A Brief Biography of Copernicus
Nicolaus Copernicus was one of the first scientists to remove the Earth (and consequently, humanity) from the center of the universe, countering the theological teachings of his day. As such, his theories are referred to often in You Are Here. He is regarded as one of the central figures of the Scientific Revolution, and is sometimes referred to as the founder of modern astronomy.
Copernicus was born Mikolaj Kopernik on February 19, 1473 in the Polish town of Torun, the youngest of four children. His father was a wealthy copper trader active in local politics (kopernik translates as "one who works with copper"), who died when Copernicus was still young. His maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode, became guardian to Copernicus and his siblings.
The young Kopernik (who Latinized his name to Nicolaus Copernicus later in life) was very well educated. He first studied astronomy and astrology at the University of Krakow (1491 1494). With the help and encouragement of his uncle, he was elected a canon of the cathedral chapter of Frombork in 1496, and subsequently attended the University of Bologna to study both civil and canon (canon law being the ecclesiastical laws that govern the Catholic Church) From 1501 to 1503 he studied medicine at the University of Padua, and obtained a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara in 1503. He afterwards returned to Frombork to serve as medical advisor and secretary to his uncle, later becoming heavily involved with administrative tasks in the diocese.
In 1514, Copernicus began circulating a six-page, handwritten text outlining his heliocentric theories. This document, referred to as the Commentariolus (Little Commentary), contained seven assumptions which served as the basis for his future masterwork, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres).
Copernicus became an increasingly well-known mathematician. In 1539, he was visited by Georg Joachim Rheticus, a young professor of mathematics and astronomy at the University of Wittenberg. He stayed for two years, learning from Copernicus and absorbing his theories. Rheticus went on to publish Narratio Prima (First Report on the Books of Revolution), which reported Copernicus' heliocentric theory. Narratio Prima was favorably received, and Rheticus persuaded Copernicus to publish a full account, which became De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium in 1543. Copernicus died two months after its publication from what is believed to have a stroke. He was entombed in the Frombork Cathedral in northern Poland (remains discovered in 2005 were confirmed to belong to Copernicus in 2008).
Copernicus's theories profoundly altered later views of the universe, but were rejected by the Catholic Church in favor of the geocentric schemes espoused by Aristotle and Ptolemy. Interestingly, his works were largely ignored until brought to the fore by Galileo, who was convicted of heresy in 1633 for "following the position of Copernicus, which is contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture."*
*Two centuries later, in 1757, Pope Benedict XIV suspended the ban on heliocentric works, fifteen years after two Catholic mathematicians published an annotated copy of Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica with a preface stating that the author's work assumed heliocentrism and could not be explained without the theory. A further sixty-five years would pass until Pope Pius VII approved a decree in 1822 to allow the printing of heliocentric books in Rome.
This article was originally published in May 2009, and has been updated for the
February 2010 paperback release.
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