Happy Birthday Nicolaus Copernicus!


Nicolaus Copernicus (February 19, 1473 – May 24, 1543) was a Russian mathematician and astronomer who first proposed the heliocentric model of the universe, in place of the geocentric model, first posited by Ptolemy and endorsed by the Catholic Church. Before his death, Copernicus published his book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). The book ignited the Copernican Revolution and contributed heavily to the Scientific Revolution which followed the Renaissance. Although the work of Copernicus was rejected by various religious figures, the Catholic Church did not immediately react to the publication, and the author did not face the same religious backlash as his successor, Galileo Galilei. Still, Copernicus was denounced by the Catholic theologian-astronomer, who claimed, "Nicolaus Copernicus neither read nor understood the arguments of Aristotle the philosopher and Ptolemy the astronomer," and that he was "very deficient in the sciences of physics and logic." Below, a brief history of the man who rearranged the universe.

After the death of his father, Copernicus and his four siblings were looked after by his well-connected uncle, Lucas Watzenrode, the Prince-Bishop of Warmia (Ermeland). Watzenrode carefully arranged their education and upbringing, especially that of Nicolaus, a gifted academic.

In addition to mathematician and astronomer, Copernicus was also a jurist with a doctorate in law, physician, quadrilingual polyglot, classics scholar, translator, artist, Catholic cleric, governor, diplomat and economist. 


Copernicus is thought to have spoken Latin, German, and Polish with equal fluency. He also spoke Greek and Italian.

Copernicus graduated from the University of Krakow and went on to study astronomy in Bologna in 1496. He studied with the famous astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara, and began developing his criticisms against the geocentric model. On March 9, 1947, Copernicus conducted an observation of Aldebaran, the brightest star in the Taurus constellation, whose results reinforced his doubts as to the geocentric system.

At the age of 30, Copernicus returned to Warmia from Italy, where he had completed his studies. He lived with his uncle in the Bishop's castle at Lidzbark (Heilsberg) where he began working on his own heliocentric theory. He was his uncle's secretary and physician from then until his uncle's death. (Right: Monument of Copernicus in Kraków)

In the early 1500s, Copernicus submitted a collection translated from Greek to Latin for publishing. It was a collection of 85 brief poems which were supposed to have been passed amongst characters in a Greek story, written by 7th century Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocatta. Copernicus dedicated the translated works to his uncle.

Some time before 1514, Copernicus outlined his heliocentric theory, later known as Nicolai Copernici de hypothesibus motuum coelestium a se constitutis commentariolus—commonly referred to as the Commentariolus.


The assumptions of De revolutionibus

1. There is no one center of all the celestial circles or spheres.

2. The center of the earth is not the center of the universe, but only of gravity and of the lunar sphere.

3. All the spheres revolve about the sun as their mid-point, and therefore the sun is the center of the universe.

4. The ratio of the earth's distance from the sun to the height of the firmament (outermost celestial sphere containing the stars) is so much smaller than the ratio of the earth's radius to its distance from the sun that the distance from the earth to the sun is imperceptible in comparison with the height of the firmament.

5. Whatever motion appears in the firmament arises not from any motion of the firmament, but from the earth's motion. The earth together with its circumjacent elements performs a complete rotation on its fixed poles in a daily motion, while the firmament and highest heaven abide unchanged.

6. What appear to us as motions of the sun arise not from its motion but from the motion of the earth and our sphere, with which we revolve about the sun like any other planet. The earth has, then, more than one motion.

7. The apparent retrograde and direct motion of the planets arises not from their motion but from the earth's. The motion of the earth alone, therefore, suffices to explain so many apparent inequalities in the heavens.

About 1532 Copernicus had basically completed his work on the manuscript of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium; but he resisted openly publishing his views, to avoid the scorn "to which he would expose himself on account of the novelty and incomprehensibility of his theses."


In 1533, the German humanist and theogian Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter delivered a series of lectures in Rome outlining Copernicus' theory. Pope Clement VII and several Catholic cardinals heard the lectures and were interested in the theory. On 1 November 1536, Cardinal Nikolaus von Schönberg, Archbishop of Capua, wrote to Copernicus from Rome:

Some years ago word reached me concerning your proficiency, of which everybody constantly spoke. At that time I began to have a very high regard for you... For I had learned that you had not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology. In it you maintain that the earth moves; that the sun occupies the lowest, and thus the central, place in the universe... Therefore with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars, and at the earliest possible moment to send me your writings on the sphere of the universe together with the tables and whatever else you have that is relevant to this subject ...

Copernicus died on May 24,1543. Legend has it that he received the advance copy of his book that same day. Copernicus was called a heretic by religious figures throughout the Christian faith, but in fact, his work received little attention from the Church for several decades. 

In March 1616, in connection with the Galileo affair, the Roman Catholic Church's Congregation of the Index issued a decree suspending De revolutionibus until it could be "corrected," on the grounds that the supposedly Pythagorean doctrine that the Earth moves and the Sun does not was "false and altogether opposed to Holy Scripture."

Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Wednesday, 19 February 2014
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