Copernicus, Nicolaus (1473-1543)

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Nicolaus Copernicus (b. 1473, Torun, Poland; d. 1543, Frauenburg) is considered the father of modern astronomy and is regarded by some as the founder of modern science as well. He was a true Renaissance man: he mastered the full spectrum of learning by studying medicine, philosophy, and mathematics at the University of Cracow; law at Bologna; theology at Frauenburg; and astronomy, mathematics, and natural philosophy on his own. Although he authored a work on the currency reform in Polish principalities and translated some Greek poets into Latin, his work in astronomy was by far his greatest contribution. Copernicus was the first to attempt to apply a modern, rational standard of order to God's universe.

Although several Greek astronomers had posited that the sun and not the earth might be the center of the universe, the Hellenic Christian worlds had for centuries believed in an earth-centered universe. This belief, which was almost an article of faith, rested on Ptolemy's (second century A.D.) theory of an elaborate system of spheres that accounted for the motion of the universe and on Aristotle's argument for the fixed position of the earth. Imbedded in the old system was the idea that the earth was a unique creation of God and the center of all things, and that man reflected this uniqueness and was of central importance in the universe. Thus, in challenging the Ptolemaic conception of the universe, Copernicus called into question the very nature of human existence and humankind's relationship to the divine.

Copernicus's study of astronomy led him to conclude that Ptolemy was wrong. Ptolemy's system required elaborate and complicated proofs to account for the motions of the planets where simplicity ought to reign, but it violated more fundamental laws as well. It was, for instance, not logical that a (much) larger sphere, the sun, should rotate about a (much) smaller sphere, the earth. Although Copernicus's system required proofs almost as complicated as Ptolemy's, and also forced the paths of the planets into circular rather than elliptical motions, his theory was generally accepted, and this had important consequences.

Pope Clement VII (r. 1523-1534) approved Copernicus's work in 1533, and Pope Paul III (r. 1534-1549) formally requested its publication in 1536. The complete astronomical studies were published in 1543 as De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the revolution of celestial spheres). It was only later, in the wake of Galileo's vocal proclamation of Copernican views, that this work was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books (1616).

The implications of Copernicus's work were many. Fundamentally, it followed that the earth, formerly thought to be the center of all things, was only one celestial body among many--and one whose existence was subject to mathematical and not divine description. Although not a decisive break, the Copernican account represented a significant departure from the ancient natural philosophy and exemplified an important line of thought in modern science. Indeed, Copernicus's research laid the groundwork for the scientists who followed him, including Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo (1564-1642), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Gravity, for example, had formerly been explained by Aristotle's argument that objects naturally fall back to earth because earth is the center of the universe. Copernicus's account of the universe destroyed this accepted explanation and paved the way for Newton's investigation of gravitational force.


Works by the Author

Copernicus, Nikolaus. On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres. 1543.

Works about the Author

Kesten, Hermann. Copernicus and His World. New York: Roy Publishers, 1946.


The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.

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