Deep in the heart of Polish territory, a man who would fundamentally change the world’s understanding of how the solar system worked was born on February 19, 1473. Nicolaus Copernicus, an astronomer and mathematician among many other things, proposed theories at the center of an ideological controversy in the Catholic Church long after his death in 1543.
Named after his father, Copernicus was the last of four children born into a merchant family in the town of Torun, on the banks of the Vistula River some 250 miles to the north of the Polish capital, Krakow. Nestled in the heart of the Kingdom of Poland, the city flourished due to its location on the only major waterway winding through the center of the nation, a factor in Copernicus’ father achieving solid sales of copper in Danzig (modern Gdansk).
Much of the responsibility for raising the young Copernicus fell on his uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, who took the boy under his wing after the senior Nicolaus’ death. Watzenrode, a well-educated graduate of the University of Krakow, saw to it Copernicus was exposed to some of the best teachers in Poland. When ready, Copernicus entered his uncle’s alma mater in pursuit of a mathematics degree, a course of study which would inevitably tie into astronomy due to the close relationship between the two fields at the university.
The discipline of astronomy in Copernicus’ day was less scientific than what is understood today — working telescopes were still more than 130 years from being invented. Learning about the movement of the stars would be based on observation, but largely theory and philosophy. The works of ancient Greeks like Aristotle, Ptolemy and Euclid, as well as those of Muslim scholars from the Middle Ages, were the primary sources for Copernicus’ education. From these sometimes contradictory ideas, he would analyze his observations and formulate his own concepts for how the universe worked.
In 1495, Watzenrode called Copernicus to join him in Warmia, where his uncle had recently received the title of Prince-Bishop, giving Watzenrode governing responsibility in addition to his role as head of the Church. Hoping to get his nephew into the clergy and put him on a similar career course to his own, Watzenrode pushed for Copernicus to receive an appointment as a low-level priest with administrative responsibilities. The move initially failed, forcing the Prince-Bishop to send Copernicus and his brother to Italy for an education in law, entering the Bologna University of Jurists in January 1497.
Within months, Copernicus received the position his uncle intended for him, serving as the local canon in absentia while he completed his degree. A chance encounter with Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara, professor of astronomy at the University of Bologna, gave Copernicus access to one of the foremost minds in the field during his day. The two developed a great working relationship, with Copernicus later crediting Ferrara for witnessing his first astronomical observation.
Though he returned to Warmia briefly in 1501, he quickly headed back to Italy for entrance in a medical college at the University of Padua. In the midst of his studies of anatomy and human ailments, Copernicus managed to earn his law degree and keep in touch with Ferrara, all while becoming fluent in Latin and achieving a passing understanding of Greek and Italian (he already spoke Polish and German). With his two-year appointment complete, Copernicus settled in Warmia once again, this time to serve as his uncle’s assistant and personal physician in 1503.
Copernicus traveled all over Poland as part of his uncle’s entourage until Watzenrode died in 1512, continuing to make notes on lunar eclipses and thinking through his own ideas about the nature of the universe. By 1514, he felt comfortable enough the sun was the center point of the solar system instead of the earth to publish a short description of the theory (heliocentrism). This “Commentariolus” — literally a “little commentary” in Latin — amounted to the basics of his hypothesis and, so far as historians can tell, was printed in a small run as a gift for close friends.
Over the next 20 years, Copernicus continued in his role as an adviser to the leadership of Warmia and, eventually, the Royal Prussian Diet after the Polish-Teutonic War ended in 1521. Focusing primarily on economics, he conceived of rough ideas related to the use of currency that would later be proven by other theorists, particularly Thomas Gresham. As always, he used his free time to tinker with astronomy, deriving the mathematical underpinnings for his concept of heliocentrism.
As early as 1532, it appears Copernicus solidified the details necessary for his masterwork, On the Revolutions of Celestial Spheres. Despite the urging of several close acquaintances, he refused to put the book into print, believing the revolutionary nature of his theories would open him to more than just criticism — it might lead to charges of heresy. Perhaps uneasy after witnessing the unrest caused by the Reformation, Copernicus realized the seven tenets of his masterpiece violated Catholic teaching. For centuries, the Church pointed to Joshua 10:12-13, wherein the subject tells the sun to stand still, as proof the Earth was the focal point of all creation.
The following year, a German theologian by the name of Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter laid out the basics of Copernican heliocentrism for Pope Clement VII and a group of cardinals in Rome. Impressed, Clement presented Widmannstetter with a gift for sharing the idea. Rumors of “a new cosmology” spread throughout the ranks of Europe’s intellectual elite, such that in 1536 Copernicus received a letter from the Archbishop of Capua, Nikolaus von Schoenberg, stating “with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars.”
Copernicus would not relent, opting instead to continue perfecting the manuscript and teaching others about astronomy. One of his students, Georg Joachim Rheticus, eventually published a short essay on the basics of his master’s cosmology. Seeing his ideas in print and soothed by the general acceptance of them, Copernicus authorized Rheticus to oversee publication of a first edition in Nuremberg beginning in 1543. Aged 70, the astronomer would not live to see controversy arrive — he died on May 24th of that year.
Among the revolutionary concepts in Copernicus’ seven-part theory, the sun as the midpoint of all orbits is only one. He correctly posited the distance between the Earth and sun to be infinitesimal when compared to that between the sun and the furthest reaches of the stars above. Further, he wrote, the appearance of movement by the starts “arises not from any motion of the firmament, but from the earth’s motion.”
Despite fears during his lifetime, Copernican theories would not bring much in the way of insult from Catholic clergy. With a few exceptions, it seems as though the largest barrier to adoption of Copernicus’ work came more from cultural fascination with Aristotle and Ptolemy. Protestant leaders, such as Philip Melanchthon (who sent Rheticus to study with Copernicus) and John Calvin expressed the most doubts in the years immediately after On the Revolutions was published.
Six decades after Copernicus’ death, astronomers Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei would take his theories and expand upon them. At about this time, the Catholic Church spoke out against Copernican theory, possibly as an extension of its feud with Galileo. The cat was already out of the bag, though, with Kepler especially providing the evidence necessary to make heliocentrism the dominant theory in scientific circles today.
Also On This Day:
197 – Roman Emperor Septimius Severus gains victory over traitor Clodius Albinus in the Battle of Lugdunum, the bloodiest battle between Roman armies
1674 – The Netherlands gives New Amsterdam to the British as part of the Treaty of Westminster, ending the Third Anglo-Dutch War; it is soon renamed New York
1847 – The Donner Party is reached by the first group of rescuers
1878 – Thomas Edison patents the phonograph, a device capable of recording and reproducing sound
You may also like :
February 19 1847 – The Donner Party is reached by the first group of rescuers