1473 – 1543
The Man Who Found Our Placeby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Have you ever awakened one morning to watch the sun appear over the treetops? Or have you lingered during dusk so you could catch the last rays of sunshine as the bright circle disappeared? Nearly every person has watched the sun as it traveled across our skies each day. If you left knowledge behind and simply observed the movement, you could safely say that the sun appears to circle around us. After all, it does appear to do so. And hundreds of years ago, many people believed that it truly did. Near 400 B.C., a Greek named Eudoxes, who had studied under Plato, proposed the idea that everything we could see in the sky was set in spheres. Then, afterwards, he continued his research and made the first model of the known universe (planets, earth, and the sun). He put the earth in the middle and made everything else revolve around it. This idea was later “improved” by Aristotle who claimed that the planets’ orbits were circular, but he kept the same geocentric thread. And, far away from Greece, lived an Egyptian named Ptolemy. He had no contact with the two Greeks, but he also created a geocentric model for the universe. However, I am not here to tell you about Eudoxes or Aristotle or Ptolemy. I am here to tell you about the founder of modern astronomy and his name was Nicolaus Copernicus.
Nicolaus was born in 1473 to Mikolaj and Barbara Kopernik of Torun, Poland. The youngest of four children, Nicolaus was only ten years old when his father, Mikolaj, died. Burdened down with four children and no husband, Barbara Kopernik decided to ask Nicolaus’ uncle, Lucasz Watzelrode, to adopt him and Lucasz agreed. So Nicolaus journeyed off to be with his uncle; a priest of some scholarly attainments who became the Bishop of Ermland in 1489. Living with this kind of man, it is no surprise that Nicolaus was intended to work in the church. At the age of nineteen, he was enrolled at the University of Cracow for four years. It is in this place that he got his first taste of mathematics and astronomy, which he studied with a passion. Then he left Cracow without taking his examinations for a degree and went to Italy where he perfected his education in many different fields including law and medicine. In 1500, Nicolaus decided to attend the University of Padua in Rome. There he lectured in mathematics and, at the age of 27, he abandoned the last name of ‘Kopernik’ and adopted the name ‘Copernicus’ instead, which we will call him from now on.
Copernicus studied at the medical school in Padua for a couple years before switching to the University of Ferrara where he received degree in 1503. Let me tell you, this man was not lazy. For the very next year, Copernicus picked up his talents and used them in Warmia with his Uncle at Lidzbark. By now, Copernicus was a jurist, physician, knew how to speak Greek, and continued to study mathematics and astronomy. So there he remained until 1512, helping where help was needed and healing when a doctor was needed. Upon the death of his uncle, he took up residence as a canon of the rich cathedral of Frauenburg on the Baltic. Although he never took holy orders and only those vows necessary for his office as a canon, he was the official representative of the cathedral. Copernicus was also involved in the war between Poland and the Teutonic Knights from 1519 to 1521, he planned and aided in the reconstruction of Ermland and after it was attacked. All that I have just told you is his life and the things he chose to undertake. Now, we approach the core of Copernicus and what he loved most. Astronomy.
Backtrack a little to 1506, before the war in Poland. For Copernicus himself said that it was in this year, after his return from Italy, that he began to develop his astronomical observations which were then continued in Poland, particularly in Frauenburg where he established an observatory. With these observations he began his theory of “heliocentric” system (the sun in the middle and all planets revolve around it). Though his official careers kept him busy, Copernicus obviously loved to study the stars and figure out the skies expansion. And he was not an ignorant man, as you well know. He truly believed in God (remember that he worked for the Catholic church) and he never doubted that the Lord created all things. We must also remember that Copernicus lived during the Renaissance; a time where the only motivation one needed was the ambition to learn more and more and to discover something new. I believe that was the ambition of Copernicus as well. In other words, his heart was in the right place. He didn’t study the skies for money or fame. He did it because he saw something up there that fascinated and puzzled him. Figuring the skies out and analyzing data was only one of Copernicus’s many challenges. As he continued to find more and more data he decided that he was right. The sun was the center; not the earth. So that meant that men like Eudoxes, Aristotle, and Ptolemy were wrong! These men, Aristotle especially, were praised (practically immortalized) by all scientists of that age. How could Copernicus simply stand up and say that they were wrong? Well, the thing is, he didn’t say that at all. In fact, he said nothing.
Copernicus began writing a book called On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres and it would have never been published except for the constant faith from his friends. See, Copernicus knew he was walking on dangerous ground with this new idea and he wanted plenty of evidence to back him up when the time came to present his theory. But Copernicus never did satisfy his personal desire for more information. Towards the close of 1542 he was seized with apoplexy and paralysis and on May 24, 1543 an advanced copy of his future book was presented to him. He died afterwards on the same day and was buried in the Frauenburg Cathedral.
Copernicus accomplished many things in his lifetime, though he was not given credit for any of those accomplishments until after his death. He did collect enough analyzed data to prove that the sun was the center of the solar system and that all planets revolved around this one sun (including earth). These things left a permanent mark on history and science. After his death, others also began to wonder over our place in the universe. Copernicus’s theories were not publicly accepted, but they did inspire others to dig deeper into the matter of the planets. Men like Kepler and Galileo spent their lives trying to prove that we really do live in a heliocentric universe. And they were not the only ones who Copernicus affected, but scientists in an entirely different field were also benefited by his work.
Modern astronomy began with his theory. You could even say that modern science began with it. Without it, Isaac Newton might have never conceived his law of gravity. We all know that gravity is the force that pulls the planets along their orbits. And without Newton’s law of gravity, Einstein might have never conceived his theory of relativity. This theory relates gravity to the shape of the universe. As you can see, many of our modern ideas about science really originated with the heliocentric theory of Copernicus. Essentially, he is the man who discovered our place in the universe. That we are not the center, but were created to revolve around a Great Light.
“For who, after applying himself to things which
he sees established in the best order and directed by divine ruling, would not
through diligent contemplation of them and through a certain habituation be
awakened to that which is best and would not wonder at the Artificer of all
things, in Whom is all happiness and ever good? For the divine Psalmist surely
did not say gratuitously that he took pleasure in the workings of God and rejoiced
in the works of His hands, unless by means of these things as by some sort of
vehicle we are transported to the contemplation of the highest Good.”
Andronik M. Catherine. Copernicus: Founder of Modern Astronomy. Enslow Publishers, Inc. 2002
Copernicus, Nicolaus. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. Encyclopedia Brittannica Inc. 1939.