The Life of Nicolas Copernicus

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The Birth of Heliocentric Astronomy

Nicolas Copernicus was the first astronomer to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology. In doing so, he expelled Earth from the centre of the universe.

Considered to be one of the great Polymaths of the Renaissance, Nicolas Copernicus was a mathematician, an astronomer, a physician, a linguist, a scholar, an artist, an economist, a diplomat and a Catholic cleric. Among his many responsibilities, astronomy was little more than a hobby. Yet, Copernicus is remembered as one of the great astronomers of the Renaissance.

Nicolas Copernicus’s Childhood

Nicolas Copernicus was born on February 19, 1473, in the city of Torun, in what is now Poland. His mother and father were both descended from wealthy merchant families. Copernicus was the youngest of four children. His brother, Andreas eventually became an Augustinian Canon, while his sister Barbara became a Benedictine nun, and eventually the Prioress of a convent. Copernicus’s youngest sister, Katherine, married a Torun city councillor.

Copernicus first went to school at St. John’s School in Torun, where his uncle was a teacher. He later went to the Cathedral School at Wloclawek, which prepared students for the Krakow Academy.

During the winter semester of the 1491-1492 school year, Nicolas and his brother Andreas registered at the Krakow Academy. Copernicus became a student in the Department of Arts, where he entered the Krakow Astronomical Mathematical School. Here Copernicus gained the mathematical foundation that made his later achievements possible. Copernicus was also exposed to the writings of Aristotle and the Muslim astronomer Averroes, who would later influence his work with Heliocentrism.

Copernicus left the Academy without graduating in the fall of 1495. He left Krakow and went to the court of his uncle, the Prince- Bishop of Warmia. From there, Copernicus was sent to Italy to study canon law, with a view toward continuing his ecclesiastical career. Copernicus solidified his position in his uncle’s court, when he became the Canon of Wormia by proxy in 1497.

During his three year stay in Bologna, Copernicus seems to have devoted himself to studying the Humanities and was less interested in Church law. He also became a student of the astronomer, Domani Maria Novera da Ferrara. In March, 1497, Copernicus made a memorable observation of the star Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. One of the results of this work was to confirm Copernicus’s doubts about the viability of geocentric astronomy. As a result of this, Copernicus began to study the writings of a number of ancient scholars including Pythagoras, Aristarchus, Cicero, Pliny, Plutarch, Heraclides and Plato.

Having completed his schooling, Copernicus returned to Warmia, where he lived for most of the rest of his life. His uncle, the Prince-Bishop of Warmia had considerable autonomy. As a result, Warmia had its own army, assembly and currency.

Copernicus served as his uncle’s personal secretary and physician from 1503 until his death, sometime between 1510 and 1512. During this period, Copernicus began his work with heliocentrism. Starting in 1504, Copernicus accompanied his uncle to the meetings of the Royal Prussian Assembly, where he is said to have “participated in all the more important events in the complex diplomatic game that that ambitious politician and statesman played in defence of the particular interests of Prussia and Warmia.” Between 1504 and 1512, Copernicus made numerous journeys to Torun and Gdansk to attend meetings of the Prussian Royal Council, as part of his uncle’s retinue.

Copernicus’s administrative duties could not keep him from his astronomical observations. The results of his observations of Mars and Saturn led to the discovery of variability in the Earth’s eccentricity, as well as small movements in the solar apogee.

The Copernican Revolution

Sometime around 1514, Copernicus wrote a 40 page treatise outlining his theories on heliocentrism, called the Little Commentary. This would serve as an outline for a longer work, which would eventually be called On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres, which would become a cornerstone of modern astronomy.

By 1532, Copernicus was nearing completion of his manuscript. However, he was reluctant to publish his findings, despite urgings by his friends.

In 1533, Pope Clement VII, heard a series of lectures outlining Copernicus’s theory. Clement, along with several Cardinals present, were intrigued by Copernicus’s ideas. As a result, Copernicus received a letter from the Archbishop of Capua, urging him to publish his work.

In 1539, Copernicus was still working on his book, when Georg Joachim Rheticus, a mathematician from Wittenberg, arrived in Frombok. Rheticus became Copernicus’s student, writing a book of his own, and studying with Copernicus for two years.

Under pressure from Rheticus, Copernicus finally decided to publish his book, having been convinced of a favourable reception.

Nicolas Copernicus died in Frombok on May 24, 1543. Legends associated with his death say that the first copy of On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres was delivered to Copernicus on the day of his death. He is said to have awoken from a stroke-induced coma, looked at the book and died.

Sources

Armitage, Angus (1951). The World of Copernicus. New York, NY: Mentor Books.

Goodman, David C.; Russell, Colin A. (1991). The Rise of Scientific Europe, 1500-1800. Hodder Arnold H&S

Gingerich, Owen (2004). The Book Nobody Read. London: William Heinemann.

Linton, Christopher M. (2004). From Eudoxus to Einstein—A History of Mathematical Astronomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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