Nicolaus Copernicus | The astronomer who started a revolution

Copernican Model

Who was Nicolaus Copernicus?

Nicolaus Copernicus, or Mikolaj Kopernik (as he would have been known in his native town, was born on 19th February 1473 in the town of Thorn (or Torun in native language), Prussia. He was named after his father with the same name. Later, he changed his name to the Latin version, Nicolaus Copernicus. His father was a trader of bronze. His mother Barbara Watzenrode was a house lady, who passes away shortly after his birth. Nicolaus lost his father when he was 10, and since then he grew in the custody of his maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode.

As was the culture in those days, Nicolaus was to become a Canon, or a religious master, when he grew up, so for imparting him the necessary education his uncle sent him of to St. John’s School, Thorn where he himself had been a master.  There Nicolaus found a liking for mathematics and astronomy. He got deeply inspired by the works of Aristotle which inspired him n humanistic studies. Religious texts did not interest him. There he developed a firm understanding of the two subjects.

Indeed when he returned to his home after graduating from the St. John’s School he became a Canon only under the pressure of following the family custom. He had heard about the skies of Paris, and that they were far better and clearer than his hometown.

In a clever move, he made an excuse for studying medicine and attain his law doctorate, and moved to Italy, where he did most of his initial celestial observations from, and further increased his understanding of the symphonies of the heavens. In Italy, he researched at the University of Bologna, and worked along with astronomy professor Domenico Maria de Novara, doing research and helping him make observations of the heavens. Copernicus never took orders as a priest, but instead continued to work as a secretary and physician for his uncle in Warmia.

Ptolemy’s model of the Solar System and its setback

Ptolemy’s model of the Solar System and its setback

In the time of Nicolaus Copernicus, a majority of people, almost everyone, believed in the model of the Solar System, our home planet Earth at the center. This model was thus called Earth-centric or Geocentric model of the Solar System. The Sun, Moon and the five planets known then (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) orbited Earth in cycles. The infinite stars were in the periphery and formed what was called the celestial sphere. This sphere rotated once per day along the axis joining North pole and South pole of the Earth. This model was preferred by the Church too as it left enough space for Heaven and Hell.

At that time it was known that the planets showed strange behavior, different from the stars. Sometimes they moved along with the stars, and sometimes against them. This motion of the planets against the motion of stars was called retrograde motion. To account for these, Ptolemy had introduced epicycles into his model. These were sub-orbits in which the planets moved while they moved around the Earth. Basically, these were orbits within orbits. Specifically, these were spheres instead of 2D orbits. The correct order of the objects around the Earth was: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Stars, and the infinity. There were a lot of problems with the model. The model failed to explain the motion of Mercury i.e. the precession of its orbit. The introduction of epicycles seemed ad hoc and still didn’t explain properly the existence of retrograde motion. But because of the support of Church, protesting against this model could result in execution, and abandonment from the society. You would be marked as an infidel. Below is a picture that shows Ptolemy’s model of the Universe.

Copernicus model of the Solar System

De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestum

Based on his observations Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a new model for the solar system. This model was mentioned in his book titled De Revolutionibus Orbium Coliseum (On the revolution of celestial bodies).

This treatise was a collection of his observations in the field of astronomy and its mathematics. In this model, the Sun was at the center, and it was near the center of the Universe. Earth, was now a planet like every other that was observed then and revolved around the Sun. The order of the planets around the Sun was: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

This model explained the retrograde motion of planets without the need for introducing complex orbits and epicycles. Retrograde motion resulted due to the relative motion of the planet with our home, Earth. But this model was revolutionary in the sense that it took away the focus from Earth. Earth wasn’t the center of the Universe.

The anthropocentric nature of science was tackled, and it was established that there was nothing unique about us, or any need for us to deserve special limelight. Earth was a normal planet, and this meant we might not be unique in this universe either.

In fact, this idea led to the idea that even Sun might not be the center of the whole universe, but only of the Solar System. This had many consequences and shaped the route of science henceforth.

This move by Nicolaus Copernicus was very risky, and in fact, the book had the disclaimer that though the model itself may be too far fetched it shouldn’t matter as long as the math goes right.

While Copernicus was working on this book, he had his one and only pupil living with him, called Rheticus. Rheticus wrote about Copernicus’s situation and regular progress to his associates and perhaps helped in the publication of the book.

The events that followed…

tombstone of nicolaus Copernicus

The book of Nicolaus Copernicus did not attract a lot of attention when it was published. In fact, Copernicus was buried without a tombstone in a common graveyard, just the way it was the custom to bury the Canons.

Later when people like Kepler used his work to strongarm his model, which was known as the Heliocentric or Copernican model of the Solar System, was when the Church branded his book as a forbidden work and tagged him as an infidel.

Years of sacrifice by great minds later, now the whole scientific community agrees to the model of the Solar System, and the bigger ideology set by Copernicus, that everything isn’t about us, and we might not be the focus at all times. Years later in 2008, scientists in Spain rediscovered the skull of Copernicus and tested its DNA to confirm that it belonged to the great astronomer. Using digital face reconstruction a 3-D picture of his face was also formed. In the year 2010, his remains were blessed with holy water by some of Poland’s highest-ranking clerics before being reburied, his grave marked with a black granite tombstone decorated with a model of the solar system. The tomb located in Fromburk Cathedral marks both his scientific contribution and his service as church canon.



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