1473 - 1543
One of the greatest figures in the history of scientific thought Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Torun, Poland on 19 February, 1473 to a middle class family. His father Niclas, a merchant, emigrated from Krakow, and had four children, two boys who adopted a clerical career, the older girl became a Cistercian nun and an Abbess, and the younger married. Nicolaus, was ten years old when his father died. His uncle took charge of the children.
He studied mathematical sciences and Greek at the university of Krakow and at the universities of Bologna and Padua in Italy and Canon Law at the university of Ferrara. At that time Physicians made use of astrology. Copernicus gave astronomical lectures in Rome, and it was there that he began work on a new astronomy. When he returned to Poland, he practiced medicine, at Heilsberg, treating bishops and princes, and especially the poor, though his official employment was as a canon in the cathedral chapter, working under his maternal uncle, a Bishop. In 1537 King Sigismund of Poland submitted his name as a candidate for the vacant Episcopal seat of Ermland, so it is probable that, in later life, he had entered the priesthood. As he had never married and never fathered any children there has been speculation (unprovable) amongst some that he was gay.
In 1516 he was nominated administrator of the diocesan castle of Allenstein. After four years he returned to the Frauenburg. Three years later he became administrator of the diocese. Public office drew him into the study of finance. In 1522 he wrote a memorandum on monetary reforms, which developed and led to the King of Poland making him deputy counselor on the financial regulations of Prussia to 1529.
Copernicus visited Rome, and in about 1513 and wrote a short account of what has since become known as the Copernican theory, namely that the Sun (not the Earth) is at rest in the centre of the Universe. A full account was not published until the very end of his life, under the title On the revolutions of the heavenly spheres (De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, Nuremberg, 1543). Copernicus is said to have received a copy of the printed book for the first time on his deathbed, dying at Frauenburg on 24 May of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Copernicus's heliostatic cosmology involved giving several distinct motions to the Earth. It was thus considered implausible by the vast majority of his contemporaries, and by most astronomers and natural philosophers of succeeding generations before the middle of the seventeenth century. Its notable defenders included Johannes Kepler (1571 -1630), Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642) and was given credence by Newton's theory of universal gravitation (1687). He challenged the geocentric cosmology that had been dogmatically accepted since the time of Aristotle. In direct opposition to Aristotle and to the 2d-century astronomer Ptolemy, Copernicus proposed that a rotating Earth revolved with the other planets about a stationary central Sun.
Anticipated by the Pythagoreans and Aristaechus of Samos whom he had read, and by the Muslim astronomer Ibn al-Shatir and certain Christian writers, the new theory that Copernicus proposed had a mixture of both radical and conservative elements. While reordering of the structure of the universe, Copernicus still held to the ancient doctrines of solid celestial spheres, perfect circular motion of heavenly bodies and Aristotelian physics of motion. He also clung to the Ptolemaic representation of planetary motion by means of complicated combinations of circles called epicycles. Copernicus marked the beginning of the scientific revolution, and of a new view of a greatly enlarged universe although he did not see it as infinite.
Copernicus used the towers of Allenstein, Heilsberg and Frauenburg as observatories, and his great work "On the Revolutions of the Celestial Bodies" reveal his unremitting observations of the sun, moon, and planets. His reputation was such that as early as 1514 the Lateran Council, convened by Leo X, asked for his advice on the reform of the ecclesiastical calendar. He believed that the length of the year and of the months and the motions of the sun and moon were not yet sufficiently known to attempt a reform. This spurred him on to make more accurate observations, which, seventy years later, were the basis for the working out of the Gregorian calendar.
Twenty-five years after his university career, he had finished his great work, but hesitated a long time in publishing, considering imitating the Pythagoreans, who transmitted the mysteries of their philosophy only orally to their disciples for fear of subjection to the contempt of critics. His friends who had become interested in the new theory convinced him to write an abstract for them, copies of which have been discovered in Vienna and Stockholm. In this commentary Copernicus stated his theory in the form of seven axioms, reserving the mathematical part for later. This was in 1531, and then the heliocentric system began to spread. In 1533 Albert Widmanstadt lectured before Pope Clement VII on the Copernican solar system. Three years later Copernicus was urged by Cardinal Schonberg, to publish his discovery, or at least to have a copy made at the cardinal's expense. But all the urging of friends was in vain, until a younger man George Joachim Rheticus was sent to spend two years at the feet of his new master (1539-41). Soon after his arrival he sent a sixty six page "First Narration" of the new solar system to a scientific friend in Nuremberg. This was printed in Danzig (1540) and Basle (1541). Rheticus next obtained the manuscript of a preliminary chapter of the great work on plane and spherical trigonometry. Copernicus, now sixty-eight years, yielded, to the entreaties of Cardinal Schonberg, and others to give up his manuscripts for publication. Rheticus was to edit the work and the manuscript was to be published at Wittenberg, but owing to the hostility prevailing there against the Copernican system, only the chapter on trigonometry was printed (1542). The two copies of the "First Narration" and of the treatise on trigonometry, are in the Vatican Library. Schöner in Nuremberg, together with Osiander, engaged the printing-house of Petreius. Rheticus tried to resume his chair of mathematics in Wittenberg, but on account of his Copernican views, he had to resign. He and Copernicus were prevented attending to the edition. Copernicus became paralyzed on the right side and became weak in memory and mind many days before his death. The first copy of the "Six Books on the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbits" was handed to him the very day he died. Fortunately he could not see what had been done. Knowing the attitude of Luther and others to the heliocentric system, the word "Hypothesis" was added to the title page, and the preface of Copernicus was replaced by one contrasting with that of Copernicus, warning the reader not to expect anything certain from astronomy, nor to accept its hypothesis as true. The dedication to Pope Paul III was retained, as was the text.
Opposition to the new system was first raised by Protestant theologians for Biblical reasons and continued to our own days. Seventy-three years after publication, the work of Copernicus was forbidden by the Catholic Church "until corrected", and in 1620 these corrections were indicated. Nine sentences, claiming certainty, were omitted or changed and reading of the book was allowed. In 1758 it disappeared from the revised Index. (i.e. forbidden books) The real preface of Copernicus was returned on the four hundredth anniversary of the author's birthday, with all of Copernicus' corrections were given as foot-notes. A monument was erected to Copernicus in Warsaw in 1830, and another at Torun in 1853. Rheticus, and others called Copernicus the second Ptolemy, and his book the second "Almagest." His genius is that he grasped the truth centuries before it could be proved.
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