Copernicus

Mikolaja Kopernika, known in English as Nicolaus Copernicus, was born in the town of Torun in February 1473. His father died when he was 10 and he was put into the care of his uncle - who later became the bishop of Warmia. In 1491, young Copernicus went off to university in Krakow where he studied mathematics but also did some astronomy. He then went on to the University of Bologna to study law and the University of Padua to study medicine. By 1503 he had been awarded a Doctor of Canon Law from the University of Ferrara. Talk about a perpetual student! Over the following years he worked as a doctor, a canon, a Commissioner for the region of Warmia, drafted currency reforms and made maps. However, throughout his life he kept up his interest in astronomy.

At that time in Europe, it was commonly thought that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe and the Sun, Moon, planets and stars orbited it once a day. This view was not so much based on evidence, as due to the prevailing religious doctrine based on the work of Ptolemy. This theory did not work very well because it was so poor at predicting the positions of the planets. To make the theory match the observations, a system of epicycles had been created, but this was horrendously complicated and still didn't quite meet the observations. Not knowing exactly where the planets were caused problems for navigation at night.

Copernicus, using his mathematical knowledge, gradually formulated an alternate arrangement of the Universe that had fewer assumptions. This was based on ideas of ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristarchus and put the Sun at the centre of all things with the Earth, Moon and planets orbiting it. One assumption Copernicus did made was that the planets followed circular orbits. This meant that he still needed to include epicycles to make things work. Later, once Johannes Kepler had shown that planets follow elliptical orbits rather than circular ones, epicycles would finally be removed and the maths become much more straightforward and better at predicting planetary motions.

Copernicus's ideas were quite revolutionary (in more ways than one) and he did not rush into publishing them. He did publish a paper in 1510 but it wasn't until 1539 that  a young professor named Rheticus encouraged Copernicus to publish all his work. This finally came out as a book titled De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) in the year of his death, 1543. According to legend, he saw the first printed copy of his book on his death-bed.

Copernicus, along with Galileo, Kepler and others, gradually overthrew the accepted philosophical/religious view of the cosmos by making observations, applying logic to what they saw and testing their theories. That is proper science.

Copernicus
A bust of Copernicus photographed with the world's third largest, steerable radio telescope looking in the same direction. CREDIT: Stuart

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 06th Nov 2005 (16:34 UTC) | Permalink
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