Nicolaus Copernicus February 19 2015


 Happy Birthday, Nicolaus Copernicus!

No gift can compare to the one Copernicus gave to us many hundreds of years ago! A revolutionary view of the revolutions of the universe!

February 19, 1473 marks the birthday of this famous astronomer. Copernicus was born in the city of Torun (Germany at his birth then ceded to Poland shortly after he was born). His heritage and first language was German, but he spoke some Polish as well as Italian and Latin.

Born of middle class parents, Nicolaus Copernicus benefited from a good education. When he was ten, his father died and his uncle, Bishop of Varmia Lucas Watzenrode, took care of the family and ensured Nicolaus’s successful schooling and eventual entry into the folds of the Catholic Church as a canon – a position he was lucky to hold for his lifetime. As a canon he was able to justify and fund his learning for the rest of his days.

Educated at the University of Krakow, Copernicus did not study astronomy, but was fascinated by it and educated himself through observation and books on the subject as to the workings of the celestial heavens. After rising to the position of canon he received a two-year leave of absence to travel to Bologna to study religious law and there met Domenico Maria Novara, a renowned astronomer of his time. It was here that Copernicus had his first taste of doubt about the Ptolemaic view of the universe.

Copernicus dared to defy all known assumptions about contemporary science and built a model of the Universe with the Sun at its center. The planets, including Earth, revolved around it. Of course, the Ptolemaic view of the stars and planets had the Earth in the center of the Universe with the planets, including the Sun, revolving around it.

Copernicus can be seen as the first blogger as he built a small following to which he would handwrite treatises on his new view of the Universe. No one knows why he shied away from more traditional publishing but despite this his ideas spread by word of mouth and the circulation of his handwritten ideas moved like wild fire through the cultural and scientific circles of Europe. The Catholic Church, of course, was ready to ban his books and condemned the idea of a geocentric universe, not a heliocentric universe. However, without published proof of his theory of the Universe, Nicolaus Copernicus was able to keep his job and his standing as a teacher. Perhaps this is why he refused to publish his fully developed treatise! His ideas were everywhere, nonetheless, causing thrill and panic by all who heard about his theories.

Copernicus’s Universe                                                        Ptlomy’s Universe, (Greek 2nd century AD)

There also were problems with Copernicus’s mathematical calculations. He never fully worked out his calculations so that they consistently worked. (Scientists who work with space travel still use Ptolemaic math for calculations in space.) Copernicus allowed his book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) to be published two months before his death at age 70. His ideas challenged the “norm” and changed the way all on planet Earth think of heavenly stars and planetary pathways. His strong powers of observation led him to unassailable conclusions, and he stuck by them.

It did take another hundred years or more for the Catholic Church to concede that observations of the movement of the starry heavens proved Copernicus’s heliocentric or Copernican model. And today we know about the Earth’s revolutions around the Sun and we appreciate the gifts of the seasons it brings. Heroes like Copernicus lead us to courage about thinking new thoughts, drawing conclusions from direct observation and not from assumptions or prejudice, and blogging before publishing for maximum impact!