Nicolaus Copernicus

Over the course of human history, many men have pondered the structure of the universe. For most of this history, it was assumed that the Earth, and consequently man, was placed at the center of the solar system and universe. However, Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish astronomer and mathematician, drastically changed our world by providing evidence that the Earth was not the center of the solar system. Although the idea of a heliocentric solar system had been introduced by other astronomers, Copernicus provided mathematical calculations to support the theory.

Insight and Influence

Copernicus conducted most of his research in the early 16th century. This is widely considered to be the beginning of the modern era, due to extreme changed in ideology, technology, and of course, the global perspective. In addition to the recent discovery of a new continent, the Reformation, a Protestant alternative to the Catholic Church, was in full spring. New ideas and theories blossomed as the Italian Renaissance spread north. Copernicus, although too timid until later in his life to publish his work, was probably influenced by these occurrences. They probably gave him, if nothing else, the confidence to question and to examine the vastly unsung theories of a heliocentric universe. One of his professors at the University of Bologna, Domenico Maria de Novara, also played an important role in Copernicus’s heliocentric theory.

Major Contributions

Copernicus, through countless calculations and observations, made conclusions which not only changed the way
Original Artist: By J Falch. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
man looked at the heavens, but also laid the foundations for other theories from other astronomers such as Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno. His life’s work was the book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, or On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. In this book, Copernicus described in detail an idea that man was not at the center of the universe, but revolved around it. Refuting the idea that the Earth is a motionless mass with the heavens revolving around it, he stated that the Earth rotates on its axis, making one revolution daily, and revolves around the sun yearly. Prior to Copernicus, and as part of the geocentric theory, it was believed that the planets which moved across the night sky moved in small circles as they orbited the earth in concentric circles. These epicycles were a proposition as a solution to the fact that certain planets might move in one direction across the sky, and then seemingly reverse on another day. Copernicus clung to the idea of epicycles, although his theory was later refined by others to include elliptical orbits.

Affect and Effect

Nicolaus Copernicus was born on February 19, 1473 in Torun, Poland. He was a well-studied man, having gone to the University of Krakow, which was famous for its mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy departments. He also studied liberal arts in Bologna, medicine in Padua, and law at the University of Ferrara, earning a doctorate in canon law. His first manuscript was titled Commentariolus, which was an outline of ideas published in his later work. Copernicus’s triumph was De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, or On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. It was in this publication that Copernicus fully unveiled his heliocentric theory.
Copernicus was mainly a political moderate of his time, but strayed a bit toward the conservative side. This came from his position as
canon of the Catholic Church, specifically at the cathedral in Frauenberg. While some of his ideas were revolutionary, Copernicus adopted many ancient doctrines of astronomy. For instance, he agreed with Aristotle’s idea of planets orbiting in concentric circles, rather than ellipses. He also agreed with Ptolemy’s idea of epicycles. These adoptions show Copernicus’s conservatism. Copernicus is not known to have any family, and would have been forbidden to have a spouse or children as part of his role in the Catholic Church.

The Things they Left Behind

Copernicus’s heliocentric theory has singlehandedly changed the way we look at the universe. The publication of his theory inspired other scientists to build on it. In turn, it and the theories that have followed have enabled us as societies to not only teach the proper planetary order in elementary schools across the country but also to shoot probes to other planets accurately. Even without Copernicus, humans would have discovered that the Earth was not the center of the universe. However, it would have taken longer for this discovery to occur.
The Copernican System

  • "Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the centre of the universe. Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind - for by this admission so many things vanished in mist and smoke! What became of our Eden, our world of innocence, piety and poetry; the testimony of the senses; the conviction of a poetic - religious faith? No wonder his contemporaries did not wish to let all this go and offered every possible resistance to a doctrine which in its converts authorized and demanded a freedom of view and greatness of thought so far unknown, indeed not even dreamed of." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)