Nicolaus Copernicus


Early Life
Nicolaus Copernicus was a Renaissance astronomer born in 1473. He was the youngest of the four children of Nicolaus Copernicus and Barbara Watzenrode in Turin, Poland. His father, a town magistrate and trader, encouraged and supported his son's education from a very young age. 1 After the death of his father, Copernicus's uncle, Lucas Watzelrode, essentially adopted him and helped continue his education. 2 His uncle remained quite well-connected in the intellectual community throughout Europe as he was a Catholic bishop; this helped Copernicus tremendously later in his life. It also, incidentally, allowed Copernicus to care for his dying uncle by serving as his physician.


Copernicus entered the University of Krakow in 1491 where he studied art and eventually mathematical science under Albert Brudzewski. He then proceeded to the University of Bologna where he spent ten years studying canon law. Later on, he also studied medicine in Padua. Throughout his career, he was "a mathematician, astronomer, jurist with a doctorate in law, physician, quadrillingual polygot, classics scholar, translator, artist, Catholic cleric, governor, diplomat, and economist." 3 Though he never studied astronomy formally, nor was a professional astronomer, he privately attended lectures by the leading astronomers of the time, which led to his eventual development of his heliographic plan of the solar system.

Major Scientific Contributions
Prior to Copernicus's science, the accepted view of the solar system was that of Ptolemy, which was geocentric and therefore placed the Earth at the center of the universe. This conception of the universe was not discovered in a scientific fashion. Rather, the astronomy of Aristotle was joined with the Christianity of the Middle Ages to come up with a system in which, "All motion in the heavens is uniform circular motion, the objects in the heavens are made from perfect material and cannot change their intrinsic properties, and the earth is at the center of the universe." 4 Ptolemy expanded on Aristotle's conception of the solar system using mathematics and observations, but its was often convoluted and required a great many assumptions to be made in order for it to work.

Geocentric model

Because Ptolemy's theory accounted for retrograde motion (rotational motion which is backwards relative to the orbital motion that an object has 5) and kept Aristotle's circular motion of the planets, it was readily accepted and widely taught. Though Copernicus did not entirely disagree with Ptolelmy's system (the mathematics and observations were correct), he disagreed with some of the basic principles of Ptolemic astronomy, leading him to search for a different explanation entirely. Consequently, Copernicus placed the sun at the center of the universe with all of the planets moving the same direction around the sun along with Earth. Not the first person to propose this heliocentric view of the universe, Copernicus did present this model using mathematics and physics to prove that he was correct.

Once Copernicus determined the correct situation and mathematics of the solar system, he could predict planetary positions in the future. In terms of the retrograde motion of the planets, which made it appear as if they switched directions, Copernicus stipulated that the movement was not actual, but was just perceived because of the distance between the Earth and the other planets: our modern understanding of parallax.


Copernicus also presented the Earth as rotating on a tilted axis, which further contradicted the basic principles of how people viewed the solar system. We know now that it is this tilt that causes the seasons, the solstices and equinoxes through the Earth's position relative to the sun as well as alters the way in which we view the sky throughout the year. To explain the movement of the Earth and its tilt, Copernicus used the analogy of a person on board a moving ship, explaining that while on the boat, it seems that the boat is at rest while the world around it moves. Similarly, as the Earth rotates, we do not feel its movement, but that does not mean it is not happening. 6


Perpetuation of his Findings
De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium was not published until 1543, after the death of Copernicus because of his justified fear of condemnation by the Catholic Church. There had been great tensions between religion and science, but this was especially dramatic, because believing that the Earth was not in the center of the universe directly contradicted the King James Bible popular at the time. He believed that there was only one true version of the solar system, he did not want to publish his findings as a theory to "save appearances," but as a true description.

Effects of His Work
Of course, the heliocentric system that Copernicus presented was not infallible; nonetheless, undoubtedly the greatest effect of his work was its inspiration and allowance for scientists that followed him. For example, Copernicus continued to use perfectly circular rotations of the planets around the sun, which was later perfected by Johannes Kepler, who discovered the elliptical nature of planetary orbits. In this way, Copernicus can be considered the founder of modern astronomy, because it marks the transition from a view of the solar system dominated primarily by the Earth and gained greater acceptance of seemingly outlandish astronomical ideas.


Works CitedColleen Caragher