The story

Polish astronomer Copernicus is born

On February 19, 1473, Nicolaus Copernicus is born in Torun, a city in north-central Poland on the Vistula River. The father of modern astronomy, he was the first modern European scientist to propose that Earth and other planets revolve around the sun.

Copernicus was born into a family of well-to-do merchants, and after his father’s death, his uncle–soon to be a bishop–took the boy under his wing. He was given the best education of the day and bred for a career in canon (church) law. At the University of Krakow, he studied liberal arts, including astronomy and astrology, and then, like many Polish people of his social class, was sent to Italy to study medicine and law.

While studying at the University of Bologna, he lived for a time in the home of Domenico Maria de Novara, the principal astronomer at the university. Astronomy and astrology were at the time closely related and equally regarded, and Novara had the responsibility of issuing astrological prognostications for Bologna. Copernicus sometimes assisted him in his observations, and Novara exposed him to criticism of both astrology and aspects of the Ptolemaic system, which placed Earth at the center of the universe.

Copernicus later studied at the University of Padua and in 1503 received a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara. He returned to Poland, where he became a church administrator and doctor. In his free time, he dedicated himself to scholarly pursuits, which sometimes included astronomical work. By 1514, his reputation as an astronomer was such that he was consulted by church leaders attempting to reform the Julian calendar.

The cosmology of early 16th-century Europe held that Earth sat stationary and motionless at the center of several rotating, concentric spheres that bore the celestial bodies: the sun, the moon, the known planets, and the stars. From ancient times, philosophers adhered to the belief that the heavens were arranged in circles (which by definition are perfectly round), causing confusion among astronomers who recorded the often eccentric motion of the planets, which sometimes appeared to halt in their orbit of Earth and move retrograde across the sky.

In the second century A.D., the Alexandrian geographer and astronomer Ptolemy sought to resolve this problem by arguing that the sun, planets, and moon move in small circles around much larger circles that revolve around Earth. These small circles he called epicycles, and by incorporating numerous epicycles rotating at varying speeds he made his celestial system correspond with most astronomical observations on record.

The Ptolemaic system remained Europe’s accepted cosmology for more than 1,000 years, but by Copernicus’ day accumulated astronomical evidence had thrown some of his theories into confusion. Astronomers disagreed on the order of the planets from Earth, and it was this problem that Copernicus addressed at the beginning of the 16th century.

Sometime between 1508 and 1514, he wrote a short astronomical treatise commonly called the Commentariolus, or “Little Commentary,” which laid the basis for his heliocentric (sun-centered) system. The work was not published in his lifetime. In the treatise, he correctly postulated the order of the known planets, including Earth, from the sun, and estimated their orbital periods relatively accurately.

For Copernicus, his heliocentric theory was by no means a watershed, for it created as many problems as it solved. For instance, heavy objects were always assumed to fall to the ground because Earth was the center of the universe. Why would they do so in a sun-centered system? He retained the ancient belief that circles governed the heavens, but his evidence showed that even in a sun-centered universe the planets and stars did not revolve around the sun in circular orbits. Because of these problems and others, Copernicus delayed publication of his major astronomical work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri vi, or “Six Books Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs,” nearly all his life. Completed around 1530, it was not published until 1543–the year of his death.

In the work, Copernicus’ groundbreaking argument that Earth and the planets revolve around the sun led him to make a number of other major astronomical discoveries. While revolving around the sun, Earth, he argued, spins on its axis daily. Earth takes one year to orbit the sun and during this time wobbles gradually on its axis, which accounts for the precession of the equinoxes. Major flaws in the work include his concept of the sun as the center of the whole universe, not just the solar system, and his failure to grasp the reality of elliptical orbits, which forced him to incorporate numerous epicycles into his system, as did Ptolemy. With no concept of gravity, Earth and the planets still revolved around the sun on giant transparent spheres.

In his dedication to De revolutionibus—an extremely dense scientific work—Copernicus noted that “mathematics is written for mathematicians.” If the work were more accessible, many would have objected to its non-biblical and hence heretical concept of the universe. For decades, De revolutionibus remained unknown to all but the most sophisticated astronomers, and most of these men, while admiring some of Copernicus’ arguments, rejected his heliocentric basis. It was not until the early 17th century that Galileo and Johannes Kepler developed and popularized the Copernican theory, which for Galileo resulted in a trial and conviction for heresy. Following Isaac Newton’s work in celestial mechanics in the late 17th century, acceptance of the Copernican theory spread rapidly in non-Catholic countries, and by the late 18th century it was almost universally accepted.

Polish astronomer Copernicus is born - HISTORY

The history of astronomy in Poland until 1945

The contribution of Polish scholars to the understanding of the nature of the Universe is not limited only to the achievements of minds of such stature as Nicolaus Copernicus. In the 13th century two scholars of the European caliber lived and created, who came from Silesia, but were educated in foreign institutions. One of them was Franco de Polonia, to whom we owe the first description of the construction of an instrument called the torquetum. It found its place in the astronomy of the following centuries, since the construction of this device was also reflected upon in the works of Johannes Regiomontanus (1436-1476) and Peter Apianus (1495-1552). Another Silesian scholar was Witelo (c. 1230–c. 1300), who went down in the history of science because of his extensive Perspectiva. Witelo first studied in Paris and later in Padua, and probably during his stay in the second university he wrote two astronomical-cosmographical treatises, neither of which has unfortunately survived to our times: Scientia motuum caelestium and De partibus universi.

The development of astronomy in Poland in its tangible form dates back to the first years of the 15th century the turning point was the foundation of the chair of mathematics and astronomy in the renovated Cracow Academy in around 1405. The development of astronomy in that university which was started owing to that fact, resulted in that in relation to the second half of the 15th century we may speak of the existence of the Cracow school of astronomy. Institutionally studies of astronomy in Cracow were associated with the just mentioned Stobner Chair and the chair of astrology, founded in 1459 through the endowment by Marcin Król of Żurawica (c. 1422–1453). The scientific activity of astronomers from Cracow concentrated mainly on the explanation of elementary treatises and astronomical tables. Their duties also included the construction of ephemerides, which would notify about interesting astronomic phenomena, calendars and astrological prognostics. The most outstanding representatives of the Cracow school of astronomy were the aforementioned Marcin Król, Marcin Bylica of Olkusz (c. 1433–1493), Jan of Głogów (c. 1445–1507) and his student Wojciech of Brudzewo (1445/46-1495). Copernicus came in contact with this fully fledged school of astronomy when he enrolled in the faculty of liberal arts of the Cracow Academy in 1491.

Other interesting astronomical works and discoveries in Poland, apart from Copernicus’s achievements, appeared in the first half of the 17th century. They were associated with the new era of astronomy which began with the use of the telescope in the study of celestial bodies. One of the most interesting episodes were systematic observations of sunspots conducted between 1613 and 1618 in the Jesuit college in Kalisz by Charles Malapert (1580-1630) from Belgium, who cooperated with Polish Jesuits, namely with Szymon Perovius (1586-1656) and Aleksy Sylvius (1593-1650). Malapert used the method of image projection of the face of the Sun onto the screen attempts to invent the most convenient construction that would support a telescope with a screen led the observers from Kalisz to create prototypes of the equatorial mount which became so common in observatories in the following centuries.

Astronomy at an European level was practiced in Gdańsk by Johannes Hevelius (1611-1689). He devoted the first half of the 1640s to the telescopic observations of the Moon. The result of these observations was his work entitled Selenographia sive Lunae descriptio. (Selenography) published in 1647. The most important parts of Selenographia were observations and detailed maps of the Moon. Among other works by Hevelius, Dissertatio de nativa Saturni Facie, from 1656, in which the astronomer attempts to solve the mystery of the shape of that planet, may also be mentioned. In 1662, Hevelius published a work entitled Mercurius in Sole visus, which concerned the planet’s passage across the face of the Sun on the 3rd May 1661. In 1668 he published Cometographia which contained over 1000 pages and 400 illustrations. In this work Hevelius gives an account of his observations of comets (he discovered several himself) and describes the history of appearances of 250 stars with a tail from the earliest ages. At the same time another monumental treatise devoted to the ancient comets was published, namely Theatrum cometicum published in Amsterdam by Stanisław Lubieniecki (1623–1675). However, the work by Hevelius was at a higher level of scientific excellence. In his two-volume book Machina coelestis (volume 1: 1673, volume 2: 1679) the astronomer presents a detailed description of his instruments and over 20 thousand astronomical measurements he conducted himself for 30 years. One of the most outstanding achievements of Hevelius was his catalogue of 1545 stars which appeared in the work entitled Prodomus Astronomie. Published in 1690, Prodomus appeared together with a sky atlas Firmamentum Sobiescianum sive Uranographia. Both in the catalogue and in the atlas new constellations proposed by Hevelius may be found: Cerberus, Mons Menalus, Lacerta (the Lizard), Vulpecula (The Fox), Leo Minor (the Little Lion), Lynx (the Lynx), Sextans Uraniae (the Sextant), and Scutum Sobiescianum (the Shield). Hevelius also described in detail three other constellations that appeared occasionally on the sky maps: Antinous, Camelopardalis (the Giraffe) and Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs). Lacerta, Leo Minor, Vulpecula, Canes Venatici, Lynx, Sextans and Scutum may still be found among constellations today.

Another significant stage in the history of astronomy in Poland began in the second half of the 18th century. In that period astronomical observatories connected to various universities started appearing, though owing to the limited number of instruments, studies conducted there could very rarely be numbered in the main stream of European astronomy. The first two observatories that were erected at that time were: one by the Vilnius Jesuit Academy and another by the Jesuit College in Poznan. The first was initiated by Tomasz Żebrowski (1714-1758), a professor of mathematics. The institution started developing when the post of the astronomer was given to Marcin Poczobut-Odlanicki (1728–1810). Thanks to his foreign expeditions, he managed to acquaint himself with the activities of large European observatories, such as those in Greenwich or in Paris, and Poczobut’s works, observations of Mercury and of the first planetoids ever discovered, won recognition among astronomers abroad. The observatory in Poznań was founded thanks to the determination of Józef Rogaliński (1728-1802) who, after his return from studies in Paris in 1762, equipped the Jesuit College with instruments of high quality and in 1764 started his observations. Yet they were not systematic. The facility stopped working after the dissolution of the Jesuit Order in 1773.

Rogaliński’s lectures were also heard by Jan Śniadecki (1756-1830) who became interested in astronomy and later began his studies at the University of Cracow. Having obtained his doctorate of philosophy in 1775 and started lectures on mathematics, Śniadecki became engaged in the reform of the university. Part of it was the construction of an observatory. Just like Poczobut, while preparing himself for running the future observatory, Śniadecki travelled abroad. The official opening of the observatory in Cracow took place on the 1st of May 1792. In 1807 the scholar accepted an offer made by Poczobut and started running the Vilnius Observatory. Śniadecki’s astronomical activities in Vilnius were limited to the traditional set of observations of eclipses, planets, and ephemeral phenomena, such as comets. In 1825 Śniadecki retired and the post of director of the observatory was taken by his student Piotr Sławiński (1795-1881), who in 1826 published the first modern academic textbook on astronomy written in Polish: Rudiments of theoretical and practical astronomy.

Another Polish observatory, situated in Warsaw, was established as an institution of the then emerging University of Warsaw, thanks to the involvement of Franciszek Armiński (1789-1848), who in 1816 was appointed to a chair of astronomy. Construction of the observatory began in 1820 in the area of botanical gardens and ended in 1825. After the events of 1831 that led to the closure of the University of Warsaw, the observatory was given the status of a separate scientific institution with Armiński as a director.

In the nineteenth century in Poland, which was then partitioned, institutions conducting astronomical studies seemed in a poor appearance: two observatories functioned, one in Cracow and another in Warsaw. There was no theoretical research centre. However, a small number of private observatories existed whose owners could sometimes realize interesting scientific programmes. In the observatory in Cracow interesting scientific results were achieved during the term of Maximilian Weisse (1798-1863) who became the head of the facility in 1825. He undertook to prepare positional observations conducted in Królewiec under the supervision of Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel (1784-1846). The result of Weisse’s study, who worked together with the then assistant professor, who later became a mathematics professor, namely Jan Kanty Steczkowski (1800–1881), was a catalogue of coordinates of nearly 32 thousand stars, which was published in 1846. The second of Weisse’s catalogues, which includes positions of nearly 32 thousand other stars appeared in 1863. In 1862 the post of director of the observatory was taken by Franciszek Karliński (1830-1906). In 1902 Karliński was succeeded by Maurycy Pius Rudzki (1862-1916), mainly a geophysicist, the author of the highly regarded Physics of the Earth. Rudzki became interested in the theoretical deliberations concerning the thermodynamic equilibrium of gas spheres, that is stars, and published a short dissertation devoted to this subject. It was not noticed, however, by the pioneers of the theory of the internal structure of stars. The same thing happened in the case of a work entitled On the Thermodynamic Equilibrium of a Free Sphere, which was published by Czesław Białobrzeski (1878-1983) in a magazine from Cracow “Bulletin International de l’Académie Polonaise des Sciences et des Lettres”. Białobrzeski, who at that time still worked at the Kiev University, pointed out in his treatise the role of radiation pressure in the equilibrium of stellar interiors, thus anticipating Arthur S. Eddington’s (1882-1944) discoveries.

It was Adam Prażmowski (1821-1885) who was the pioneer of observational astrophysics in Poland. He started working in the observatory in Warsaw in 1839, which at that time was still supervised by Armiński. After Armiński death, he was succeeded by Jan Baranowski (1800-1879), his longtime co-worker, who in 1854 published the Latin text and Polish translation of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, and minor works of the astronomer from Frombork. It was the first translation of Copernicus’ work into a modern language. At the same time Prażmowski, who worked for Baranowski as a senior lecturer, started constructing instruments and using them in astronomical observations. The most famous of Prażmowski’s achievements was demonstrating that the solar corona, which is visible during a total eclipse, shines with polarised light. He conducted his observations in Spain during the eclipse in 1860.

In the territory of Poland in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, several private observatories also functioned, which were equipped with telescopes that were no smaller than the instruments used in institutional astronomy. The most important of those observatories was constructed in 1872 in Płońsk by a doctor, Jan Jędrzejewicz (1835-1887). He especially contributed with observations of double stars and comets, and he also wrote an excellent and well-illustrated textbook entitled Cosmography (first edition: 1886), which was very popular. It is also worth mentioning the observatories of Kajetan Kraszewski in Romanów (1855) and Władysław Szaniawski in Przegaliny (1909).

Reclamation of independence by Poland in 1918 resulted in organisational changes in Polish astronomy, the state of which was rather lamentable: only two not very modern observatories with academic traditions existed, one in Warsaw and the other in Cracow, and one young observatory at the department of spherical astronomy and higher geodesy of Lvov Polytechnic University, created in 1907 and supervised by Marcin Ernst (1869-1930), author of some very popular astronomical books and textbooks. Institutions in Cracow and Warsaw had new directors, the first was managed by Tadeusz Banachiewicz (1882-1954), who was given the post in 1919, and the second by Michał Kamieński (1879-1973), who specialised in the studies of orbits of comets.

At the same time new astronomical facilities were founded. The department of astronomy at the newly reactivated University of Vilnius was entrusted to Władysław Dziewulski (1878-1962). The university observatory was built from scratch on a suburban parcel of land, and the first instruments used in astrophysical studies appeared in 1922. Kazimierz Graff (1878-1950), a prominent specialist in stellar photometry who at that time was working in Hamburg, was invited to organise astronomical research at the newly created university in Poznań. Ultimately, however, Graff withdrew and his post was given to Bohdan Zaleski (1887-1927), who previously had practised astromerty in the Pułkowo Observatory. This way specialisation of the observatory in Poznań was established for many years. When Zaleski died, Józef Witkowski (1892-1976) became his successor. Another change took place at the Lvov University, where in 1932 Eugeniusz Rybka (1898-1988) became the head of the department and thus succeeded Ernst.

Consolidation of the community of Polish astronomers resulted in the formation of the Polish Astronomical Society, which took place during the congress organised on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the birth of Copernicus in 1923. The first person who was elected as president was Tadeusz Banachiewicz, who initiated publication of Acta Astronomica, a magazine having an international circulation. Amateur activity became dynamically organised and thus in 1921 an Amateur Astronomers’ Society was created in Warsaw, which a year later started issuing a very popular magazine entitled Urania. The Society very quickly achieved nationwide status and, as a result, in 1928 renamed itself the Polish Amateur Astronomers’ Society.

The beginning of the interwar period was not very good for Polish astronomy, taking into account the situation around the world. Observational astronomy in Poland was mainly focused on positional measurements and bodies of the Solar System. However, photometric studies of stars also started to be conducted, of variable stars in particular, and in 1938 spectrophotometric equipment became available in Vilnius. One of the attempts to extend the modern observation base was the location of observatories away from urban centres. This way the observatory in Cracow obtained Lubomir observational station on Łysina near Myślenice, which functioned between 1922-1944. In 1938 Józef Piłsudski Meteorology - Astronomical Observatory also started functioning. It was constructed by astronomers from Warsaw. It was situated on the top of Pop Ivan Mountain in the Eastern Carpathians and was equipped with an astrograph, the diameter of which was 33 cm. Theoretical studies from the interwar period were mainly focused on the mechanics of the sky.

Because of the Second World War, the geography of Polish astronomy was changed once again. The observatories on Łysina and Pop Ivan ceased to exist. The majority of astronomers from Vilnius moved to Toruń, where in 1949 the astronomical observatory of the newly founded Nicolaus Copernicus University started functioning in Piwnice. At the same time, in Wrocław, the new Polish astronomical centre was established, largely thanks to the involvement of scientists from Lvov.

Nicolaus Copernicus, Polish Astronomer

Copernicus is the father of modern astronomy and the driving of the astronomical revolution in the 16th Century.

After many years of looking and thinking, Copernicus came to the conclusion that the Earth and the other planets revolve around the Sun.

His observations of the sky and his reflections, led him to formulate the theory that the Earth is not the center of the universe.

Nicolaus Copernicus provided the foundations that allowed Kepler, Galileo, Herschel and Newton to culminate the astronomical revolution.

Seasons in the Martian Year as the red planet orbits the Sun Credit: web “”

In addition to his intelligence and tenacity, Copernicus had the enormous courage to break prudently with what in his time was considered an irrefutable truth.

Family and studies of Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus was born in 1473, in the city of Torun, on the banks of the Vistula, in Poland.

During his childhood and youth, he received an excellent education, thanks to his uncle Lucas, who was his tutor since, at age 10, Nicolás was orphaned.

Torun is a very famous city, mainly because Copernicus was born there. Credit: website

From 1491, Copernicus studied mathematics and art at the University of Krakow, astronomy at Bologna, medicine at the University of Padua, and he obtained the degree of Doctor of Canon Law at Ferrara.

He was a great student of classical authors and confessed himself as a great admirer of Ptolemy, whose Almagest he thoroughly studied.

Jaguelonica University, founded in 1364, is a prestigious University of Krakow,. Credit: wikipedia

Professional life of Copernicus

For 25 years, since he was an assistant to Professor Domenico María de Novara, in Bologna.

His uncle Lucas introduced him to canongy, which he performed for the rest of his life.

Reinstated permanently in his country (1523), he dedicated himself to the administration of the Diocese of Warmia, practiced Medicine, held certain administrative positions and carried out his immense and fundamental work in the field of Astronomy.

Circumstances of the astronomical observations of Copernicus

Copernicus fulfilled his obligations as canon of the Frauenburg Cathedral, attending all religious services.

At the same time, he enjoyed an excellent financial situation, as he was a beneficiary of taxes and contributions from the inhabitants of Frauenburg.

The enormous merit of Copernicus is that all his astronomical observations were made on cold nights in a city that is located far to the north of Europe.

Above all, Copernicus did not have a telescope, so all his measurements were made with very ingenious artisanal means, but without this essential instrument.

Copernicus made repeated and meticulous observations of the movement of the planets that he could see with the naked eye.

Copernicus’s revolutionary discoveries

His great powers of observation allowed him to verify that Venus and Mercury were always close to the Sun.

In addition, he observed that these planets gave the impression that they repeatedly changed direction by moving backwards.

These facts, repeatedly observed, contradicted the theory that these planets revolved around the Earth because, if that were the case, sometimes they should be located far from the Sun. And this never happened.

Furthermore, Copernicus found it very strange that Venus and Mercury changed the direction of rotation at some times of the year.

Finally he deduced that observations of these real events were easily explained by the theory that the Earth and the planets revolve around the Sun, as stated in ancient times by Aristarchus of Samos.

Venus and Mercury look close to the Sun because they are actually closer to the Sun. Credit: Biosphere Project.

Copernicus thought that if Mercury is closer to the Sun, it travels a shorter orbit and moves faster than Earth, giving the impression at times of moving backward, because it goes around the Sun several times during the Earth year.

This gives the impression that Mercury changes direction repeatedly when it passes the Earth and then moves away from it. However, it has the same address at all times.

Publications by nicolaus copernicus

Around 1507, Copernicus produced his exposition of an astronomical system according to which the Earth moves around the Sun.

Although this novel statement only circulated privately, the new ideas spread among scholars.

In the knowledge that his theory could spark a bitter ecclesiastical controversy, Copernicus had decided never to publish them.

In times of the Inquisition it was not wise to challenge ecclesiastical theories, with statements that contradicted biblical interpretations.

As an astronomer, Copernicus knew perfectly well that his theory was right and defeated the teachings of the church.

As a priest, he decided to be cautious because his position and his life were in serious danger.

For the next three decades, Copernicus neither published nor taught his discoveries, but his theory was discussed everywhere.

Artistic composition of planets in the sky. Credit: Unknown

Copernicus continued to refine his theory. He drew up new tables with data on the motion of the planets and wrote extensively about it.

In 1533, encouraged by some friends, Copernicus wrote a sketch of his hypothesis about celestial movements.

Copernicus worked with the hypothesis that the orbits of the planets were circular. This hypothesis forced him to introduce a large number of corrections to his theory, so that it coincided with the real observations of the movement of the planets.

In this manuscript summary he established his theory in 6 axioms, reserving the mathematical part for the main work to be published later under the title “On the revolutions of the celestial spheres“.

This work had an excellent reception, even in the official circles of the Church so much so that Cardinal Schönberg urged Copernicus to write a treatise in which his heliocentric theory was presented in detail.

He probably never would have done it, except that in 1539, already in the last years of his life, fortuitously and unexpectedly, a young professor of mathematics and astronomy, known by the name of Rheticus, arrived in Frauenburg.

Rheticus was a young Austrian who had a prodigious mathematical talent. Credit: Wikipedia

Rheticus urged Copernicus to publish his theory. Copernicus agreed to do it, but limiting himself to publish the tables he had made of the movements of the planets, without making any mention to the theory behind them.

Finally, Rheticus wrote a book explaining the ideas of Copernicus, whom he only mentioned by his first name and his birthplace.

Rheticus wrote a “letter” to one of his teachers in which he described the “theory of the Reverend Father Dr. Nicholas of Torun, Canon of Ermeland.”

He had the letter printed, which included astrological and biblical comments, and sent it to a few people.

The diffusion of this writing increased the pressure on Copernicus to publish all of his discoveries. In the end he relented.

Rheticus handed over the responsibility of printing it to the Lutheran priest Andreas Osiander who, astutely, had proposed that, if Copernicus decided to publish the book, he should say that the hypotheses it contained “were not articles of faith but mere calculations”.

With this prudent subterfuge, Copernicus would avoid criticism from the Aristotelians and the theologians whom he feared, with good reason.

Graphic illustration of the heliocentric model of Copernicus. Credit: Wikipedia

It was not until 1543 that the results of the investigations begun in 1507 were published.

The book was entitled “On the movements of the celestial bodies“ it stated that the Sun, and not the Earth, is the center of the universe.

This revolutionary theory marked an important milestone in the history of astronomy.

To protect Copernicus, Osiander wrote a preface, famous in the history of astronomy, which downplayed the book’s importance.

These hypotheses need not be true or even probable provide a calculation consistent with observations That’s enough.

As far as hypotheses are concerned, let no one expect anything true from astronomy, which cannot provide it, unless ideas conceived for other purposes are accepted as truths and one of these studies moves away being crazier than when the start. Goodbye“.

The first printed copy of the book, which was dedicated to Pope Paul III (Alexander Farnese), arrived at the hands of the Supreme Pontiff on May 24, 1543.

The preface was unsigned, although all attributed its authorship to Copernicus.

Thanks to this subterfuge, potential antagonists decided that the ideas expressed were so doubtful that even the author believed them.

Later, in 1616, when Galileo raised the dust, the Catholic Church inscribed the book of Copernicus in the Index of Forbidden Books, from where it was not taken until 1835.

However, the daily rotation of the Earth around his axis was not definitively demonstrated until 1855, when the Frenchman Jean Foucalt (1819-1868) used his famous pendulum for it.

Pope Paul III was called Alexander Farnese, he belonged to the powerful Farnese family. Credit: Wikipedia

Death of Copernicus and recognitions

A few days after handing over his book, Copernicus passed away in the city of Frauenburg, at the age of 70, on May 24, 1543.

In 2005, a team of Polish archaeologists claimed to have found his remains in Frauenburg Cathedral.

The authenticity that these remains were actually from Copernicus was verified in 2008 by analyzing a tooth and part of the skull and comparing it with his hair found in one of his manuscripts.

From the skull, police experts, reconstructed his face, matching this with his portrait.

A black granite tombstone now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory and also bears the representation of the Copernicus model of the solar system, a golden sun surrounded by six of the planets.

  • His name appears on the Lutheran Calendar of Saints.
  • The lunar crater Copernicus was named after him.
  • The asteroid (1322) Coppernicus also owes its name to him.
  • ESA’s Copernicus Space Program is also named after the astronomer.
  • In the state of New York exists the Kopernik Observatory and Science Center.
  • In memory of Nicolás Copernicus, on February 19, 2010 the IUPAC names element 112 of the periodic table as copernicium.

Polish Astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus from Torun Poland

In the 16th Century A.D. the world was far different from what we know it to be right now. Religion ruled the people by law, and literacy was reserved only for the privileged. Europe was considered to be the centre of the Earth, and Earth was considered to be the center of the Universe. But soon, a man will come who will change this perspective forever and his name was Nicolaus Copernicus.

Nicolaus Copernicus was born on 19th February 1473, in the city of today’s Torun under the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. The city of Torun is one of the oldest Polish cities, dating back from the 8th Century, and is very proud to be known, amongst other things, for being the town of birth of one of the world’s greatest astronomers.

Mikolaj Kopernik, as his name is written in Polish, or Nicolaus Koppernigk, as is in German, was a son of a merchant from Krakow, another Polish city, and a daughter of a wealthy merchant from his hometown. His family had a long tradition dating back to the 13th and the 14th centuries. The Latin form of his name is the one he chose for him, by which he wanted to be known. His parents had four children: another son Andreas, and daughters Barbara and Katharina. As Copernicus had no family of his own, in his later years he took care of Katharina’s children.

When Nicolaus was about ten years old, his father died. His maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, decided to take care of his education, through his connection to Filippo Buonaccorsi, a Krakow courtier, a humanist and a writer, and due the fact that he himself taught at St. John’s School in Torun.

As Copernicus grew older, he continued his studies in the Cathedral School at Wloclawek, a town not far from Torun, and then enrolled in what was then the University of Krakow, in the Department of Arts. One of Copernicus role models at the time was Albert Bruzewski, a professor of Aristotelian philosophy and a teacher of astronomy. Copernicus studied arithmetic, geometry, geometric optics, cosmonography, theoretical and computational astronomy and read from the works of Aristotle and Averroes. He learned about two official systems of astronomy and then discarded them in order to create his own findings: those were the Aristotle’s theory of homocentric spheres and Ptolemy’s mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles. Soon, he began collecting and creating a library of his own astronomy books, which today belongs to the Uppsala University Library in Sweden, as the Swedes took it during the Swedish Deluge in 1650s, an invasion and occupation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

When Copernicus’ uncle became the Prince-Bishop of Warmia, he called for Nicolaus to join his court and take part in the Warmia canonry. Warmia, a historical region was then under sovereignty of the Crown of Poland as part of the province of Royal Prussia, and retained numerous privileges of its own.

Nicolaus then made an appeal but as the answer got delayed, he was sent to Bologna, Italy, instead, where he signed up for studies at the University of Bologna. There Copernicus turned his interests from studying canon law to studying humanities and astronomy. He also became the assistant of the famous Italian scientist, Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara. On 9th March 1497, the two of them conducted an observation of the occultation of Aldebaran, the moment when the Moon covers over the brightest star in the Taurus constellation, which happens once a month, as Copernicus was doubtful of what he learned about the motion of the Moon by far. This moment will lead Copernicus closer to his memorable discovery and keep him confident to critique contemporary astronomy.

In 1500, Copernicus moved to Rome, and then returned to Poland in 1501 for a brief moment just to travel back to Italy to study medicine at the University of Padua.

In 1503, Copernicus traveled to Ferrara where he was received the degree of doctor of canon law. During that time, Copernicus got interested in Hellenistic studies and is thought to have self-taught the Greek language. After that, Nicolaus returned to Warmia once again to become his uncle’s secretary and physician and stopped travelling outside of Polish borders.This is when he began concrete work on his famous heliocentric theory.

It is important to mention that during that time the teachings of Catholic church meant everything to people. Although Copernicus jointed the chapter as approved by his appeal, he investigated the knowledge that was then given to people, and challenged the teachings of the church. Even though, officially, even the Pope himself thought that his findings were interesting, Copernicus did make quite a few intellectual enemies.

In the next period of his life, Copernicus began creating his own work. He also translated a collection of 85 brief poems called Epistles by the Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocatta, from Greek to Latin, which he dedicated to his uncle and then published.

In about 1512, Copernicus moved to a town called Frombork, where he began living in a house outside the defensive walls of the cathedral, as a canon. Frombork remained Nicolaus’ home for the rest of his life.This is where he spent conducting more than sixty registered astronomical observations, using primitive instruments which probably got stolen in the later years and wars which occured on the territory. Nicolaus had also an active role in the chapter, working on the side of the Polish Crown in order to create stability in the country. He signed the famous Second Treaty of Piotrkow Trybunalskich in 1512, which conceded a right to the King to propose four candidates of his own liking, for the election as a Bishop, but under the condition that they had Prussian heritage.

By 1514, Nicolaus wrote his Commentariolus or the outline of the heliocentric theory. Although this will prove to be an important document, Nicolaus has not made many copies and the complete work got to print not before the 19th Century, but still, parts of his work would enter works of his colleagues, as he made his findings available to his friends.

The draft of his heliocentric theory summarized the following:

  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 the center towards which heavenly bodies move and the center of the lunar sphere.
  3. All the spheres surround the sun as if it were in the middle of them all, and therefore the center of the universe is near the sun.
  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.

In 1515, he discovered the variability of Earth’s eccentricity. Due to his discovery, he is thought to have taken part in a proposal for the revision of the Julian calendar.

In 1516, Copernicus has moved to Olsztyn Castle as an economic administrator of Warmia, where he stayed for the next five years. During that time, he wrote a manuscript called Locationes mansorum desertorum about the idea of helping the Warmia economy. During the Polish-Teutonic War or Prussian War as it was called, Copernicus represented the Polish side in the negotiations and also helped plan the defence of of Olsztyn.

In 1526, he went on to write a study on the value of money, called Monetae cudendae ratio, and formulated a theory later to be called the Gresham’s law, stating that bad money drives out good. He was also the one to create the quantity theory of money.

In 1551, Erasmus Reinhold, an astronomer, published the Prussian Tables, or a set of astronomical tables based on Copernicus’ work.

It wasn’t until 1532 that Copernicus completed his work. De revolutionibus orbium coelestiumor The Revolutions of the Celestialis the name of the manuscript which he decided not to publish at first, as he didn’t want to face the public scorn. Finally, he published his works with a dedication to the Pope Paul III, in 1543, which will prove to be the year of his death.

Nicolaus Copernicus died at the age of seventy, on 24th May, 1543. He was battling apoplexy and paralysis, and died peacefully following a stroke-induced coma. He was then said to be buried in the Frombork Cathedral but his remains were not to be found until 2005, when archeologists scanned beneath the cathedral floor. Copernicus’ face was reconstructed as one of the ways besides the DNA test, which proved it was indeed him. In 2010, Jozef Kowalczyk, the Primate of Poland, led a second burial of Copernicus, into now a marked and closely watched grave in the same spot in the Cathedral.

It took quite some time for Copernicus’ theory to really create controversy, probably due to the fact that more and more people began supporting it. In 1616, Catholic Church finally reacted with a decree which suspended Copernicus’ Coelestium On The Revolutions, claiming that it opposed the Holy Scripture, and corrected it stating heliocentrism not as a fact, but rather a hypothesis. Galileo Galilei, an Italian polymath, continued to support heliocentrism and Copernicanism until he was sentenced to house arrest by the Roman Inquisition. A legend says that his last dying words were: And yet, it turns, meaning that the Earth revolves, as well as other planets revolve around the Sun.

Today, Copernicus’ theory is considered a norm, as it was considered a scientific revolution, which is why he remains respected as one of the greatest scientists of our civilization. Together with Johannes Kepler, another great scientist and the author of Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, Copernicus is honored in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church in the USA, and holds his own feast day, on 23rd May. His famous portrait, called The Torun Portrait by an anonymous artist, is kept safe in the Torun town hall.


Nicolaus Copernicus was born on 19 February 1473 in the city of Toruń (Thorn), in the province of Royal Prussia, in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. [9] [10]

His father was a merchant from Kraków and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy Toruń merchant. [11] Nicolaus was the youngest of four children. His brother Andreas (Andrew) became an Augustinian canon at Frombork (Frauenburg). [11] His sister Barbara, named after her mother, became a Benedictine nun and, in her final years, prioress of a convent in Chełmno (Kulm) she died after 1517. [11] His sister Katharina married the businessman and Toruń city councilor Barthel Gertner and left five children, whom Copernicus looked after to the end of his life. [11] Copernicus never married and is not known to have had children, but from at least 1531 until 1539 his relations with Anna Schilling, a live-in housekeeper, were seen as scandalous by two bishops of Warmia who urged him over the years to break off relations with his "mistress". [12]

Father's family

Copernicus' father's family can be traced to a village in Silesia between Nysa (Neiße) and Prudnik (Neustadt). The village's name has been variously spelled Kopernik, [g] Copernik, Copernic, Kopernic, Coprirnik, and today Koperniki. [14] In the 14th century, members of the family began moving to various other Silesian cities, to the Polish capital, Kraków (1367), and to Toruń (1400). [14] The father, Mikołaj the Elder, likely the son of Jan, came from the Kraków line. [14]

Nicolaus was named after his father, who appears in records for the first time as a well-to-do merchant who dealt in copper, selling it mostly in Danzig (Gdańsk). [15] [16] He moved from Kraków to Toruń around 1458. [17] Toruń, situated on the Vistula River, was at that time embroiled in the Thirteen Years' War, in which the Kingdom of Poland and the Prussian Confederation, an alliance of Prussian cities, gentry and clergy, fought the Teutonic Order over control of the region. In this war, Hanseatic cities like Danzig and Toruń, Nicolaus Copernicus's hometown, chose to support the Polish King, Casimir IV Jagiellon, who promised to respect the cities' traditional vast independence, which the Teutonic Order had challenged. Nicolaus' father was actively engaged in the politics of the day and supported Poland and the cities against the Teutonic Order. [18] In 1454 he mediated negotiations between Poland's Cardinal Zbigniew Oleśnicki and the Prussian cities for repayment of war loans. [14] In the Second Peace of Thorn (1466), the Teutonic Order formally relinquished all claims to its western province, which as Royal Prussia remained a region of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland until the First (1772) and Second (1793) Partitions of Poland.

Copernicus's father married Barbara Watzenrode, the astronomer's mother, between 1461 and 1464. [14] He died about 1483. [11]

Mother's family

Nicolaus' mother, Barbara Watzenrode, was the daughter of a wealthy Toruń patrician and city councillor, Lucas Watzenrode the Elder (deceased 1462), and Katarzyna (widow of Jan Peckau), mentioned in other sources as Katarzyna Rüdiger gente Modlibóg (deceased 1476). [11] The Modlibógs were a prominent Polish family who had been well known in Poland's history since 1271. [19] The Watzenrode family, like the Kopernik family, had come from Silesia from near Świdnica (Schweidnitz), and after 1360 had settled in Toruń. They soon became one of the wealthiest and most influential patrician families. [11] Through the Watzenrodes' extensive family relationships by marriage, Copernicus was related to wealthy families of Toruń (Thorn), Gdańsk (Danzig) and Elbląg (Elbing), and to prominent Polish noble families of Prussia: the Czapskis, Działyńskis, Konopackis and Kościeleckis. [11] Lucas and Katherine had three children: Lucas Watzenrode the Younger (1447–1512), who would become Bishop of Warmia and Copernicus's patron Barbara, the astronomer's mother (deceased after 1495) and Christina (deceased before 1502), who in 1459 married the Toruń merchant and mayor, Tiedeman von Allen. [11]

Lucas Watzenrode the Elder, a wealthy merchant and in 1439–62 president of the judicial bench, was a decided opponent of the Teutonic Knights. [11] In 1453 he was the delegate from Toruń at the Grudziądz (Graudenz) conference that planned the uprising against them. [11] During the ensuing Thirteen Years' War (1454–66), he actively supported the Prussian cities' war effort with substantial monetary subsidies (only part of which he later re-claimed), with political activity in Toruń and Danzig, and by personally fighting in battles at Łasin (Lessen) and Malbork (Marienburg). [11] He died in 1462. [11]

Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, the astronomer's maternal uncle and patron, was educated at the University of Kraków (now Jagiellonian University) and at the universities of Cologne and Bologna. He was a bitter opponent of the Teutonic Order, [h] and its Grand Master once referred to him as "the devil incarnate". [i] In 1489 Watzenrode was elected Bishop of Warmia (Ermeland, Ermland) against the preference of King Casimir IV, who had hoped to install his own son in that seat. [22] As a result, Watzenrode quarreled with the king until Casimir IV's death three years later. [23] Watzenrode was then able to form close relations with three successive Polish monarchs: John I Albert, Alexander Jagiellon, and Sigismund I the Old. He was a friend and key advisor to each ruler, and his influence greatly strengthened the ties between Warmia and Poland proper. [24] Watzenrode came to be considered the most powerful man in Warmia, and his wealth, connections and influence allowed him to secure Copernicus' education and career as a canon at Frombork Cathedral. [22] [j]


Copernicus is postulated to have spoken Latin, German, and Polish with equal fluency he also spoke Greek and Italian, and had some knowledge of Hebrew. [k] [l] [m] [n] The vast majority of Copernicus's extant writings are in Latin, the language of European academia in his lifetime.

Arguments for German being Copernicus's native tongue are that he was born into a predominantly German-speaking urban patrician class using German, next to Latin, as language of trade and commerce in written documents, [34] and that, while studying canon law at the University of Bologna in 1496, he signed into the German natio (Natio Germanorum)—a student organization which, according to its 1497 by-laws, was open to students of all kingdoms and states whose mother-tongue was German. [35] However, according to French philosopher Alexandre Koyré, Copernicus's registration with the Natio Germanorum does not in itself imply that Copernicus considered himself German, since students from Prussia and Silesia were routinely so categorized, which carried certain privileges that made it a natural choice for German-speaking students, regardless of their ethnicity or self-identification. [35] [o] [p] [38]

The surname Kopernik, Copernik, Koppernigk, in various spellings, is recorded in Kraków from c. 1350, apparently given to people from the village of Koperniki (prior to 1845 rendered Kopernik, Copernik, Copirnik, and Koppirnik) in the Duchy of Nysa, 10 km south of Nysa, and now 10 km north of the Polish-Czech border. Nicolaus Copernicus' great-grandfather is recorded as having received citizenship in Kraków in 1386. The toponym Kopernik (modern Koperniki) has been variously tied to the Polish word for "dill" (koper) and the German word for "copper" (Kupfer). [q] The suffix -nik (or plural, -niki) denotes a Slavic and Polish agent noun.

As was common in the period, the spellings of both the toponym and the surname vary greatly. Copernicus "was rather indifferent about orthography". [39] During his childhood, about 1480, the name of his father (and thus of the future astronomer) was recorded in Thorn as Niclas Koppernigk. [40] At Kraków he signed himself, in Latin, Nicolaus Nicolai de Torunia (Nicolaus, son of Nicolaus, of Toruń). [r] At Bologna, in 1496, he registered in the Matricula Nobilissimi Germanorum Collegii, resp. Annales Clarissimae Nacionis Germanorum, of the Natio Germanica Bononiae, as Dominus Nicolaus Kopperlingk de Thorn – IX grosseti. [42] [43] At Padua he signed himself "Nicolaus Copernik", later "Coppernicus". [39] The astronomer thus Latinized his name to Coppernicus, generally with two "p"s (in 23 of 31 documents studied), [44] but later in life he used a single "p". On the title page of De revolutionibus, Rheticus published the name (in the genitive, or possessive, case) as "Nicolai Copernici". [s]


In Poland

Upon his father's death, young Nicolaus' maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger (1447–1512), took the boy under his wing and saw to his education and career. [11] Watzenrode maintained contacts with leading intellectual figures in Poland and was a friend of the influential Italian-born humanist and Kraków courtier, Filippo Buonaccorsi. [45] There are no surviving primary documents on the early years of Copernicus's childhood and education. [11] Copernicus biographers assume that Watzenrode first sent young Copernicus to St. John's School, at Toruń, where he himself had been a master. [11] Later, according to Armitage, [t] the boy attended the Cathedral School at Włocławek, up the Vistula River from Toruń, which prepared pupils for entrance to the University of Kraków, Watzenrode's alma mater in Poland's capital. [46]

In the winter semester of 1491–92 Copernicus, as "Nicolaus Nicolai de Thuronia", matriculated together with his brother Andrew at the University of Kraków (now Jagiellonian University). [11] Copernicus began his studies in the Department of Arts (from the fall of 1491, presumably until the summer or fall of 1495) in the heyday of the Kraków astronomical-mathematical school, acquiring the foundations for his subsequent mathematical achievements. [11] According to a later but credible tradition (Jan Brożek), Copernicus was a pupil of Albert Brudzewski, who by then (from 1491) was a professor of Aristotelian philosophy but taught astronomy privately outside the university Copernicus became familiar with Brudzewski's widely read commentary to Georg von Peuerbach's Theoricæ novæ planetarum and almost certainly attended the lectures of Bernard of Biskupie and Wojciech Krypa of Szamotuły, and probably other astronomical lectures by Jan of Głogów, Michał of Wrocław (Breslau), Wojciech of Pniewy, and Marcin Bylica of Olkusz. [47]

Copernicus' Kraków studies gave him a thorough grounding in the mathematical astronomy taught at the University (arithmetic, geometry, geometric optics, cosmography, theoretical and computational astronomy) and a good knowledge of the philosophical and natural-science writings of Aristotle (De coelo, Metaphysics) and Averroes (which in the future would play an important role in the shaping of Copernicus' theory), stimulating his interest in learning and making him conversant with humanistic culture. [22] Copernicus broadened the knowledge that he took from the university lecture halls with independent reading of books that he acquired during his Kraków years (Euclid, Haly Abenragel, the Alfonsine Tables, Johannes Regiomontanus' Tabulae directionum) to this period, probably, also date his earliest scientific notes, now preserved partly at Uppsala University. [22] At Kraków Copernicus began collecting a large library on astronomy it would later be carried off as war booty by the Swedes during the Deluge in the 1650s and is now at the Uppsala University Library. [48]

Copernicus' four years at Kraków played an important role in the development of his critical faculties and initiated his analysis of logical contradictions in the two "official" systems of astronomy—Aristotle's theory of homocentric spheres, and Ptolemy's mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles—the surmounting and discarding of which would be the first step toward the creation of Copernicus' own doctrine of the structure of the universe. [22]

Without taking a degree, probably in the fall of 1495, Copernicus left Kraków for the court of his uncle Watzenrode, who in 1489 had been elevated to Prince-Bishop of Warmia and soon (before November 1495) sought to place his nephew in the Warmia canonry vacated by the 26 August 1495 death of its previous tenant, Jan Czanow. For unclear reasons—probably due to opposition from part of the chapter, who appealed to Rome—Copernicus' installation was delayed, inclining Watzenrode to send both his nephews to study canon law in Italy, seemingly with a view to furthering their ecclesiastic careers and thereby also strengthening his own influence in the Warmia chapter. [22]

On 20 October 1497, Copernicus, by proxy, formally succeeded to the Warmia canonry which had been granted to him two years earlier. To this, by a document dated 10 January 1503 at Padua, he would add a sinecure at the Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross and St. Bartholomew in Wrocław (at the time in the Kingdom of Bohemia). Despite having been granted a papal indult on 29 November 1508 to receive further benefices, through his ecclesiastic career Copernicus not only did not acquire further prebends and higher stations (prelacies) at the chapter, but in 1538 he relinquished the Wrocław sinecure. It is unclear whether he was ever ordained a priest. [49] Edward Rosen asserts that he was not. [50] [51] Copernicus did take minor orders, which sufficed for assuming a chapter canonry. [22] The Catholic Encyclopedia proposes that his ordination was probable, as in 1537 he was one of four candidates for the episcopal seat of Warmia, a position which required ordination. [52]

In Italy

Meanwhile, leaving Warmia in mid-1496—possibly with the retinue of the chapter's chancellor, Jerzy Pranghe, who was going to Italy—in the fall, possibly in October, Copernicus arrived in Bologna and a few months later (after 6 January 1497) signed himself into the register of the Bologna University of Jurists' "German nation", which included young Poles from Silesia, Prussia and Pomerania as well as students of other nationalities. [22]

During his three-year stay at Bologna, which occurred between fall 1496 and spring 1501, Copernicus seems to have devoted himself less keenly to studying canon law (he received his doctorate in canon law only after seven years, following a second return to Italy in 1503) than to studying the humanities—probably attending lectures by Filippo Beroaldo, Antonio Urceo, called Codro, Giovanni Garzoni, and Alessandro Achillini—and to studying astronomy. He met the famous astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara and became his disciple and assistant. [22] Copernicus was developing new ideas inspired by reading the "Epitome of the Almagest" (Epitome in Almagestum Ptolemei) by George von Peuerbach and Johannes Regiomontanus (Venice, 1496). He verified its observations about certain peculiarities in Ptolemy's theory of the Moon's motion, by conducting on 9 March 1497 at Bologna a memorable observation of the occultation of Aldebaran, the brightest star in the Taurus constellation, by the moon. Copernicus the humanist sought confirmation for his growing doubts through close reading of Greek and Latin authors (Pythagoras, Aristarchos of Samos, Cleomedes, Cicero, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Philolaus, Heraclides, Ecphantos, Plato), gathering, especially while at Padua, fragmentary historic information about ancient astronomical, cosmological and calendar systems. [53]

Copernicus spent the jubilee year 1500 in Rome, where he arrived with his brother Andrew that spring, doubtless to perform an apprenticeship at the Papal Curia. Here, too, however, he continued his astronomical work begun at Bologna, observing, for example, a lunar eclipse on the night of 5–6 November 1500. According to a later account by Rheticus, Copernicus also—probably privately, rather than at the Roman Sapienza—as a "Professor Mathematum" (professor of astronomy) delivered, "to numerous. students and. leading masters of the science", public lectures devoted probably to a critique of the mathematical solutions of contemporary astronomy. [54]

On his return journey doubtless stopping briefly at Bologna, in mid-1501 Copernicus arrived back in Warmia. After on 28 July receiving from the chapter a two-year extension of leave in order to study medicine (since "he may in future be a useful medical advisor to our Reverend Superior [Bishop Lucas Watzenrode] and the gentlemen of the chapter"), in late summer or in the fall he returned again to Italy, probably accompanied by his brother Andrew [v] and by Canon Bernhard Sculteti. This time he studied at the University of Padua, famous as a seat of medical learning, and—except for a brief visit to Ferrara in May–June 1503 to pass examinations for, and receive, his doctorate in canon law—he remained at Padua from fall 1501 to summer 1503. [54]

Copernicus studied medicine probably under the direction of leading Padua professors—Bartolomeo da Montagnana, Girolamo Fracastoro, Gabriele Zerbi, Alessandro Benedetti—and read medical treatises that he acquired at this time, by Valescus de Taranta, Jan Mesue, Hugo Senensis, Jan Ketham, Arnold de Villa Nova, and Michele Savonarola, which would form the embryo of his later medical library. [54]

One of the subjects that Copernicus must have studied was astrology, since it was considered an important part of a medical education. [56] However, unlike most other prominent Renaissance astronomers, he appears never to have practiced or expressed any interest in astrology. [57]

As at Bologna, Copernicus did not limit himself to his official studies. It was probably the Padua years that saw the beginning of his Hellenistic interests. He familiarized himself with Greek language and culture with the aid of Theodorus Gaza's grammar (1495) and Johannes Baptista Chrestonius' dictionary (1499), expanding his studies of antiquity, begun at Bologna, to the writings of Bessarion, Lorenzo Valla, and others. There also seems to be evidence that it was during his Padua stay that the idea finally crystallized, of basing a new system of the world on the movement of the Earth. [54] As the time approached for Copernicus to return home, in spring 1503 he journeyed to Ferrara where, on 31 May 1503, having passed the obligatory examinations, he was granted the degree of Doctor of Canon Law (Nicolaus Copernich de Prusia, Jure Canonico . et doctoratus [58] ). No doubt it was soon after (at latest, in fall 1503) that he left Italy for good to return to Warmia. [54]

Planetary observations

Copernicus made three observations of Mercury, with errors of −3, −15 and −1 minutes of arc. He made one of Venus, with an error of −24 minutes. Four were made of Mars, with errors of 2, 20, 77, and 137 minutes. Four observations were made of Jupiter, with errors of 32, 51, −11 and 25 minutes. He made four of Saturn, with errors of 31, 20, 23 and −4 minutes. [59]

Other observations

With Novara, Copernicus observed an occultation of Aldebaran by the moon on 9/3/1497. Copernicus also observed a conjunction of Saturn and the moon on 4/3/1500. He saw an eclipse of the moon on 6/11/1500. [60] [61]

Having completed all his studies in Italy, 30-year-old Copernicus returned to Warmia, where he would live out the remaining 40 years of his life, apart from brief journeys to Kraków and to nearby Prussian cities: Toruń (Thorn), Gdańsk (Danzig), Elbląg (Elbing), Grudziądz (Graudenz), Malbork (Marienburg), Königsberg (Królewiec). [54]

The Prince-Bishopric of Warmia enjoyed substantial autonomy, with its own diet (parliament) and monetary unit (the same as in the other parts of Royal Prussia) and treasury. [62]

Copernicus was his uncle's secretary and physician from 1503 to 1510 (or perhaps till his uncle's death on 29 March 1512) and resided in the Bishop's castle at Lidzbark (Heilsberg), where he began work on his heliocentric theory. In his official capacity, he took part in nearly all his uncle's political, ecclesiastic and administrative-economic duties. From the beginning of 1504, Copernicus accompanied Watzenrode to sessions of the Royal Prussian diet held at Malbork and Elbląg and, write Dobrzycki and Hajdukiewicz, "participated. in all the more important events in the complex diplomatic game that ambitious politician and statesman played in defense of the particular interests of Prussia and Warmia, between hostility to the [Teutonic] Order and loyalty to the Polish Crown." [54]

In 1504–12 Copernicus made numerous journeys as part of his uncle's retinue—in 1504, to Toruń and Gdańsk, to a session of the Royal Prussian Council in the presence of Poland's King Alexander Jagiellon to sessions of the Prussian diet at Malbork (1506), Elbląg (1507) and Sztum (Stuhm) (1512) and he may have attended a Poznań (Posen) session (1510) and the coronation of Poland's King Sigismund I the Old in Kraków (1507). Watzenrode's itinerary suggests that in spring 1509 Copernicus may have attended the Kraków sejm. [54]

It was probably on the latter occasion, in Kraków, that Copernicus submitted for printing at Jan Haller's press his translation, from Greek to Latin, of a collection, by the 7th-century Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocatta, of 85 brief poems called Epistles, or letters, supposed to have passed between various characters in a Greek story. They are of three kinds—"moral," offering advice on how people should live "pastoral", giving little pictures of shepherd life and "amorous", comprising love poems. They are arranged to follow one another in a regular rotation of subjects. Copernicus had translated the Greek verses into Latin prose, and he now published his version as Theophilacti scolastici Simocati epistolae morales, rurales et amatoriae interpretatione latina, which he dedicated to his uncle in gratitude for all the benefits he had received from him. With this translation, Copernicus declared himself on the side of the humanists in the struggle over the question of whether Greek literature should be revived. [29] Copernicus's first poetic work was a Greek epigram, composed probably during a visit to Kraków, for Johannes Dantiscus' epithalamium for Barbara Zapolya's 1512 wedding to King Zygmunt I the Old. [63]

Some time before 1514, Copernicus wrote an initial outline of his heliocentric theory known only from later transcripts, by the title (perhaps given to it by a copyist), Nicolai Copernici de hypothesibus motuum coelestium a se constitutis commentariolus—commonly referred to as the Commentariolus. It was a succinct theoretical description of the world's heliocentric mechanism, without mathematical apparatus, and differed in some important details of geometric construction from De revolutionibus but it was already based on the same assumptions regarding Earth's triple motions. The Commentariolus, which Copernicus consciously saw as merely a first sketch for his planned book, was not intended for printed distribution. He made only a very few manuscript copies available to his closest acquaintances, including, it seems, several Kraków astronomers with whom he collaborated in 1515–30 in observing eclipses. Tycho Brahe would include a fragment from the Commentariolus in his own treatise, Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata, published in Prague in 1602, based on a manuscript that he had received from the Bohemian physician and astronomer Tadeáš Hájek, a friend of Rheticus. The Commentariolus would appear complete in print for the first time only in 1878. [63]

In 1510 or 1512 Copernicus moved to Frombork, a town to the northwest at the Vistula Lagoon on the Baltic Sea coast. There, in April 1512, he participated in the election of Fabian of Lossainen as Prince-Bishop of Warmia. It was only in early June 1512 that the chapter gave Copernicus an "external curia"—a house outside the defensive walls of the cathedral mount. In 1514 he purchased the northwestern tower within the walls of the Frombork stronghold. He would maintain both these residences to the end of his life, despite the devastation of the chapter's buildings by a raid against Frauenburg carried out by the Teutonic Order in January 1520, during which Copernicus's astronomical instruments were probably destroyed. Copernicus conducted astronomical observations in 1513–16 presumably from his external curia and in 1522–43, from an unidentified "small tower" (turricula), using primitive instruments modeled on ancient ones—the quadrant, triquetrum, armillary sphere. At Frombork Copernicus conducted over half of his more than 60 registered astronomical observations. [63]

Having settled permanently at Frombork, where he would reside to the end of his life, with interruptions in 1516–19 and 1520–21, Copernicus found himself at the Warmia chapter's economic and administrative center, which was also one of Warmia's two chief centers of political life. In the difficult, politically complex situation of Warmia, threatened externally by the Teutonic Order's aggressions (attacks by Teutonic bands the Polish-Teutonic War of 1519–21 Albert's plans to annex Warmia), internally subject to strong separatist pressures (the selection of the prince-bishops of Warmia currency reform), he, together with part of the chapter, represented a program of strict cooperation with the Polish Crown and demonstrated in all his public activities (the defense of his country against the Order's plans of conquest proposals to unify its monetary system with the Polish Crown's support for Poland's interests in the Warmia dominion's ecclesiastic administration) that he was consciously a citizen of the Polish-Lithuanian Republic. Soon after the death of uncle Bishop Watzenrode, he participated in the signing of the Second Treaty of Piotrków Trybunalski (7 December 1512), governing the appointment of the Bishop of Warmia, declaring, despite opposition from part of the chapter, for loyal cooperation with the Polish Crown. [63]

That same year (before 8 November 1512) Copernicus assumed responsibility, as magister pistoriae, for administering the chapter's economic enterprises (he would hold this office again in 1530), having already since 1511 fulfilled the duties of chancellor and visitor of the chapter's estates. [63]

His administrative and economic duties did not distract Copernicus, in 1512–15, from intensive observational activity. The results of his observations of Mars and Saturn in this period, and especially a series of four observations of the Sun made in 1515, led to the discovery of the variability of Earth's eccentricity and of the movement of the solar apogee in relation to the fixed stars, which in 1515–19 prompted his first revisions of certain assumptions of his system. Some of the observations that he made in this period may have had a connection with a proposed reform of the Julian calendar made in the first half of 1513 at the request of the Bishop of Fossombrone, Paul of Middelburg. Their contacts in this matter in the period of the Fifth Lateran Council were later memorialized in a complimentary mention in Copernicus's dedicatory epistle in Dē revolutionibus orbium coelestium and in a treatise by Paul of Middelburg, Secundum compendium correctionis Calendarii (1516), which mentions Copernicus among the learned men who had sent the Council proposals for the calendar's emendation. [64]

During 1516–21, Copernicus resided at Olsztyn (Allenstein) Castle as economic administrator of Warmia, including Olsztyn (Allenstein) and Pieniężno (Mehlsack). While there, he wrote a manuscript, Locationes mansorum desertorum (Locations of Deserted Fiefs), with a view to populating those fiefs with industrious farmers and so bolstering the economy of Warmia. When Olsztyn was besieged by the Teutonic Knights during the Polish–Teutonic War, Copernicus directed the defense of Olsztyn and Warmia by Royal Polish forces. He also represented the Polish side in the ensuing peace negotiations. [65]

Copernicus for years advised the Royal Prussian sejmik on monetary reform, particularly in the 1520s when that was a major question in regional Prussian politics. [67] In 1526 he wrote a study on the value of money, "Monetae cudendae ratio". In it he formulated an early iteration of the theory, now called Gresham's law, that "bad" (debased) coinage drives "good" (un-debased) coinage out of circulation—several decades before Thomas Gresham. He also, in 1517, set down a quantity theory of money, a principal concept in economics to the present day. Copernicus's recommendations on monetary reform were widely read by leaders of both Prussia and Poland in their attempts to stabilize currency. [68]

In 1533, Johann Widmanstetter, secretary to Pope Clement VII, explained Copernicus's heliocentric system to the Pope and two cardinals. The Pope was so pleased that he gave Widmanstetter a valuable gift. [69] In 1535 Bernard Wapowski wrote a letter to a gentleman in Vienna, urging him to publish an enclosed almanac, which he claimed had been written by Copernicus. This is the only mention of a Copernicus almanac in the historical records. The "almanac" was likely Copernicus's tables of planetary positions. Wapowski's letter mentions Copernicus's theory about the motions of the earth. Nothing came of Wapowski's request, because he died a couple of weeks later. [69]

Following the death of Prince-Bishop of Warmia Mauritius Ferber (1 July 1537), Copernicus participated in the election of his successor, Johannes Dantiscus (20 September 1537). Copernicus was one of four candidates for the post, written in at the initiative of Tiedemann Giese but his candidacy was actually pro forma, since Dantiscus had earlier been named coadjutor bishop to Ferber and since Dantiscus had the backing of Poland's King Sigismund I. [70] At first Copernicus maintained friendly relations with the new Prince-Bishop, assisting him medically in spring 1538 and accompanying him that summer on an inspection tour of Chapter holdings. But that autumn, their friendship was strained by suspicions over Copernicus's housekeeper, Anna Schilling, whom Dantiscus banished from Frombork in spring 1539. [70]

In his younger days, Copernicus the physician had treated his uncle, brother and other chapter members. In later years he was called upon to attend the elderly bishops who in turn occupied the see of Warmia—Mauritius Ferber and Johannes Dantiscus—and, in 1539, his old friend Tiedemann Giese, Bishop of Chełmno (Kulm). In treating such important patients, he sometimes sought consultations from other physicians, including the physician to Duke Albert and, by letter, the Polish Royal Physician. [71]

In the spring of 1541, Duke Albert—former Grand Master of the Teutonic Order who had converted the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights into a Lutheran and hereditary realm, the Duchy of Prussia, upon doing homage to his uncle, the King of Poland, Sigismund I—summoned Copernicus to Königsberg to attend the Duke's counselor, George von Kunheim, who had fallen seriously ill, and for whom the Prussian doctors seemed unable to do anything. Copernicus went willingly he had met von Kunheim during negotiations over reform of the coinage. And Copernicus had come to feel that Albert himself was not such a bad person the two had many intellectual interests in common. The Chapter readily gave Copernicus permission to go, as it wished to remain on good terms with the Duke, despite his Lutheran faith. In about a month the patient recovered, and Copernicus returned to Frombork. For a time, he continued to receive reports on von Kunheim's condition, and to send him medical advice by letter. [72]

Some of Copernicus's close friends turned Protestant, but Copernicus never showed a tendency in that direction. The first attacks on him came from Protestants. Wilhelm Gnapheus, a Dutch refugee settled in Elbląg, wrote a comedy in Latin, Morosophus (The Foolish Sage), and staged it at the Latin school that he had established there. In the play, Copernicus was caricatured as the eponymous Morosophus, a haughty, cold, aloof man who dabbled in astrology, considered himself inspired by God, and was rumored to have written a large work that was moldering in a chest. [45]

Elsewhere Protestants were the first to react to news of Copernicus's theory. Melanchthon wrote:

Some people believe that it is excellent and correct to work out a thing as absurd as did that Sarmatian [i.e., Polish] astronomer who moves the earth and stops the sun. Indeed, wise rulers should have curbed such light-mindedness. [45]

Nevertheless, in 1551, eight years after Copernicus's death, astronomer Erasmus Reinhold published, under the sponsorship of Copernicus's former military adversary, the Protestant Duke Albert, the Prussian Tables, a set of astronomical tables based on Copernicus's work. Astronomers and astrologers quickly adopted it in place of its predecessors. [73]


Some time before 1514 Copernicus made available to friends his "Commentariolus" ("Little Commentary"), a manuscript describing his ideas about the heliocentric hypothesis. [x] It contained seven basic assumptions (detailed below). [74] Thereafter he continued gathering data for a more detailed work.

At about 1532 Copernicus had basically completed his work on the manuscript of Dē revolutionibus orbium coelestium but despite urging by his closest friends, he resisted openly publishing his views, not wishing—as he confessed—to risk the scorn "to which he would expose himself on account of the novelty and incomprehensibility of his theses." [70]

In 1533, Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter delivered a series of lectures in Rome outlining Copernicus's 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 . [75]

By then Copernicus's work was nearing its definitive form, and rumors about his theory had reached educated people all over Europe. Despite urgings from many quarters, Copernicus delayed publication of his book, perhaps from fear of criticism—a fear delicately expressed in the subsequent dedication of his masterpiece to Pope Paul III. Scholars disagree on whether Copernicus's concern was limited to possible astronomical and philosophical objections, or whether he was also concerned about religious objections. [y]

De revolutionibus orbium coelestium

Copernicus was still working on De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (even if not certain that he wanted to publish it) when in 1539 Georg Joachim Rheticus, a Wittenberg mathematician, arrived in Frombork. Philipp Melanchthon, a close theological ally of Martin Luther, had arranged for Rheticus to visit several astronomers and study with them. Rheticus became Copernicus's pupil, staying with him for two years and writing a book, Narratio prima (First Account), outlining the essence of Copernicus's theory. In 1542 Rheticus published a treatise on trigonometry by Copernicus (later included as chapters 13 and 14 of Book I of De revolutionibus). [76] Under strong pressure from Rheticus, and having seen the favorable first general reception of his work, Copernicus finally agreed to give De revolutionibus to his close friend, Tiedemann Giese, bishop of Chełmno (Kulm), to be delivered to Rheticus for printing by the German printer Johannes Petreius at Nuremberg (Nürnberg), Germany. While Rheticus initially supervised the printing, he had to leave Nuremberg before it was completed, and he handed over the task of supervising the rest of the printing to a Lutheran theologian, Andreas Osiander. [77]

Osiander added an unauthorised and unsigned preface, defending Copernicus' work against those who might be offended by its novel hypotheses. He argued that "different hypotheses are sometimes offered for one and the same motion [and therefore] the astronomer will take as his first choice that hypothesis which is the easiest to grasp." According to Osiander, "these hypotheses need not be true nor even probable. [I]f they provide a calculus consistent with the observations, that alone is enough." [78]

Feb. 19, 1473: Copernicus Born

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1473: Nicolaus Copernicus is born in Torun, Poland, of German parents, leading both countries to claim him as their own.

The astronomer was not so eagerly embraced by the Catholic Church, however, after becoming the most prominent advocate of the heliocentric theory that placed Earth in orbit around a stationary sun, an idea that stood in direct opposition to both conventional wisdom and Catholic dogma.

The heliocentric theory had existed for centuries but in largely fragmented form, buried by time and religious repression. In what is now known as the Copernican system, Copernicus outlined seven basic theoretical principles and presented them in his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, or in English, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres:

  • There is no one center of all the celestial spheres [orbits].
  • The Earth's center is not the center of the universe.
  • The center of the universe is near the sun.
  • The distance of the Earth to the sun is imperceptible compared with the distance to the stars.
  • The rotation of the Earth accounts for the apparent daily rotation of the stars.
  • The apparent annual cycle of movements of the sun is caused by the Earth revolving around the sun.
  • The apparent retrograde motion of the planets is caused by the motion of the Earth, from which one observes.

Unsurprisingly, Rome banned the book.

Copernican theory not only obliterated the universe as understood by Ptolemy and the ancients, it had a profound effect on other astronomers of the scientific age, including Galileo and Johannes Kepler. It is thus considered a defining moment in the history of science.

This article first appeared on Feb. 19, 2007.

Photo: Swedish and Polish researchers project a forensic facial reconstruction made from the skull of Copernicus. The researchers matched mitochondrial DNA found in hair retrieved from a book that belonged to the astronomer with a skeleton in the cathedral in Frombork, Poland, where Copernicus was buried. The 2008 reconstruction resembles existing portraits of Copernicus.
Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Chasing Copernicus in Poland

Did you know that Nicolaus Copernicus, the Renaissance astronomer who argued Earth and other planets orbit the sun, lived, worked and died in Poland?

Until recently I never gave it much thought&mdashbut when I traveled to his country in August, I couldn&rsquot stop following him around.

His likeness is painted on buildings and memorialized in statues in multiple Polish cities. His name graces street signs, museums and a fancy hotel. There&rsquos even a rock-salt Copernicus in one of the subterranean caverns of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Just as there&rsquos no escaping the fact that the sun is the center of the solar system, you&rsquore bound to run into at least one tribute to the legendary scientist somewhere around Warsaw, Kraków or Toruń.

But Copernicus is perhaps the biggest star in the town where he wrote his most influential work, and where he&rsquos buried. That place is Frombork, a red-roofed seaside village far removed from the soulless skyscrapers of Warsaw. My friend Dan Falk and I, both writers and science history geeks, decided to venture to this Baltic outpost to see where the great heliocentrist had worked out his worldview. Perhaps we, too, would have a moment of Copernican insight about our place in the cosmos.


Copernicus was born in Toruń, Poland, in 1473. He began his studies at Kraków University, now called Jagiellonian University, in 1491, and then headed to the University of Bologna to study law. He also studied medicine and received a doctorate in canon law. As canon of the Frombork cathedral, his role was largely administrative, but it guaranteed him a livable salary while he pursued astronomy as a hobby.

Frombork Cathedral, where Copernicus served as canon. Credit: Elizabeth Landau

At that time, the widely accepted wisdom was that the planets and the sun revolved around a stationary Earth. But not everyone had always believed this. The ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus, for example had proposed back in the third century BCE that Earth revolves around the sun instead. Whether he knew about Aristarchus&rsquo idea or not, Copernicus built upon it in his book De revolutionibus orbis coelestium (On the revolution of heavenly bodies)&mdashand rather than just wax philosophical, Copernicus worked out detailed mathematics describing the solar system, based on the assumptions that the Earth spins on its axis, orbits the sun and has a tilt.

Copernicus kept the manuscript for this book hidden for more than a decade, perhaps because he feared being ridiculed or condemned as a heretic. The book did get out, however, because toward the end of his life, his student Georg Rheticus convinced him to publish it. Copernicus didn&rsquot live to see the volume&rsquos impact he died shortly after its publication, in 1543.

Although Copernicus erroneously assumed the heavenly bodies orbited the sun in perfect circles, he correctly moved the Earth from its presumed location in the center of the universe to a relatively insignificant backseat. This was foundational for the influential astronomers who followed&mdashincluding Galileo, who was put under house arrest for affirming the same truth. Today, understanding our solar system isn&rsquot the only one in the Milky Way by a long shot, and that the Milky Way is one of many billions in the universe&mdashand that perhaps there are even multiple universes&mdashscientists use the phrase &ldquoCopernican Principle&rdquo for the idea that Earth has no special cosmic significance (except, of course, for us).


To get to Frombork, Dan and I had to catch a train to a town called Elbląg and then get a bus out of Elbląg&rsquos tiny terminal. The bus followed a two-lane country road on a journey that included at least two farms with cows. Had we continued on this road beyond Frombork by car, it would be only about 11 more miles to a small part of Russia totally cordoned off from its motherland by other national borders. But we knew we were in the right spot when we saw a small bus shelter labeled Frombork, and subtitled &ldquoKopernika.&rdquo

As we walked uphill, Dan giddily started snapping photos of the red brick fortress walls that surround the cathedral complex. There was a lot to see, for sure, including a giant statue of Copernicus welcoming visitors on the main street a museum in the Palace of the Bishops of Warmia and the tomb of Copernicus himself, in the cathedral. The &ldquoCopernicus Tower&rdquo is the part of the complex where Copernicus may have done his work, although no one knows for sure. But this much is clear: in Frombork, Copernicus is king.

Inside the cathedral, there were at least two different Polish tour groups taking turns crowding around the tomb. While I waited for them to move along, I found an 18th century epitaph for Copernicus on one of the pillars of the nave&mdasha small circular portrait surrounded by gold with a Latin inscription. A midday organ concert filled the vaulted Gothic ceilings with sounds from a 17th century masterwork.

A pillar commemorating Copernicus's life and work stands just behind a glass window in the floor through which visitors can see the astronomer's coffin. Credit: Elizabeth Landau

The highlight was surely Copernicus himself. His grave is marked with an enormous modern epitaph, and there&rsquos a small viewing window in the floor so visitors can peek at a portrait of his face resting on his coffin. In contrast to the antique splendor of the Gothic basilica, the resting place of Copernicus lies below a towering black monolith with a representation of the sun and the orbits of planets radiating out from it. Between Jupiter and Saturn is a depiction of Copernicus, with information about his birth and death, identifying him as &ldquoastronomer,&rdquo &ldquocreator of the heliocentric theory&rdquo and &ldquoWarmian canon,&rdquo which refers to the region of Poland containing Frombork. Having traveled so far and heard so much about Copernicus in the past, Dan and I were awestruck as we stood atop the heliocentrist&rsquos resting place. &ldquoI can&rsquot believe we made it!&rdquo I blurted out.

With all that has happened in astronomy in the intermittent centuries&mdashas we have come to understand how truly vast the universe is compared to the solar system&mdashone might rhetorically say that Copernicus could have rolled over in his grave if he knew. In fact, in 2005 archaeologists dug up anonymous skeletal remains from beneath the Frombork cathedral, and DNA testing suggested they belonged to Copernicus (it&rsquos a good thing he left some hairs in one of his books: they served as fodder for the genetic analysis). Historical portraits also allowed scientists to match the shape of the skull with Copernicus&rsquo head. He was ceremoniously reburied in 2010, and his grave was outfitted with the large epitaph we saw.

In the museum, visitors can also see a reconstruction of what Copernicus&rsquo study might have looked like, including books from his time and reproductions of some of the instruments of astronomy&rsquos past&mdasha spherical device called an astrolabe, a wooden square called a quadrant, and a giant contraption called a parallactic triangle, one of which Copernicus used to measure the distance to the moon. Several paintings of Copernicus watched over us as we admired these objects.

The most striking thing about Frombork was its sheer remoteness. It&rsquos a place where almost everything seems to close by 5 P.M., including the museums and the outdoor cafés, and the last bus back to Elbląg was around 5:45. Walking down to the harbor area, we found little boats that were docked and empty. At the water&rsquos edge, Dan and I were the only ones standing by a tiny strip of sand, admiring the sun&rsquos reflection. At the top of the Belfry Tower, with the seemingly infinite Vistula Lagoon on the left and farmland everywhere else, I felt like we were at the edge of the world. After the visit I read that, more than four centuries earlier, Copernicus had shared my sentiment, calling Frombork &ldquothe most remote corner of the Earth.&rdquo How fitting that in this place that so clearly not the center of anything, Copernicus wrote about how the Earth is not the center, either.


A few days later, I had another moment of Copernican awe at the Collegium Maius at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, where the astronomer had studied (if you go, don&rsquot forget to take a selfie with the Copernicus mannequin in the gift shop!). This museum has a photo of Earth seen from space, signed by Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. The message from Armstrong notes he donated this picture on the occasion of Copernicus&rsquos 500th birthday in 1973. It was like a bridge through time connecting these two space pioneers.

For me, the photo underscored how, in the 475 years since Copernicus&rsquo book was published, we have &ldquouncentered&rdquo ourselves as people in so many ways. We have sent spacecraft to other planets and even to interstellar space. We know that at the largest scales there are likely billions of planets orbiting other stars (one of which is named Copernicus), more than 100 billion other galaxies, and a mysterious &ldquodark matter&rdquo that greatly outweighs the ordinary atoms and molecules we&rsquore made of.

At small scales, we know that there&rsquos a whole world of tiny microbes with profound influence on our health and our bodies, and that we share a planet with countless organisms that all rely on the same basic biochemistry in order to be called &ldquolife.&rdquo But Earth&rsquos life may not be the only form life can take, and our planet may not be the only place in space for life, as Caleb Scharf stresses in his aptly named book The Copernicus Complex. And as we develop faster computers and more sophisticated artificially intelligent systems, we will have to confront the notion of whether humans are even the dominant &ldquocenter&rdquo of complex conscious thought.

We may be on the verge a lot more &ldquouncentering&rdquo in the near future. I am proud to work at NASA&rsquos Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which continues to push exploration and our understanding of the universe forward.

Today, I appreciate more than ever that the name Copernicus means much more than the man who looked at the stars above a vast Baltic lagoon. The astronomer could have never have imagined all the ways in which he has become a symbol for all of this modern perspective-changing.

We needed that kind of symbol, so I&rsquom glad his home country of Poland honors him in so many ways. Dreams of seeing beyond our immediate surroundings are built on the foundation that Copernicus laid.

Let us embrace being off-center!

The author, with the cathedral and the sea. Credit: Dan Falk

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Polish Astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus Born In Torun

Today on February 19, 1474, Nicolaus Copernicus, the Father of Astronomy, was born in Poland.

Nicolaus Copernicus was born in the beautiful and historic city of Torun, north-central Poland. Many regard him as the most famous astronomer and well-known Polish scientist. Copernicus led an impressive career that extended beyond astronomy, making significant contributions as a mathematician, physician, and economist. Born into a wealthy merchant family, he was the youngest of four children. Torun was previously part of western Prussia, so German was his first language — it's likely Copernicus spoke some Polish as well. In 1491, he enrolled in the Krakow Academy, present-day Jagiellonian University. Five years later, he moved to Italy to study law. Copernicus never married or had any children.

While still debated among academics today, most credit Copernicus for igniting the Scientific Revolution, which led to the emergence of modern science. In the field of astrology, he played an instrumental role in establishing the concept of a heliocentric universe. His theory boldly suggested the planets orbited around the sun and not the earth. This new theory was highly contrary to the common beliefs held by his contemporaries. In 1514, Copernicus published 'Commentariolus,' his book that explained the discovery and new celestial model. But his book was swiftly met with opposition. The heliocentric universe directly opposed the teachings of Catholicism. The Bible suggested the earth stood still, and the planets, moons, and suns revolved around it. First written by Plato and Aristotle, the concept of a geocentric universe was adopted for thousands of years.

“To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” — Nicolaus Copernicus

In his second book, 'On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres,' he further refined his astrological theories. The book was later banned by the Vatican. Contrary to popular beliefs, Copernicus was not the first to suggest a heliocentric universe. The ancient Greek mathematician Aristarchus of Samos had proposed a similar model. Regardless, it's believed that Copernicus independently formulated his theories. Copernicus later obtained a doctorate in canon law and established the quantity theory of money, which became a key pillar of modern economics. In 1519, he published the economic principle called Gresham's Law, stating that "bad money drives out good money."

Copernicanism caught on slowly across Europe. It wasn't until over half a century later that substantial evidence was released supporting his heliocentric universe. The eventual works of Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei would play a critical role in defending and ultimately proving the ideas of Copernicus. In 1687, Isaac Newton released Principa, which outlined gravitational pull and the laws of mechanics. Newton became the first to formally merge terrestrial and celestial mechanics. And, it was only then that the heliocentric universe became generally accepted by the scientific community and broader public.

Works by Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus’s most outstanding work is “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the turns of the celestial orbs) developed between 1507 and 1532. In this work, heliocentric theory is exposed, which affirms that the planets, among them the Earth revolve around the Sun. This work was published posthumously in 1543.

This research is divided into six books:

  • Book I: Presents the heliocentric theory and its cosmology. It discusses the celestial bodies orbiting the Sun. In his last chapters he presents theorems for string geometry.
  • Book II: Describes the basics of spherical astronomy and describes fixed stars.
  • Book III: It exposes an investigation on the equinoxes and the displacements of the Sun.
  • Book IV: Explains the orbital displacements of the Moon and describes it as the celestial body.
  • Book V: Proposes how to calculate the location of stars according to the heliocentric model and presents tables of the five planets.
  • Book VI: Digressions of latitude between the five planets and their displacements are presented.

In addition, there are other works in which “Commentariolus” (small comments) stands out, a draft of forty pages of what would later be the work “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” and the “Heliocentric Theory” where the Sun is presented as the center of the System in which we live.

In the “Heliocentric Theory”, Nicolaus Copernicus presents ideas contrary to his time on astrology. Among the ideas presented in this document, the following can be mentioned:

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Watch the video: Geocentric and Heliocentric Theories (January 2022).