Mathematician, Astronomer, Religious Figure, Scientist, Scholar (1473–1543)
Astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was instrumental in establishing the concept of a heliocentric solar system, in which the sun, rather than the earth, is the center of the solar system.
Who Was Copernicus?
Nicolaus Copernicus was born on February 19, 1473 in Torun, Poland. Circa 1508, Copernicus developed his own celestial model of a heliocentric planetary system. Around 1514, he shared his findings inthe Commentariolus. His second book on the topic, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, was banned by the Roman Catholic Church decades after his May 24, 1543 death in Frombork.
In May of 1543, mathematician and scholar Georg Joachim Rheticus presented Copernicus with a copy of a newly published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Suffering the aftermath of a recent stroke, Copernicus was said to have been clutching the book when he died in his bed on May 24, 1543 in Frombork, Poland.
Copernicus' Theory: Heliocentric Solar System
Throughout the time he spent in Lidzbark-Warminski, Copernicus continued to study astronomy. Among the sources that he consulted was Regiomontanus's 15th-century work Epitome of the Almagest, which presented an alternative to Ptolemy's model of the universe and significantly influenced Copernicus' research.
Scholars believe that by around 1508, Copernicus had begun developing his own celestial model, a heliocentric planetary system. During the second century A.D., Ptolemy had invented a geometric planetary model with eccentric circular motions and epicycles, significantly deviating from Aristotle's idea that celestial bodies moved in a fixed circular motion around the earth. In an attempt to reconcile such inconsistencies, Copernicus' heliocentric solar system named the sun, rather than the earth, as the center of the solar system. Subsequently, Copernicus believed that the size and speed of each planet's orbit depended on its distance from the sun.
Though his theory was viewed as revolutionary and met with controversy, Copernicus was not the first astronomer to propose a heliocentric system. Centuries prior, in the third century B.C., ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos had identified the sun as a central unit orbited by a revolving earth. But a heliocentric theory was dismissed in Copernicus' era because Ptolemy's ideas were far more accepted by the influential Roman Catholic Church, which adamantly supported the earth-based solar system theory. Still, Copernicus' heliocentric system proved to be more detailed and accurate than Aristarchus', including a more efficient formula for calculating planetary positions.
In 1513 Copernicus' dedication prompted him to build his own modest observatory. Nonetheless, his observations did, at times, lead him to form inaccurate conclusions, including his assumption that planetary orbits occurred in perfect circles. As German astronomer Johannes Kepler would later prove, planetary orbits are actually elliptical in shape.
Kepler later revealed to the public that the preface for De revolutionibus orbium coelestium had indeed been written by Osiander, not Copernicus. As Kepler worked on expanding upon and correcting the errors of Copernicus' heliocentric theory, Copernicus became a symbol of the brave scientist standing alone, defending his theories against the common beliefs of his time.
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