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 in the Commentariolus. His second book on the topic,De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, was banned by the Roman Catholic Church not long after his May 24, 1543 death in Frauenburg, Poland.
“I am not so enamored of my own opinions that I disregard what others may think of them.”
Famed astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (Mikolaj Kopernik, in German) 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, Poland, Copernicus was technically born 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’s first language, but some scholars believe that he spoke some Polish as well.
When Copernicus was 10 years old, his father passed away. His maternal uncle, Bishop of Varmia Lucas Watzenrode, generously assumed the 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. Though he did not take astronomy classes at that time, he developed a growing interest in the cosmos, and started collecting books on the topic.
Upon graduating from Cracow in 1494, Copernicus returned to Torun, where he took a canon’s position—arranged by his uncle—at Frombork’s cathedral. Though the opportunity was only typically available to priests, Copernicus was able to hold onto the job for the rest of his life. It was a fortunate stroke for Copernicus: 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 as the University of Bologna. There, he met astronomer Domenico Maria Novara—a fateful encounter, as the two began exchanging astronomical ideas and observations. 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 [Ptolemy] the most eminent ancient writer in his chosen fields of study.” The friends were so enthralled in their intellectual exchange, they decided to become roommates.
In 1500, after completing his law studies in Bologna, 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 prepared to take the canon law exam. After passing the test on his first attempt, he hurried back home to Poland, where he resumed his position as canon and rejoined his uncle at a nearby Episcopal residence.
Copernicus remained at the Lidzbark-Warminski residence for the next seven years, working and tending to his elderly, ailing uncle, and exploring astronomy whenever he could find the time.
In 1510, Copernicus moved to a residence in the Frombork Cathedral Chapter in hopes of clearing additional time to study astronomy. He would live there as a canon for the duration of his life.
Throughout the seven years he spent in Lidzbark-Warminski, Copernicus read several books on the subject of astronomy. Among the sources that Copernicus consulted was Regiomontus’sEpitome of the Almagest, which presented an alternative to astrologist Claudius Ptolemy’s model of the universe, and significantly influenced his research.
By 1508, Copernicus had begun developing his own celestial model, a heliocentric planetary system. Ptolemy had previously invented a geometric planetary model, which was inconsistent with Aristotle‘s idea that celestial bodies moved in a circular motion at different speeds around a fixed point, the earth. In an attempt to reconcile such inconsistencies, Copernicus’s heliocentric solar system named the sun, rather than the earth, as the center of the solar system. Subsequently, Copernicus believed that the size of each planet’s orbit depended on its distance from the sun.
Though his theory was viewed as revolutionary and met with some controversy, Copernicus was not the first astronomer to propose such a theory; centuries prior, in 270 B.C., ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos had identified the sun as the solar system’s central unit. Aristarchus’s ideas were quickly dismissed, however, because Ptolemy’s theories were far more eagerly accepted by the influential Roman Catholic Church, which adamantly supported the earth-based solar system theory. Still, Copernicus’s heliocentric solar system proved to be more detailed and accurate than Aristarchus’s, including a more efficient formula for calculating planetary positions throughout the year.
After moving to the Frombork Cathedral Chapter in the early 1500s, Copernicus further developed his heliocentric model, and went on to design and apply a complex mathematical system for proving his theory. In 1513, his dedication prompted him to build his own modest observatory so that he could view the planets in action at any given time.
Copernicus’s observations did, at times, lead him to form inaccurate conclusions, including his assumption that planets’ orbit occurred in perfect circles. As German astronomer Johannes Kepler would later prove in the 17th century, planetary orbits are actually elliptical in shape.
Around 1514, Copernicus completed a written work,Commentariolus (Latin for “Small Commentary”), a 40-page manuscript that he referred to as the “Sketch of Hypothesis Made by Nicolaus Copernicus on the Heavenly Motions.” Commentariolussummarized Copernicus’s heliocentric planetary system and strove to provide systematic proof—in the form of both astronomical observations and mathematical formulas—of the model.
The sketch set forth seven axioms, each describing an aspect of the heliocentric solar system: 1) Planets don’t revolve around one fixed point; 2) the earth is at the center of the moon’s orbit; 3) The sun is at the center of the universe, and all celestial bodies rotate around it; 4) The distance between the earth and sun is only a tiny fraction of stars’ distance from the earth and sun; 5) Stars do not move, and if they appear to,
it is only because the earth itself is moving; 6) Earth moves in a sphere around the sun, causing the sun’s yearly movement; and 7) Earth’s orbit around the sun causes the planets to orbit in the opposite direction.
Commentariolus also went on to describe in detail Copernicus’s assertion that a mere 34 circles could sufficiently illustrate planetary motion. Copernicus sent his manuscript to several friends and contemporaries, and while the manuscript received little to no response among his colleagues, a buzz began to build around Copernicus and his unconventional theories within two years of Commentariolus‘s release. Adding an air of mystery to Copernicus’s growing reputation—and notoriety, for some—was his rejection to an invitation by the Lateran Council, which invited astronomers to provide advice in reforming the calendar.
Copernicus’s written works, Commentariolus and, later, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Latin for “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”), raised a fair share of controversy. Copernicus’s critics claimed that he failed to solve the mystery of the parallax—the seeming displacement in the position of a celestial body, when viewed along varying lines of sight—and that his work lacked a sufficient explanation for why the earth orbits the sun.
In addition to drawing criticism from scholars, Copernicus’s theories incensed the Roman Catholic Church; his model was considered heretical because it was contrary to the Church’s teachings. WhenDe revolutionibus orbium coelestium was published in 1543, just before Copernicus’s death, religious leader Martin Luther voiced his opposition to the heliocentric solar system model. His underling, Lutheran minister Andreas Osiander, quickly followed suit, saying of Copernicus, “This fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside down.”
Osiander even went so far as to write a disclaimer stating that the heliocentric system was a theory, not a fact, and add it to the book’s preface, leading readers to assume that Copernicus himself had written it. By this time, Copernicus was ailing and unfit for the task of defending his work.
Ironically, Copernicus had dedicated De revolutionibus orbium coelestium to Pope Paul III. If his tribute to the pope was an attempt to cull the Catholic Church’s softer reception, it was to no avail. The Church ultimately banned De revolutionibus posthumously, and the book remained on the list of forbidden reading material for nearly three centuries thereafter.
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 is said to have been clutching the book when he died in his bed on May 24, 1543 in Frauenburg, Poland.
In the 17th century, when the ban on De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was lifted, Kepler revealed to the public that the preface had indeed been written by Osiander, not Copernicus. As Kepler worked on expanding upon and correcting the errors of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory, Copernicus became a symbol of the brave scientist standing alone, defending his theories against the common beliefs of his time