Nicolaus Copernicus

Copyright Michael D. Robbins 2005

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Nicolaus Copernicus—Astronomer

February 19, 1473, Torun, Poland, 4:48 PM, LMT. (Source: LMR cites Constellations 1977 which quotes J. Scperkowicz, “Nicolaus Copernicus,” “data from astrologers present at his birth” (February 19 OS, 5:00 PM LAT). Copernicus and His World, by Hugo Steiner) Died, of apoplexy on May 24, 1543, Frauenburg, East Prussia.

(Ascendant, Virgo with Pluto in Virgo; Sun and Mercury in Pisces; Moon conjunct Jupiter in Sagittarius; Venus in Aries; Mars in Aquarius; Saturn in Gemini; Uranus and Neptune in Scorpio)

Founder of modern astronomy; established the theory that the earth rotates daily on its axis and that planets revolve in orbits around the sun. Author of Concerning the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (1473-1543)

A number of astronomers and physicists involved in the dissolution of conventional boundaries seem equipped with the oceanic sign Pisces in their charts.


At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the sun.

Accordingly, since nothing prevents the earth from moving, I suggest that we should now consider also whether several motions suit it, so that it can be regarded as one of the planets. For, it is not the center of all the revolutions.

Finally we shall place the Sun himself at the center of the Universe. All this is suggested by the systematic procession of events and the harmony of the whole Universe, if only we face the facts, as they say, 'with both eyes open'.

First of all, we must note that the universe is spherical.

For I am not so enamoured of my own opinions that I disregard what others may think of them.

Although all the good arts serve to draw man's mind away from vices and lead it toward better things, this function can be more fully performed by this art, which also provides extraordinary intellectual pleasure.

For it is not unknown that Lactantius, otherwise a famous writer but a poor mathematician, speaks most childishly of the shape of the Earth when he makes fun of those who said that the Earth has the form of a sphere.

Hence I feel no shame in asserting that this whole region engirdled by the moon, and the center of the earth, traverse this grand circle amid the rest of the planets in an annual revolution around the sun.

I am aware that a philosopher's ideas are not subject to the judgment of ordinary persons, because it is his endeavour to seek the truth in all things, to the extent permitted to human reason by God.
(Venus in Aries trine Sun & Jupiter in Sagittarius)

I CAN easily conceive, most Holy Father, that as soon as some people learn that in this book which I have written concerning the revolutions of the heavenly bodies, I ascribe certain motions to the Earth, they will cry out at once that I and my theory should be rejected.

Mathematics is written for mathematicians.

Near the sun is the center of the universe.

Therefore, when I considered this carefully, the contempt which I had to fear because of the novelty and apparent absurdity of my view, nearly induced me to abandon utterly the work I had begun.

Those things which I am saying now may be obscure, yet they will be made clearer in their proper place.

Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conception that the earth remains at rest in the middle of the heavens as its center, would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the earth moves.

To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.

After I had addressed myself to this very difficult and almost insoluble problem, the suggestion at length came to me how it could be solved . . . if some assumptions (which are called axioms) were granted me.

Let us put these new hypotheses [in] public appearance among the old ones which are themselves no more probable, especially since they are wonderful and easy and bring with them a vast storehouse of learned observations.

Let no one expect anything of certainty from astronomy, lest if anyone take as true that which has been constructed for another use, he go away . . . a bigger fool than when he came to it.

If there be some who, though ignorant of all mathematics . . . dare to reprove this work, because of some passage of Scripture, which they have miserably warped to their purpose, I regard them not, and even despise their rash judgement.


Nicolaus 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.

Copernicus worked 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 of Warmia.

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.

The astronomer 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:

"Therefore, 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[citation needed].

Despite urgings 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:

"If Copernicus 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." [3].

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.

Copernicus cited 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.

A complementary 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.

Ptolemy's unique 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).

Copernican theory
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 decades earlier.

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.

Copernicus also 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.

Copernicus' system 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 Copernicus' theory.

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 in 1878.

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 stars
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.

Arthur Koestler 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.

Nicolai Copernici Torinensis De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Libri VI (title page of 2nd edition, Basel, 1566).Main article: De revolutionibus orbium coelestium

Copernicus' major 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.

Copernicus' actual 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 the World
Mainly theoretical, presents the principles of spherical astronomy and a list of stars (as a basis for the arguments developed in the subsequent books)
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)

Copernicus and Copernicanism

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.[citation needed]

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.

Copernicus' work 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.

Copernicanism, however, 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.

Copernicus' concept 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 [4].

Forensic expert 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 [6]. 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 identification.

Historical background to the question of Copernicus' nationality
It remains to this day a matter of dispute whether Copernicus should be called German or Polish.[1]

Copernicus' father, 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[7]. 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 name).

The father of Copernicus, probably a Germanized Slav [8], 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 [9]. 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;[2] 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.

Polish banknote 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 Pole".

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.[3]


Nicolaus Copernicus 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 the youngest.

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.

University education 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 [13]:-

... principally 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 of astronomy.

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 [79]. 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 stars.

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 it.

The apparent retrograde motion of the planets is caused by the motion of the Earth from which one observes.

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 [77]):-

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.

Given Copernicus's 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 sufficient precision.

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.

Copernicus returned 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 still refused.

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 visit:-

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 writes:-

Copernicus could 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 work.

In his First Report Rheticus wrote about Copernicus's way of working (see [80]):-

... 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 Copernicus [80]:-

... is enjoying quite good health and is writing a great deal ...

while he wrote that on 9 June Copernicus [80]:-

... 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.

Copernicus's cosmology 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 [78]). 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 wrote:-

Through observations 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.


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