osiander, a theologian friend of Copernicus, who urged that
the theory, which was considered a tool that allows simpler and more
accurate calculations, did not necessarily have implications outside
the limited realm of astronomy.
book began with a letter from his (by then deceased) friend Nikolaus
Cardinal von Schönberg, the Archbishop of Capua, urging Copernicus
to publish his theory. Then, in a lengthy introduction, Copernicus dedicated
the book to Pope Paul III, explaining his ostensible motive in writing
the book as relating to the inability of earlier astronomers to agree
on an adequate theory of the planets, and noting that if his system
increased the accuracy of astronomical predictions it would allow the
Church to develop a more accurate calendar. At that time, a reform of
the Julian Calendar was considered necessary and was one of the major
reasons for Church funding of astronomy.
The work itself
was then divided into six books:
General vision of
the heliocentric theory, and a summarized exposition of his idea of
Mainly theoretical, presents the principles of spherical astronomy and
a list of stars (as a basis for the arguments developed in the subsequent
Mainly dedicated to the apparent motions of the Sun and to related phenomena
Description of the Moon and its orbital motions
Concrete exposition of the new system
Concrete exposition of the new system (continued)
Nicolaus Copernicus.Copernicus' theory is of extraordinary importance
in the history of human knowledge. Many authors suggest that only a
few other persons have exerted a comparable influence on human culture
in general and on science in particular.
Many meanings have
been ascribed to Copernicus' theory, apart from its strictly scientific
import. His work affected religion as well as science, dogma as well
as freedom of scientific inquiry. Copernicus' rank as a scientist is
often compared with that of Galileo.
contradicted then-accepted religious dogma: it could be inferred that
there was no need of an entity (God) that granted a soul, power and
life to the World and to human beings — science could explain
everything that was attributed to Him.
also opened a way to immanence, the view that a divine force, or a divine
being, pervades all things that exist — a view that has since
been developed further in modern philosophy. Immanentism also leads
to subjectivism: to the theory that it is perception that creates reality,
that there is no underlying reality that exists independent of perception.
Thus some argue that Copernicanism demolished the foundations of medieval
science and metaphysics.
A corollary of Copernicanism
is that scientific law need not be congruent with appearance. This contrasts
with Aristotle's system, which placed much more importance on the derivation
of knowledge through the senses.
marked a scientific revolution. The publication of his De revolutionibus
orbium coelestium is often taken to be the beginning of the Scientific
Revolution, together with the publication of the De Humani Corporis
Fabrica by Andreas Vesalius .
Capt. Dariusz Zajdel of the Central Forensic Laboratory of the Polish
Police used the skull to reconstruct a face that closely resembled the
features — including a broken nose and a scar above the left eye
— on a Copernicus self-portrait . The expert also determined
that the skull had belonged to a man who had died about age 70 —
Copernicus' age at the time of his death.
The grave was in
poor condition, and not all the remains were found. The archeologists
hoped to find deceased relatives of Copernicus in order to attempt DNA
to the question of Copernicus' nationality
It remains to this day a matter of dispute whether Copernicus should
be called German or Polish.
likewise named Nicolaus, might have had the surname Koppernigk, which
could have been derived from a village in Silesia near Nysa (Neiße)
which was called Köppernig until 1945, and is called Koperniki
since. A Polish theory says that the original ending –nik in Copernicus'
name indicates its Polish form, meaning a person who works with copper.
The Polish word for copper is Miedz, though, while the German is Kupfer.
In the title of
his famous book, his name is written as "Nicolai Copernici Torinensis
De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Libri VI", roughly meaning
"Nicolaus' Copernicus' of Torin six books on ...". In the
German: Nikolaus Kopernikus, each C was substituted with K to clarify
pronunciation (not Z as in the German pronunciation of Cicero or Caesar).
In Poland, Polish: Mikolaj Kopernik is used (or claimed to be his original
The father of Copernicus,
probably a Germanized Slav , had been a citizen of Cracow, but left
the (then) capital of Poland in 1460 to move to Thorn/Torun/ (German/Polish).
That Hanseatic city was also part of the Prussian Confederation, which,
some decades before Copernicus' birth, had tried to gain independence
from the Teutonic Knights who had ruled the area for two hundred years,
but imposed high taxes that were hindering economic development. This
led to the Thirteen Years' War and the Second Treaty of Thorn of 1466:
Thorn/Torun and Prussia's western part, called "Royal Prussia",
became connected to the Kingdom of Poland, which had supported the uprising,
while the eastern part remained under the administration of the Teutonic
Order, later to become "Ducal Prussia". Thus the child of
a German family was a subject of the Polish crown. Copernicus was born
and has grown up in Thorn/Torun, and was certainly fluent in the German
language, while no direct evidence survives of the extent to which he
knew Polish. His main language for written communication was Latin.
After his prolonged
studies in Italy, Copernicus spent most of his working life as a cleric
in Royal Prussia, which enjoyed substantial autonomy as part of the
lands of the Polish Crown — it had its own Diet, monetary unit
and treasury (which Copernicus famously helped to place on a sound footing)
and army. Copernicus also oversaw the defense of Olsztyn/Allenstein
at the head of Polish royal forces when the local castle was besieged
by the forces of Albrecht I Hohenzollern von Brandenburg-Ansbach, the
future (protestant) Duke of Prussia. He became for the rest of his life
a burgher of Prussian Ermland (Bishopric of Warmia), and was a loyal
subject of the Catholic Prince-Bishops and the Catholic king during
the Protestant Reformation in which many parts of Germany, starting
with Ducal Prussia, became Protestant.
In 1757 Copernicus's
book was removed from the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the list of books
which were banned by the Catholic church. Ever since, Poles claimed
that Copernicus was a Pole and Germans that he was a German. Before
that, when Copernicus and his ideas were rejected, it was contrariwise
. A bust of Copernicus is enshrined since 1842 in the Walhalla, German
Hall of Fame. In Nazi Germany attempts were made to claim that Copernicus
was exclusively a German; however, after 1945 those attempts have
greatly diminished. Despite the acknowledgement of his connections to
Poland he is certainly not considered in Germany as Un-German or Non-German
either. In 2003 he was declared eligible for the Unsere Besten ranking
of outstanding Germans.
of 1982, with Copernicus identified, in Polish, as "MIKOLAJ KOPERNIK."In
Poland, on the other hand, his 500th birthday was celebrated in 1973,
emphasizing his Polishness. A banknote with an image of Copernicus was
issued, and the Polish Senate called him on 12 June 2003 an "exceptional
Today he is often
classified as Polish, in part based on the location of his birthplace
in then and present-day Poland, though not only limited to that. It
must be remembered though that during Copernicus' lifetime, nationality
was yet to play as important a role as it would later, and people generally
did not think of themselves primarily as Poles or Germans.
is the Latin version of the famous astronomer's name which he chose
later in his life. The original form of his name was Mikolaj Kopernik
or Nicolaus Koppernigk but we shall use Copernicus throughout this article.
His father, also called Nicolaus Koppernigk, had lived in Krakow before
moving to Torun where he set up a business trading in copper. He was
also interested in local politics and became a civic leader in Torun
and a magistrate. Nicolaus Koppernigk married Barbara Watzenrode, who
came from a well off family from Torun, in about 1463. They moved into
a house in St Anne's Street in Torun, but they also had a summer residence
with vineyards out of town. Nicolaus and Barbara Koppernigk had four
children, two sons and two daughters, of whom Nicolaus Copernicus was
You can see a picture
of the house in which Copernicus was born.
When young Nicolaus
was ten years old his father died. His uncle Lucas Watzenrode, who was
a canon at Frauenburg Cathedral, became guardian to Nicolaus and Barbara
Koppernigk's four children.
You can see a picture
of Lucas Watzenrode.
Nicolaus and his
brother Andreas remained in Torun, continuing their elementary education
there. In 1488 Nicolaus was sent by his uncle to the cathedral school
of Wloclawek where he received a good standard humanist education. After
three years of study at Wloclawek he entered the University of Krakow
(situated in what was then the capital of Poland). By this time Lucas
Watzenrode was Bishop of Ermland and he envisaged a church career for
both of his nephews. Andreas, Nicolaus's brother, entered the University
of Krakow at the same time, and both their names appear on the matriculation
records of 1491-92.
at Krakow was, Copernicus later wrote, a vital factor in everything
that he went on to achieve. There he studied Latin, mathematics, astronomy,
geography and philosophy. He learnt his astronomy from Tractatus de
Sphaera by Johannes de Sacrobosco written in 1220. One should not think,
however, that the astronomy courses which Copernicus studied were scientific
courses in the modern sense. Rather they were mathematics courses which
introduced Aristotle and Ptolemy's view of the universe so that students
could understand the calendar, calculate the dates of holy days, and
also have skills that would enable those who would follow a more practical
profession to navigate at sea. Also taught as a major part of astronomy
was what today we would call astrology, teaching students to calculate
horoscopes of people from the exact time of their birth.
While a student
in Kraków, Copernicus purchased a copy of the Latin translation
of Euclid's Elements published in Venice in 1482, a copy of the second
edition of the Alfonsine Tables (which gives planetary theory and eclipses)
printed in Venice in 1492, and Regiomontanus's Tables of Directions
(a work on spherical astronomy) published in Augsburg in 1490. Remarkably
Copernicus's copies of these works, signed by him, are still preserved.
It was while he
was a student at Krakow that Copernicus began to use this Latin version
of his name rather than Kopernik or Koppernigk. He returned to Torun
after four years of study at Krakow but, as was common at the time,
did not formally graduate with a degree. His uncle Lucas Watzenrode
was still determined that Copernicus should have a career in the Church
and indeed this was a profession which would allow security for someone
wanting to pursue leaning. So that he might have the necessary qualifications
Copernicus decided to go to the University of Bologna to take a degree
in canon law. In the autumn of 1496 he travelled to Italy, entering
the University of Bologna on 19 October 1496, to start three years of
study. As a native German speaker he joined the "German Nation
of Bologna University". Each student contributed to the "German
Nation" an amount they could afford and the small contribution
that Copernicus made indicates his poor financial position at that time.
While he was there
his uncle put his name forward for the position of canon at Frauenburg
Cathedral. On 20 October 1497, while in Bologna, Copernicus received
official notification of his appointment as a canon and of the comfortable
income he would receive without having to return to carry out any duties.
At Bologna University Copernicus studied Greek, mathematics and astronomy
in addition to his official course of canon law. He rented rooms at
the house of the astronomy professor Domenico Maria de Novara and began
to undertake research with him, assisting him in making observations.
On 9 March 1497 he observed the Moon eclipse the star Aldebaran.
In 1500 Copernicus
visited Rome, as all Christians were strongly encouraged to do to celebrate
the great jubilee, and he stayed there for a year lecturing to scholars
on mathematics and astronomy. While in Rome he observed an eclipse of
the Moon which took place on 6 November 1500. He returned to Frauenburg
(also known as Frombork) in the spring of 1501 and was officially installed
as a canon of the Ermland Chapter on 27 July. He had not completed his
degree in canon law at Bologna so he requested his uncle that he be
allowed to return to Italy both to take a law degree and to study medicine.
Copernicus was granted leave on 27 July 1501 :-
because Nicolaus promised to study medicine, and as a helpful physician
would some day advise our most reverend bishop and also the members
of the Chapter.
As this quotation
indicates, the Cathedral Chapter liked his proposal to study medicine
and provided the necessary funds. He set off again for Italy, his time
going to Padua. Copernicus had another reason to return to Italy, which
he almost certainly did not disclose, and that was to continue his studies
Padua was famous
for its medical school and while he was there Copernicus studied both
medicine and astronomy. At that time astronomy was essentially astrology
and, as such, considered relevant to medicine since physicians made
use of astrology. In the spring of 1503 he decided formally to obtain
his doctorate in Canon Law, but he did not return to Bologna but rather
took the degree at the University of Ferrara. After receiving his doctorate,
Copernicus stayed in Ferrara for a few months before returning to Padua
to continue his studies of medicine. There is no record that he ever
graduated from Padua.
When he returned
to his native land, Copernicus was again granted leave from his official
duties as a canon in the Ermland Chapter at Frauenburg. This was allow
him to be physician to his maternal uncle Lucas Watzenrode, the Bishop
of Ermland, but he carried out far more duties for his uncle than medical
ones becoming essentially his private secretary and personal advisor.
For about five years he undertook these duties and during this period
he lived at Heilsberg Castle, a few miles from Frauenburg, the official
residence of the Bishop of Ermland.
In 1509 Copernicus
published a work, which was properly printed, giving Latin translations
of Greek poetry by the obscure poet Theophylactus Simocattes. While
accompanying his uncle on a visit to Krakow, he gave a manuscript of
the poetry book to a publisher friend there. Lucas Watzenrode died in
1512 and following this Copernicus resumed his duties as canon in the
Ermland Chapter at Frauenburg. He now had more time than before to devote
to his study of astronomy, having an observatory in the rooms in which
he lived in one of the towers in the town's fortifications.
You can see a picture
of Copernicus's observatory in Frauenburg.
Around 1514 he distributed
a little book, not printed but hand written, to a few of his friends
who knew that he was the author even though no author is named on the
title page. This book, usually called the Little Commentary, set out
Copernicus's theory of a universe with the sun at its centre. The Little
Commentary is a fascinating document. It contains seven axioms which
Copernicus gives, not in the sense that they are self evident, but in
the sense that he will base his conclusions on these axioms and nothing
else; see . What are the axioms? Let us state them:
There is no one
centre in the universe.
The Earth's centre
is not the centre of the universe.
The centre of the
universe is near the sun.
The distance from
the Earth to the sun is imperceptible compared with the distance to
The rotation of
the Earth accounts for the apparent daily rotation of the stars.
The apparent annual
cycle of movements of the sun is caused by the Earth revolving round
The apparent retrograde
motion of the planets is caused by the motion of the Earth from which
Some have noted
that 2, 4, 5, and 7 can be deduced from 3 and 6 but it was never Copernicus's
aim to give a minimal set of axioms. The most remarkable of the axioms
is 7, for although earlier scholars had claimed that the Earth moved,
some claiming that it revolved round the sun, nobody before Copernicus
appears to have correctly explained the retrograde motion of the outer
planets. Even when he wrote his Little Commentary Copernicus was planning
to write a major work, for he wrote in it (see ):-
Here, for the sake
of brevity, I have thought it desirable to omit the mathematical demonstrations
intended for my larger work.
It is likely that
he wrote the Little Commentary in 1514 and began writing his major work
De revolutionibus in the following year.
nature it is clear that he would have liked to have lived a quiet life
at Frauenburg, carrying out his (relatively few) duties conscientiously
and devoting all his spare time to observing, developing his theories
of the universe, and writing De revolutionibus. It is equally clear
that his fame as an astronomer was well known for when the Fifth Lateran
Council decided to improve the calendar, which was known to be out of
phase with the seasons, the Pope appealed to experts for advice in 1514,
one of these experts was Copernicus. Many experts went to Rome to advise
the Council, but Copernicus chose to respond by letter. He did not wish
to contribute more to the discussions on the calendar since he felt
that the motions of the heavenly bodies was still not understood with
The peace which
Copernicus wished, however, was not easy to find in a period of frequent
wars. The fortifications of Frauenburg that formed Copernicus's home
had been built to protect the town which had been captured by various
opposing groups over the years. In 1516 Copernicus was given the task
of administering the districts of Allenstein (also known as Olsztyn)
and Mehlsack. He lived for four years in Allenstein Castle while carrying
out these administrative duties.
You can see a picture
of Allenstein Castle where Copernicus lived.
Always keen to make
observations, Copernicus returned to his home/observatory in Frauenburg
whenever there was a reason to attend a meeting or consult with the
other canons, always taking the opportunity to further his researches.
However when war broke out between Poland and the Teutonic Knights towards
the end of 1519 Copernicus was back in Frauenburg. After a period of
war, Copernicus was sent to participate in peace talks in Braunsberg
as one of a two man delegation representing the Bishop of Ermland. The
peace talks failed and the war continued. Frauenburg came under siege
but Copernicus continued making his observations even at this desperate
time. By the autumn of 1520 Copernicus was back living in Allenstein
Castle and had to organise its defence against attacking forces. The
castle resisted the attack and by 1521 an uneasy peace had returned.
As a reward for
his defence of Allenstein, Copernicus was appointed Commissar of Ermland
and given the task of rebuilding the district after the war. His close
friend, Tiedemann Giese, another canon in the Chapter, was given the
task of assisting him.
You can see a picture
of Tiedemann Giese.
As part of the recovery
plan, Copernicus put forward a scheme for the reform of the currency
which he presented to the Diet of Graudenz in 1522. However, despite
attending the Diet and arguing strongly for his sensible proposals,
they were not acted on.
to Frauenburg where his life became less eventful and he had the peace
and quiet that he longed for to allow him to make observations and to
work on details of his heliocentric theory. Having said that he now
had the peace he wanted, one should also realise that he was undertaking
his mathematical and astronomical work in isolation with no colleagues
with whom to discuss matters. Although Copernicus was a canon, he had
never become a priest. In fact on 4 February 1531 his bishop threatened
to take away his income if he did not enter the priesthood, yet Copernicus
A full account of
Copernicus's theory was apparently slow to reach a state in which he
wished to see it published, and this did not happen until the very end
of Copernicus's life when he published his life's work under the title
De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Nuremberg, 1543). In fact had it
not been for Georg Joachim Rheticus, a young professor of mathematics
and astronomy at the University of Wittenberg, Copernicus's masterpiece
might never have been published. In May 1539 Rheticus arrived at Frauenburg
where he spent about two years with Copernicus. Rheticus wrote of his
I heard of the fame
of Master Nicolaus Copernicus in the northern lands, and although the
University of Wittenberg had made me a Public Professor in those arts,
nonetheless, I did not think that I should be content until I had learned
something more through the instruction of that man. And I also say that
I regret neither the financial expenses nor the long journey nor the
remaining hardships. Yet, it seems to me that there came a great reward
for these troubles, namely that I, a rather daring young man, compelled
this venerable man to share his ideas sooner in this discipline with
the whole world.
We should note that
Rheticus was a Protestant, so in those troubled times of the Reformation
he took somewhat of a risk visiting a Catholic stronghold. In September
1539 Rheticus went to Danzig, visiting the mayor of Danzig, who gave
him some financial assistance to help publish the Narratio Prima or,
to give it its full title First report to Johann Schöner on the
Books of the Revolutions of the learned gentleman and distinguished
mathematician, the Reverend Doctor Nicolaus Copernicus of Torun, Canon
of Warmia, by a certain youth devoted to mathematics. The publication
of this work encouraged Copernicus to publish the full mathematical
details of his theory which he had promised 27 years earlier. Swerdlow
not have asked for a more erudite, elegant, and enthusiastic introduction
of his new astronomy to the world of good letters; indeed to this day
the "Narratio Prima" remains the best introduction to Copernicus's
In his First Report
Rheticus wrote about Copernicus's way of working (see ):-
... my teacher always
had before his eyes the observations of all ages together with his own,
assembled in order as in catalogues; then when some conclusion must
be drawn or contribution made to the science and its principles, he
proceeds from the earliest observations to his own, seeking the mutual
relationship which harmonizes them all; the results thus obtained by
correct inference under the guidance of Urania he then compares with
the hypothesis of Ptolemy and the ancients; and having made a most careful
examination of these hypotheses, he finds that astronomical proof requires
their rejection; he assumes new hypotheses, not indeed without divine
inspiration and the favour of the gods; by applying mathematics, he
geometrically establishes the conclusions which can be drawn from them
by correct inference; he then harmonizes the ancient observations and
his own with the hypotheses which he has adopted; and after performing
all these operations he finally writes down the laws of astronomy ...
While living with
Copernicus, Rheticus wrote to several people reporting on the progress
Copernicus was making. For example on 2 June 1541 Rheticus wrote that
... is enjoying
quite good health and is writing a great deal ...
while he wrote that
on 9 June Copernicus :-
... had finally
overcome his prolonged reluctance to release his volume for publication.
By 29 August De
revolutionibus orbium coelestium was ready for the printer. Rheticus
took the manuscript with him when he returned to his teaching duties
at Wittenberg, and gave it the printer Johann Petreius in Nürnberg.
This was a leading centre for printing and Petreius was the best printer
in town. However, since he was unable to stay to supervise the printing
he asked Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran theologian with considerable experience
of printing mathematical texts, to undertake the task. What Osiander
did was to write a letter to the reader, inserted in place of Copernicus's
original Preface following the title page, in which he claimed that
the results of the book were not intended as the truth, rather that
they merely presented a simpler way to calculate the positions of the
heavenly bodies. The letter was unsigned and the true author of the
letter was not revealed publicly until Kepler did so 50 years later.
Osiander also subtly changed the title to make it appear less like a
claim of the real world. Some are appalled at this gigantic piece of
deception by Osiander, as Rheticus was at the time, others feel that
it was only because of Osiander's Preface that Copernicus's work was
read and not immediately condemned.
In De revolutionibus
Copernicus states several reasons why it is logical that the sun would
be at the centre of the universe:-
At the middle of
all things lies the sun. As the location of this luminary in the cosmos,
that most beautiful temple, would there be any other place or any better
place than the centre, from which it can light up everything at the
same time? Hence the sun is not inappropriately called by some the lamp
of the universe, by others its mind, and by others its ruler.
placed a motionless sun not at the centre of the universe, but close
to the centre, and also involved giving several distinct motions to
the Earth. The problem that Copernicus faced was that he assumed all
motion was circular so, like Ptolemy, was forced into using epicycles
(see for example ). It was consequently considered implausible by
the most of his contemporaries, and by most astronomers and natural
philosophers until the middle of the seventeenth century. In the intended
Preface of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium Copernicus showed that
he was fully aware of the criticisms that his work would attract:-
Perhaps there will
be babblers who, although completely ignorant of mathematics, nevertheless
take it upon themselves to pass judgement on mathematical questions
and, badly distorting some passages of Scripture to their purpose, will
dare find fault with my undertaking and censure it. I disregard them
even to the extent as despising their criticism as unfounded.
Its notable defenders
included Kepler and Galileo while theoretical evidence for the Copernican
theory was provided by Newton's theory of universal gravitation around
150 years later.
Copernicus is said
to have received a copy of the printed book, consisting of about 200
pages written in Latin, for the first time on his deathbed. He died
of a cerebral haemorrhage.
Brahe, who did not
accept Copernicus's claim that the Earth moved round the sun, nevertheless
made by himself [Copernicus] discovered certain gaps in Ptolemy, and
he concluded that the hypotheses established by Ptolemy admit something
unsuitable in violation of the axioms of mathematics. Moreover, he found
the Alfonsine computations in disagreement with the motions of the heavens.
Therefore, with wonderful intellectual acumen he established different
hypotheses. He restored the science of the heavenly motions in such
a way that nobody before him had a more accurate knowledge of the movements
of the heavenly bodies.