Who Was Copernicus?
Circa 1508, Nicolaus Copernicus developed his own celestial model of a heliocentric planetary system. Around 1514, he shared his findings in the 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.
Early Life and Education
Famed astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (Mikolaj Kopernik, in Polish) came into the world on February 19, 1473. The fourth and youngest child born to Nicolaus Copernicus Sr. and Barbara Watzenrode, an affluent copper merchant family in Torun, West Prussia, Copernicus was technically of German heritage. By the time he was born, Torun had ceded to Poland, rendering him a citizen under the Polish crown. German was Copernicus' first language, but some scholars believe that he spoke some Polish as well.
During the mid-1480s, Copernicus' father passed away. His maternal uncle, Bishop of Varmia Lucas Watzenrode, generously assumed a paternal role, taking it upon himself to ensure that Copernicus received the best possible education. In 1491, Copernicus entered the University of Cracow, where he studied painting and mathematics. He also developed a growing interest in the cosmos and started collecting books on the topic.
Established as Canon
By mid-decade, Copernicus received a Frombork canon cathedral appointment, holding onto the job for the rest of his life. It was a fortunate stroke: The canon's position afforded him the opportunity to fund the continuation of his studies for as long as he liked. Still, the job demanded much of his schedule; he was only able to pursue his academic interests intermittently, during his free time.
In 1496, Copernicus took leave and traveled to Italy, where he enrolled in a religious law program at the University of Bologna. There, he met astronomer Domenico Maria Novara — a fateful encounter, as the two began exchanging astronomical ideas and observations, ultimately becoming housemates. Historian Edward Rosen described the relationship as follows: "In establishing close contact with Novara, Copernicus met, perhaps for the first time in his life, a mind that dared to challenge the authority of [astrologist Claudius Ptolemy] the most eminent ancient writer in his chosen fields of study."
In 1501, Copernicus went on to study practical medicine at the University of Padua. He did not, however, stay long enough to earn a degree, since the two-year leave of absence from his canon position was nearing expiration. In 1503, Copernicus attended the University of Ferrara, where he took the necessary exams to earn his doctorate in canon law. He hurried back home to Poland, where he resumed his position as canon and rejoined his uncle at an Episcopal palace. Copernicus remained at the Lidzbark-Warminski residence for the next several years, working and tending to his elderly, ailing uncle and exploring astronomy.
In 1510, Copernicus moved to a residence in the Frombork cathedral chapter. He would live there as a canon for the duration of his life.
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., the 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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