Nicolaus Copernicus is the Latin version of the famous
astronomer's name which chose later in his life. The original form of his name
was Mikolaj Kopernik or Nicolaus Koppernigk but we shall use Copernicus
throughout this article. His father, also called Nicolaus Koppernigk, had lived
in Krakow before moving to Torun where he set up a business trading in copper.
He was also interested in local politics and became a civic leader in Torun and
a magistrate. Nicolaus Koppernigk married Barbara Waczenrode, who came from a
well off family from Torun, in about 1463. They moved into a house in St Anne's
Street in Torun, but they also had a summer residence with vineyards out of
town. Nicolaus and Barbara Koppernigk had four children, two sons and two
daughters, of whom Nicolaus Copernicus was the youngest.
You can see a picture of the house in which Copernicus was born.
When young Nicolaus was ten years old his father died.
His uncle Lucas Waczenrode, who was a canon at Frauenburg Cathedral, became
guardian to Nicolaus and Barbara Koppernigk's four children.
You can see a picture of Lucas Waczenrode.
Nicolaus and his brother Andreas remained in Torun,
continuing their elementary education there. In 1488 Nicolaus was sent by his
uncle to the cathedral school of Wloclawek where he received a good standard
humanist education. After three years of study at Wloclawek he entered the
University of Krakow (situated in what was then the capital of Poland). By this
time Lucas Waczenrode was Bishop of Ermland and he envisaged a church career
for both of his nephews. Andreas, Nicolaus's brother, entered the University of
Krakow at the same time, and both their names appear on the matriculation
records of 1491-92.
University education at Krakow was, Copernicus later
wrote, a vital factor in everything that he went on to achieve. There he
studied Latin, mathematics, astronomy, geography and philosophy. He learnt his
astronomy from Tractatus de Sphaera by Johannes de Sacrobosco written in 1220. One should not think, however, that
the astronomy courses which Copernicus studied were scientific courses in the
modern sense. Rather they were mathematics courses which introduced Aristotle and Ptolemy's view of the universe so that students could understand
the calendar, calculate the dates of holy days, and also have skills that would
enable those who would follow a more practical profession to navigate at sea.
Also taught as a major part of astronomy was what today we would call
astrology, teaching students to calculate horoscopes of people from the exact
time of their birth.
While a student in Kraków, Copernicus purchased
a copy of the Latin translation of
Euclid's Elements published in Venice in 1482, a copy of the second
edition of the Alfonsine Tables (which gives planetary theory and eclipses)
printed in Venice in 1492, and
Regiomontanus's Tables of Directions (a work on spherical astronomy)
published in Augsburg in 1490. Remarkably Copernicus's copies of these works,
signed by him, are still preserved.
It was while he was a student at Krakow that
Copernicus began to use this Latin version of his name rather than Kopernik or
Koppernigk. He returned to Torun after four years of study at Krakow but, as
was common at the time, did not formally graduate with a degree. His uncle Lucas
Waczenrode was still determined that Copernicus should have a career in the
Church and indeed this was a profession which would allow security for someone
wanting to pursue leaning. So that he might have the necessary qualifications
Copernicus decided to go to the University of Bologna to take a degree in canon
law. In the autumn of 1496 he travelled to Italy, entering the University of
Bologna on 19 October 1496, to start three years of study. As a native German
speaker he joined the "German Nation of Bologna University". Each
student contributed to the "German Nation" an amount they could
afford and the small contribution that Copernicus made indicates his poor
financial position at that time.
While he was there his uncle put his name forward for
the position of canon at Frauenburg Cathedral. On 20 October 1497, while in
Bologna, Copernicus received official notification of his appointment as a
canon and of the comfortable income he would receive without having to return
to carry out any duties. At Bologna University Copernicus studied Greek,
mathematics and astronomy in addition to his official course of canon law. He
rented rooms at the house of the astronomy professor Domenico Maria de Novara
and began to undertake research with him, assisting him in making observations.
On 9 March 1497 he observed the Moon eclipse the star Aldebaran.
In 1500 Copernicus visited Rome, as all Christians
were strongly encouraged to do to celebrate the great jubilee, and he stayed
there for a year lecturing to scholars on mathematics and astronomy. While in
Rome he observed an eclipse of the Moon which took place on 6 November 1500. He
returned to Frauenburg (also known as Frombork) in the spring of 1501 and was
officially installed as a canon of the Ermland Chapter on 27 July. He had not
completed his degree in canon law at Bologna so he requested his uncle that he
be allowed to return to Italy both to take a law degree and to study medicine.
Copernicus was granted leave on 27 July 1501 :-
... principally because Nicolaus promised to study
medicine, and as a helpful physician would some day advise our most reverend
bishop and also the members of the Chapter.
As this quotation indicates, the Cathedral Chapter
liked his proposal to study medicine and provided the necessary funds. He set
off again for Italy, his time going to Padua. Copernicus had another reason to
return to Italy, which he almost certainly did not disclose, and that was to
continue his studies of astronomy.
Padua was famous for its medical school and while he
was there Copernicus studied both medicine and astronomy. At that time
astronomy was essentially astrology and, as such, considered relevant to
medicine since physicians made use of astrology. In the spring of 1503 he
decided formally to obtain his doctorate in Canon Law, but he did not return to
Bologna but rather took the degree at the University of Ferrara. After
receiving his doctorate, Copernicus stayed in Ferrara for a few months before
returning to Padua to continue his studies of medicine. There is no record that
he ever graduated from Padua.
When he returned to his native land, Copernicus was
again granted leave from his official duties as a canon in the Ermland Chapter
at Frauenburg. This was allow him to be physician to his maternal uncle Lucas
Waczenrode, the Bishop of Ermland, but he carried out far more duties for his
uncle than medical ones becoming essentially his private secretary and personal
advisor. For about five years he undertook these duties and during this period
he lived at Heilsberg Castle, a few miles from Frauenburg, the official
residence of the Bishop of Ermland.
In 1509 Copernicus published a work, which was
properly printed, giving Latin translations of Greek poetry by the obscure poet
Theophylactus Simocattes. While accompanying his uncle on a visit to Krakow, he
gave a manuscript of the poetry book to a publisher friend there. Lucas
Waczenrode died in 1512 and following this Copernicus resumed his duties as
canon in the Ermland Chapter at Frauenburg. He now had more time than before to
devote to his study of astronomy, having an observatory in the rooms in which
he lived in one of the towers in the town's fortifications.
You can see a picture of Copernicus's observatory in Frauenburg.
Around 1514 he distributed a little book, not printed
but hand written, to a few of his friends who knew that he was the author even
though no author is named on the title page. This book, usually called the
Little Commentary, set out Copernicus's theory of a universe with the sun at
its centre. The Little Commentary is a fascinating document. It contains seven
axioms which Copernicus gives, not in the sense that they are self evident, but
in the sense that he will base his conclusions on these axioms and nothing
else; see . What are the axioms? Let us state them:
There is no one centre in the universe.
The Earth's centre is not the centre of the universe.
The centre of the universe is near the sun.
The distance from the Earth to the sun is
imperceptible compared with the distance to the stars.
The rotation of the Earth accounts for the apparent
daily rotation of the stars.
The apparent annual cycle of movements of the sun is
caused by the Earth revolving round it.
The apparent retrograde motion of the planets is
caused by the motion of the Earth from which one observes.
Some have noted that 2, 4, 5, and 7 can be deduced
from 3 and 6 but it was never Copernicus's aim to give a minimal set of axioms.
The most remarkable of the axioms is 7, for although earlier scholars had
claimed that the Earth moved, some claiming that it revolved round the sun,
nobody before Copernicus appears to have correctly explained the retrograde
motion of the outer planets. Even when he wrote his Little Commentary
Copernicus was planning to write a major work, for he wrote in it (see ):-
Here, for the sake of brevity, I have thought it
desirable to omit the mathematical demonstrations intended for my larger work.
It is likely that he wrote the Little Commentary in
1514 and began writing his major work De revolutionibus in the following year.
Given Copernicus's nature it is clear that he would
have liked to have lived a quiet life at Frauenburg, carrying out his (relatively
few) duties conscientiously and devoting all his spare time to observing,
developing his theories of the universe, and writing De revolutionibus. It is
equally clear that his fame as an astronomer was well known for when the Fifth
Lateran Council decided to improve the calendar, which was known to be out of
phase with the seasons, the Pope appealed to experts for advice in 1514, one of
these experts was Copernicus. Many experts went to Rome to advise the Council,
but Copernicus chose to respond by letter. He did not wish to contribute more
to the discussions on the calendar since he felt that the motions of the
heavenly bodies was still not understood with sufficient precision.
The peace which Copernicus wished, however, was not
easy to find in a period of frequent wars. The fortifications of Frauenburg
that formed Copernicus's home had been built to protect the town which had been
captured by various opposing groups over the years. In 1516 Copernicus was
given the task of administering the districts of Allenstein (also known as
Olsztyn) and Mehlsack. He lived for four years in Allenstein Castle while
carrying out these administrative duties.
You can see a picture of Allenstein Castle where Copernicus lived.
Always keen to make observations, Copernicus returned
to his home/observatory in Frauenburg whenever there was a reason to attend a
meeting or consult with the other canons, always taking the opportunity to
further his researches. However when war broke out between Poland and the
Teutonic Knights towards the end of 1519 Copernicus was back in Frauenburg.
After a period of war, Copernicus was sent to participate in peace talks in
Braunsberg as one of a two man delegation representing the Bishop of Ermland.
The peace talks failed and the war continued. Frauenburg came under siege but
Copernicus continued making his observations even at this desperate time. By
the autumn of 1520 Copernicus was back living in Allenstein Castle and had to
organise its defence against attacking forces. The castle resisted the attack
and by 1521 an uneasy peace had returned.
As a reward for his defence of Allenstein, Copernicus
was appointed Commissar of Ermland and given the task of rebuilding the
district after the war. His close friend, Tiedemann Giese, another canon in the
Chapter, was given the task of assisting him.
You can see a picture of Tiedemann Giese.
As part of the recovery plan, Copernicus put forward a
scheme for the reform of the currency which he presented to the Diet of
Graudenz in 1522. However, despite attending the Diet and arguing strongly for
his sensible proposals, they were not acted on.
Copernicus returned to Frauenburg where his life
became less eventful and he had the peace and quiet that he longed for to allow
him to make observations and to work on details of his heliocentric theory.
Having said that he now had the peace he wanted, one should also realise that
he was undertaking his mathematical and astronomical work in isolation with no
colleagues with whom to discuss matters. Although Copernicus was a canon, he
had never become a priest. In fact on 4 February 1531 his bishop threatened to
take away his income if he did not enter the priesthood, yet Copernicus still
A full account of Copernicus's theory was apparently
slow to reach a state in which he wished to see it published, and this did not
happen until the very end of Copernicus's life when he published his life's
work under the title De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Nuremberg, 1543). In
fact had it not been for Georg Joachim
Rheticus, a young professor of mathematics and astronomy at the
University of Wittenberg, Copernicus's masterpiece might never have been
published. In May 1539 Rheticus arrived
at Frauenburg where he spent about two years with Copernicus. Rheticus wrote of his visit:-
I heard of the fame of Master Nicolaus Copernicus in
the northern lands, and although the University of Wittenberg had made me a
Public Professor in those arts, nonetheless, I did not think that I should be
content until I had learned something more through the instruction of that man.
And I also say that I regret neither the financial expenses nor the long
journey nor the remaining hardships. Yet, it seems to me that there came a
great reward for these troubles, namely that I, a rather daring young man,
compelled this venerable man to share his ideas sooner in this discipline with
the whole world.
We should note that
Rheticus was a Protestant, so in those troubled times of the Reformation
he took somewhat of a risk visiting a Catholic stronghold. In September
1539 Rheticus went to Danzig, visiting
the mayor of Danzig, who gave him some financial assistance to help publish the
Narratio Prima or, to give it its full title First report to Johann
Schöner on the Books of the Revolutions of the learned gentleman and
distinguished mathematician, the Reverend Doctor Nicolaus Copernicus of Torun,
Canon of Warmia, by a certain youth devoted to mathematics. The publication of
this work encouraged Copernicus to publish the full mathematical details of his
theory which he had promised 27 years earlier. Swerdlow writes:-
Copernicus could not have asked for a more erudite,
elegant, and enthusiastic introduction of his new astronomy to the world of
good letters; indeed to this day the "Narratio Prima" remains the
best introduction to Copernicus's work.
In his First Report
Rheticus wrote about Copernicus's way of working (see ):-
... my teacher always had before his eyes the
observations of all ages together with his own, assembled in order as in catalogues;
then when some conclusion must be drawn or contribution made to the science and
its principles, he proceeds from the earliest observations to his own, seeking
the mutual relationship which harmonizes them all; the results thus obtained by
correct inference under the guidance of Urania he then compares with the
hypothesis of Ptolemy and the ancients;
and having made a most careful examination of these hypotheses, he finds that
astronomical proof requires their rejection; he assumes new hypotheses, not
indeed without divine inspiration and the favour of the gods; by applying
mathematics, he geometrically establishes the conclusions which can be drawn
from them by correct inference; he then harmonizes the ancient observations and
his own with the hypotheses which he has adopted; and after performing all
these operations he finally writes down the laws of astronomy ...
While living with Copernicus, Rheticus wrote to several people reporting
on the progress Copernicus was making. For example on 2 June 1541 Rheticus wrote that Copernicus :-
... is enjoying quite good health and is writing a
great deal ...
while he wrote that on 9 June Copernicus :-
... had finally overcome his prolonged reluctance to
release his volume for publication.
By 29 August De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was
ready for the printer. Rheticus took
the manuscript with him when he returned to his teaching duties at Wittenberg,
and gave it the printer Johann Petreius in Nürnberg. This was a leading
centre for printing and Petreius was the best printer in town. However, since
he was unable to stay to supervise the printing he asked Andreas Osiander, a
Lutheran theologian with considerable experience of printing mathematical
texts, to undertake the task. What Osiander did was to write a letter to the
reader, inserted in place of Copernicus's original Preface following the title
page, in which he claimed that the results of the book were not intended as the
truth, rather that they merely presented a simpler way to calculate the
positions of the heavenly bodies. The letter was unsigned and the true author
of the letter was not revealed publicly until
Kepler did so 50 years later. Osiander also subtly changed the title to
make it appear less like a claim of the real world. Some are appalled at this
gigantic piece of deception by Osiander, as
Rheticus was at the time, others feel that it was only because of
Osiander's Preface that Copernicus's work was read and not immediately
In De revolutionibus Copernicus states several reasons
why it is logical that the sun would be at the centre of the universe:-
At the middle of all things lies the sun. As the
location of this luminary in the cosmos, that most beautiful temple, would
there be any other place or any better place than the centre, from which it can
light up everything at the same time? Hence the sun is not inappropriately
called by some the lamp of the universe, by others its mind, and by others its
cosmology placed a motionless sun not at the centre of the universe, but
close to the centre, and also involved giving several distinct motions to the
Earth. The problem that Copernicus faced was that he assumed all motion was
circular so, like Ptolemy, was forced
into using epicycles (see for example ). It was consequently considered
implausible by the most of his contemporaries, and by most astronomers and
natural philosophers until the middle of the seventeenth century. In the
intended Preface of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium Copernicus showed that
he was fully aware of the criticisms that his work would attract:-
Perhaps there will be babblers who, although
completely ignorant of mathematics, nevertheless take it upon themselves to
pass judgement on mathematical questions and, badly distorting some passages of
Scripture to their purpose, will dare find fault with my undertaking and
censure it. I disregard them even to the extent as despising their criticism as
Its notable defenders included Kepler and
Galileo while theoretical evidence for the Copernican theory was
provided by Newton's theory of
universal gravitation around 150 years later.
Copernicus is said to have received a copy of the
printed book, consisting of about 200 pages written in Latin, for the first
time on his deathbed. He died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
Brahe, who did
not accept Copernicus's claim that the Earth moved round the sun, nevertheless
Through observations made by himself [Copernicus]
discovered certain gaps in Ptolemy, and
he concluded that the hypotheses established by Ptolemy admit something unsuitable in violation of the axioms of
mathematics. Moreover, he found the Alfonsine computations in disagreement with
the motions of the heavens. Therefore, with wonderful intellectual acumen he
established different hypotheses. He restored the science of the heavenly
motions in such a way that nobody before him had a more accurate knowledge of
the movements of the heavenly bodies.
this appreciation of Copernicus:-
He was truly creative. His scientific method, though
determined by the horizons of contemporary knowledge and belief, was yet
ideally objective. Ethically, his actions throughout his life bear witness to
the highest standards. He did good. He earned the general respect and honour of
his contemporaries. For many years he served self-sacrificingly the cause of
his native country. But he knew no private, domestic joys.
J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
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