The Life of Polish Astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus from Torun, Poland

October 01, 2018

Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish astronomer from Torun, Poland, was one of the world's greatest intellectuals who proved that the Sun is the center of our universe.

 All About Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish Astronomer from Torun, Poland

In the 16th Century A.D. the world was far different from what we know it to be right now. Religion ruled the people by law, and literacy was reserved only for the privileged. Europe was considered to be the centre of the Earth, and Earth was considered to be the center of the Universe. But soon, a man will come who will change this perspective forever and his name was Nicolaus Copernicus.

Nicolaus Copernicus was born on 19th February 1473, in the city of today’s Torun under the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. The city of Torun is one of the oldest Polish cities, dating back from the 8th Century, and is very proud to be known, amongst other things, for being the town of birth of one of the world’s greatest astronomers.

Mikolaj Kopernik, as his name is written in Polish, or Nicolaus Koppernigk, as is in German, was a son of a merchant from Krakow, another Polish city, and a daughter of a wealthy merchant from his hometown. His family had a long tradition dating back to the 13th and the 14th centuries. The Latin form of his name is the one he chose for him, by which he wanted to be known. His parents had four children: another son Andreas, and daughters Barbara and Katharina. As Copernicus had no family of his own, in his later years he took care of Katharina’s children.

When Nicolaus was about ten years old, his father died. His maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, decided to take care of his education, through his connection to Filippo Buonaccorsi, a Krakow courtier, a humanist and a writer, and due the fact that he himself taught at St. John’s School in Torun.

As Copernicus grew older, he continued his studies in the Cathedral School at Wloclawek, a town not far from Torun, and then enrolled in what was then the University of Krakow, in the Department of Arts. One of Copernicus role models at the time was Albert Bruzewski, a professor of Aristotelian philosophy and a teacher of astronomy. Copernicus studied arithmetic, geometry, geometric optics, cosmonography, theoretical and computational astronomy and read from the works of Aristotle and Averroes. He learned about two official systems of astronomy and then discarded them in order to create his own findings: those were the Aristotle’s theory of homocentric spheres and Ptolemy’s mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles. Soon, he began collecting and creating a library of his own astronomy books, which today belongs to the Uppsala University Library in Sweden, as the Swedes took it during the Swedish Deluge in 1650s, an invasion and occupation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

When Copernicus’ uncle became the Prince-Bishop of Warmia, he called for Nicolaus to join his court and take part in the Warmia canonry. Warmia, a historical region was then under sovereignty of the Crown of Poland as part of the province of Royal Prussia, and retained numerous privileges of its own.

Nicolaus then made an appeal but as the answer got delayed, he was sent to Bologna, Italy, instead, where he signed up for studies at the University of Bologna. There Copernicus turned his interests from studying canon law to studying humanities and astronomy. He also became the assistant of the famous Italian scientist, Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara. On 9th March 1497, the two of them conducted an observation of the occultation of Aldebaran, the moment when the Moon covers over the brightest star in the Taurus constellation, which happens once a month, as Copernicus was doubtful of what he learned about the motion of the Moon by far. This moment will lead Copernicus closer to his memorable discovery and keep him confident to critique contemporary astronomy.

In 1500, Copernicus moved to Rome, and then returned to Poland in 1501 for a brief moment just to travel back to Italy to study medicine at the University of Padua.

In 1503, Copernicus traveled to Ferrara where he was received the degree of doctor of canon law. During that time, Copernicus got interested in Hellenistic studies and is thought to have self-taught the Greek language. After that, Nicolaus returned to Warmia once again to become his uncle’s secretary and physician and stopped travelling outside of Polish borders.This is when he began concrete work on his famous heliocentric theory.

It is important to mention that during that time the teachings of Catholic church meant everything to people. Although Copernicus jointed the chapter as approved by his appeal, he investigated the knowledge that was then given to people, and challenged the teachings of the church. Even though, officially, even the Pope himself thought that his findings were interesting, Copernicus did make quite a few intellectual enemies.

In the next period of his life, Copernicus began creating his own work. He also translated a collection of 85 brief poems called Epistles by the Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocatta, from Greek to Latin, which he dedicated to his uncle and then published.

In about 1512, Copernicus moved to a town called Frombork, where he began living in a house outside the defensive walls of the cathedral, as a canon. Frombork remained Nicolaus’ home for the rest of his life.This is where he spent conducting more than sixty registered astronomical observations, using primitive instruments which probably got stolen in the later years and wars which occured on the territory. Nicolaus had also an active role in the chapter, working on the side of the Polish Crown in order to create stability in the country. He signed the famous Second Treaty of Piotrkow Trybunalskich in 1512, which conceded a right to the King to propose four candidates of his own liking, for the election as a Bishop, but under the condition that they had Prussian heritage.

By 1514, Nicolaus wrote his Commentariolus or the outline of the heliocentric theory. Although this will prove to be an important document, Nicolaus has not made many copies and the complete work got to print not before the 19th Century, but still, parts of his work would enter works of his colleagues, as he made his findings available to his friends.

The draft of his heliocentric theory summarized the following:

  1. There is no one center of all the celestial circles or spheres.
  2. The center of the earth is not the center of the universe, but only the center towards which heavenly bodies move and the center of the lunar sphere.
  3. All the spheres surround the sun as if it were in the middle of them all, and therefore the center of the universe is near the sun.
  4. The ratio of the earth's distance from the sun to the height of the firmament (outermost celestial sphere containing the stars) is so much smaller than the ratio of the earth's radius to its distance from the sun that the distance from the earth to the sun is imperceptible in comparison with the height of the firmament.
  5. Whatever motion appears in the firmament arises not from any motion of the firmament, but from the earth's motion. The earth together with its circumjacent elements performs a complete rotation on its fixed poles in a daily motion, while the firmament and highest heaven abide unchanged.
  6. What appear to us as motions of the sun arise not from its motion but from the motion of the earth and our sphere, with which we revolve about the sun like any other planet. The earth has, then, more than one motion.
  7. The apparent retrograde and direct motion of the planets arises not from their motion but from the earth's. The motion of the earth alone, therefore, suffices to explain so many apparent inequalities in the heavens.

In 1515, he discovered the variability of Earth’s eccentricity. Due to his discovery, he is thought to have taken part in a proposal for the revision of the Julian calendar.

In 1516, Copernicus has moved to Olsztyn Castle as an economic administrator of Warmia, where he stayed for the next five years. During that time, he wrote a manuscript called Locationes mansorum desertorum about the idea of helping the Warmia economy. During the Polish-Teutonic War or Prussian War as it was called, Copernicus represented the Polish side in the negotiations and also helped plan the defence of of Olsztyn.

In 1526, he went on to write a study on the value of money, called Monetae cudendae ratio, and formulated a theory later to be called the Gresham’s law, stating that bad money drives out good. He was also the one to create the quantity theory of money.

In 1551, Erasmus Reinhold, an astronomer, published the Prussian Tables, or a set of astronomical tables based on Copernicus’ work.

It wasn’t until 1532 that Copernicus completed his work. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium or The Revolutions of the Celestial is the name of the manuscript which he decided not to publish at first, as he didn’t want to face the public scorn. Finally, he published his works with a dedication to the Pope Paul III, in 1543, which will prove to be the year of his death.

Nicolaus Copernicus died at the age of seventy, on 24th May, 1543. He was battling apoplexy and paralysis, and died peacefully following a stroke-induced coma. He was then said to be buried in the Frombork Cathedral but his remains were not to be found until 2005, when archeologists scanned beneath the cathedral floor. Copernicus’ face was reconstructed as one of the ways besides the DNA test, which proved it was indeed him. In 2010, Jozef Kowalczyk, the Primate of Poland, led a second burial of Copernicus, into now a marked and closely watched grave in the same spot in the Cathedral.

It took quite some time for Copernicus’ theory to really create controversy, probably due to the fact that more and more people began supporting it. In 1616, Catholic Church finally reacted with a decree which suspended Copernicus’  Coelestium On The Revolutions, claiming that it opposed the Holy Scripture, and corrected it stating heliocentrism not as a fact, but rather a hypothesis. Galileo Galilei, an Italian polymath, continued to support heliocentrism and Copernicanism until he was sentenced to house arrest by the Roman Inquisition. A legend says that his last dying words were: And yet, it turns, meaning that the Earth revolves, as well as other planets revolve around the Sun.

Today, Copernicus’ theory is considered a norm, as it was considered a scientific revolution, which is why he remains respected as one of the greatest scientists of our civilization. Together with Johannes Kepler, another great scientist and the author of Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, Copernicus is honored in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church in the USA, and holds his own feast day, on 23rd May. His famous portrait, called The Torun Portrait by an anonymous artist, is kept safe in the Torun town hall.

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