Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543 SM)

"Finally, we shall place the Sun itself at the center of  Universe. All this is suggested by the systematic procession of events and the harmony of the whole Universe, if only we face the fact, as they say ‘with both eyes open".

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) was a mathematician and astronomer who proposed that the sun was stationary in the center of the universe and the earth revolved around it. Disturbed by the failure of Ptolemy's geocentric model of the universe to follow Aristotle's requirement for the uniform circular motion of all celestial bodies and determined to eliminate Ptolemy's equant, an imaginary point around which the bodies seemed to follow that requirement, Copernicus decided that he could achieve his goal only through a heliocentric model. He thereby created a concept of a universe in which the distances of the planets from the sun bore a direct relationship to the size of their orbits. At the time Copernicus's heliocentric idea was very controversial; nevertheless, it was the start of a change in the way the world was viewed, and Copernicus came to be seen as the initiator of the Scientific Revolution.

Nicolaus Copernicus was born on 19 February 1473, the youngest of four children of Nicolaus Copernicus, Sr., a well-to-do merchant who had moved to Torun from Cracow, and Barbara Watzenrode, the daughter of a leading merchant family in Torun. The city, on the Vistula River, had been an important inland port in the Hanseatic League. However, fighting between the Order of the Teutonic Knights and the Prussian Union in alliance with the Kingdom of Poland ended in 1466, and West Prussia, which included Torun, was ceded to Poland, and Torun was declared a free city of the Polish kingdom. Thus the child of a German family was a subject of the Polish crown.

The father died in 1483, and the children's maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode (1447–1512), took them under his protection. Watzenrode was a very successful cleric — he was to become bishop of Warmia (Ermland in German) in 1489 — and he both facilitated his nephew's advancement in the church and directed his education. In 1491 Copernicus enrolled in the University of Cracow. There is no record of his having obtained a degree, which was not unusual at the time as he did not need a bachelor's degree for his ecclesiastical career or even to study for a higher degree. But the University of Cracow offered courses in mathematics, astronomy, and astrology (see Goddu 25–33 on all the university offerings), and Copernicus's interest was sparked, which is attested to by his acquisition of books in these subjects while at Cracow.

In 1495 Watzenrode arranged Copernicus's election as canon of the chapter of Frombork (Frauenberg in German) of the Cathedral Chapter of Warmia, an administrative position just below that of bishop. He assumed the post two years later, and his financial situation was secure for life. In the meantime, following in his uncle's footsteps, Copernicus went to the University of Bologna in 1496 to study canon law (see Goddu part 2 on what Copernicus may have encountered in Italy). While at Bologna he lived with the astronomy professor Domenico Maria Novara and made his first astronomical observations. In addition, as Rosen (1971, 323) noted, “In establishing close contact with Novara, Copernicus met, perhaps for the first time in his life, a mind that dared to challenge the authority of [Ptolemy] the most eminent ancient writer in his chosen fields of study.” Copernicus also gave a lecture on mathematics in Rome, which may have focused on astronomy.

Copernicus's studies at Bologna provided an advantage he did not have at Cracow — a teacher of Greek. Humanism began to infiltrate the Italian universities in the fifteenth century. As Grendler (510) remarked, “By the last quarter of the century, practically all universities had one or several humanists, many of them major scholars.” Antonio Cortesi Urceo, called Codro, became professor at Bologna in 1482 and added Greek several years later. Copernicus may have studied with him, for Copernicus translated into Latin the letters of the seventh-century Byzantine author Theophylactus Simocatta (MW 27–71) from the 1499 edition of a collection of Greek letters produced by the Venetian humanist printer Aldus Manutius. Aldus had dedicated his edition to Urceo. Copernicus had his translation printed in 1509, his only publication prior to the On the Revolutions (De revolutionibus). It is important to note that Copernicus's acquisition of a good reading knowledge of Greek was critical for his studies in astronomy because major works by Greek astronomers, including Ptolemy, had not yet been translated into Latin, the language of the universities at the time.

Copernicus left Bologna for Frombork in 1501 without having obtained his degree. The chapter then approved another leave of absence for Copernicus to study medicine at the University of Padua. The medical curriculum did not just include medicine, anatomy, and the like when Copernicus studied it. Siraisi (1990, 16) noted that “the reception in twefth-century western Europe of Greek and Islamic technical astronomy and astrology fostered the development of medical astrology…the actual practice of medical astrology was greatest in the West between the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries.” Astrology was taught in the medical schools of Italy. “The importance attached to the study of the stars in medieval medical education derived from a general and widely held belief that the heavenly bodies play an intermediary role in the creation of things here below and continue to influence them throughout their existence. The actual uses of astrology in medical diagnosis and treatment by learned physicians were many and various. ‘Astrological medicine’ is a vague and unsatisfactory term that can embrace any or all of the following: first, to pay attention to the supposed effect of astrological birth signs or signs at conception on the constitution and character of one's patients; second, to vary treatment according to various celestial conditions…third, to connect the doctrine of critical days in illness with astrological features, usually phases of the moon; and fourth, to predict or explain epidemics with reference to planetary conjunctions, the appearance of comets, or weather conditions” (Siraisi, 1981, 141–42). It is true that astrology required that medical students acquire some grounding in astronomy; nevertheless, it is likely that Copernicus studied astrology while at the University of Padua.

Copernicus did not receive his medical degree from Padua; the degree would have taken three years, and Copernicus had only been granted a two-year leave of absence by his chapter. Instead he matriculated in the University of Ferrara, from which he obtained a doctorate in canon law. But he did not return to his chapter in Frombork; rather he went to live with his uncle in the episcopal palace in Lidzbark-Warminski (Heilsberg in German). Although he made some astronomical observations, he was immersed in church politics, and after his elderly uncle became ill in 1507, Copernicus was his attending physician. Rosen (1971, 334–35) reasonably conjectured that the bishop may have hoped that his nephew would be his successor, but Copernicus left his uncle because his duties in Lidzbark-Warminski interfered with his continuing pursuit of his studies in astronomy. He took up residence in his chapter of Frombork in 1510 and stayed there the rest of his life.

Not that leaving his uncle and moving to Frombork exempted Copernicus from continued involvement in administrative and political duties. He was responsible for the administration of various holdings, which involved heading the provisioning fund, adjudicating disputes, attending meetings, and keeping accounts and records. In response to the problem he found with the local currency, he drafted an essay on coinage (MW 176–215) in which he deplored the debasement of the currency and made recommendations for reform. His manuscripts were consulted by the leaders of both Prussia and Poland in their attempts to stabilize the currency. He was a leader for West Prussia in the war against the Teutonic Knights, which lasted from 1520–1525. He was physician for the bishop (his uncle had died in 1512) and members of the chapter, and he was consulting physician for notables in East and West Prussia.

Nevertheless, Copernicus began to work on astronomy on his own. Sometime between 1510 and 1514 he wrote an essay that has come to be known as the Commentariolus (MW 75–126) that introduced his new cosmological idea, the heliocentric universe, and he sent copies to various astronomers. He continued making astronomical observations whenever he could, hampered by the poor position for observations in Frombork and his many pressing responsibilities as canon. Nevertheless, he kept working on his manuscript of On the Revolutions. He also wrote what is known as Letter against Werner (MW 145–65) in 1524, a critique of Johann Werner's “Letter concerning the Motion of the Eighth Sphere” (De motu octavae sphaerae tractatus primus). Copernicus claimed that Werner erred in his calculation of time and his belief that before Ptolemy the movement of the fixed stars was uniform, but Copernicus's letter did not refer to his cosmological ideas.

In 1539 a young mathematician named Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514–1574) from the University of Wittenberg came to study with Copernicus. Rheticus brought Copernicus books in mathematics, in part to show Copernicus the quality of printing that was available in the German-speaking cities. He published an introduction to Copernicus's ideas, the Narratio prima (First Report). Most importantly, he convinced Copernicus to publish On the Revolutions. Rheticus oversaw most of the printing of the book, and on 24 May 1543 Copernicus held a copy of the finished work on his deathbed.

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