A retrospective: Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Toruń, in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, in 1473. His father was a merchant from Kraków who traded copper, and his mother was the daughter of an extremely wealthy Toruń merchant. He was actually born Mikolaj Kopernik, but in later life he adopted the Latin version of his name, when he left to enrol in the university of Kraków in 1491, where he studied astronomy, mathematics, philosophy and the three main sciences of physics, chemistry and biology.

After four years at university, and failing to get his degree, he was sent to Bologna, Italy to study religion and become a canon, which is essentially an early Catholic priest. He was due to spend three years there studying a doctorate in law, but his interests were elsewhere. He spent much of his time studying astronomy and learning languages, that includes Latin, Ancient Greek, Italian, German and some Hebrew. Due to his lack of studying he failed to graduate, just like university, but he assured his family that he would get his doctorate and also learn medicine and return to Warmia, where he now lived with his uncle after the death of his parents.

His uncle granted him a further two years in Italy to finish his studies, but once again Nicolaus spent most of his time studying what he loved; astronomy and mathematics, and he moved further south to Padua. This time however, he managed to qualify in medicine and get his doctorate in law, and at 30 years old he returned to Poland.

He began to work for his uncle, but continued to study the night skies like he did in Bologna with his mentor Domenico Maria Novara. He was an avid reader of astronomy and after cross examining books he came to the conclusion that perhaps they were wrong, and like Galileo Galilei who would be born later in the century, didn’t accept that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe (geocentric). At the time though, astronomy was done with the naked eye as the telescope was waiting to be invented.

By 1514 he studied the night sky plentiful, and he wrote down his theory that the Universe was indeed heliocentric (Sun centred) and not geocentric (Earth centred). He also suggested that the Earth moved and that explained the rise and setting of the Sun. (even 500 years ago, someone with no instruments, or no internet, or data from space, knew that the Earth wasn’t flat and it had to be moving). He claimed the Earth rotated around the Sun, and this explained seasons, in which was all added to his book ‘De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium’. The book wasn’t published until a few months before his death, so he wasn’t around the face the backlash from the Catholic Church. Due to a general lack of understanding it took until Galileo Galilei was charged with heresy in the following century that it was eventually banned alongside anything that promoted heliocentric theories.

Nikolaus died in 1543 of a stroke at the age of 70, but his legacy lived on, and many astrophysicists and astronomers used the basis of his theory, and whilst it wasn’t perfect, Johannes Kepler proposed the Ellipsis Theory in years to come and the way the planets orbited the Sun was finally realised.

“The earth together with its surrounding waters must in fact have such a shape as its shadow reveals, for it eclipses the moon with the arc of a perfect circle.” – Nicolaus Copernicus