Monday, March 19, 2012

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1593): Father of the Modern Universe

by G. Jack Urso

"Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effort on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus" (Kesten viii).   

                                                                              Johann Wolfagang von Goethe  
Early Years
Nicolaus (Nicholas) Copernicus was born February 19, 1473, in Tourn, Poland. Until 1466, Tourn was part of West Prussia, so Copernicus would be claimed by both Germans Poles as a native son (Kesten viii). His native Polish name is Mikolaj Kopernik (Mizwa 11); in German it's Niklas Koppernigk (Kesten 12), but it is by the Latinized-English version of his name, Nicolaus or Nicholas Copernicus, that he is commonly known to history.

After the death of his father in 1483, Copernicus was placed under the guardianship of his maternal Uncle Lucas Watzelrod, who would later become a bishop and Polish senator. Educated as a boy, probably in the cathedral school of Wloclawek, Copernicus later attended the University of Krakow.  It should be noted with some irony that Copernicus, whose work contributed so much to challenging the Catholic Church's claims of absolute authority, was educated at a cathedral school and had a bishop for his guardian (Mitzwa 17).

At the University of Krakow, Copernicus studied under the Polish astronomer and mathematician Albert Brudzewski (1445-1495). It was under Brudezwski that Copernicus was first formally trained in the science of astronomy (Mitzwa 17).       

The Commentariolus 

Copernicus left few written records regarding his research methodology. The Arabic translations of early Greco-Roman works probably came to Copernicus through Brudzeweski, who also passed on the findings of other German and Italian astronomers from the early to middle Fifteenth century (Kesten 164). Copernicus' first known work on planetary dynamics, the Commentariolus, builds on the research of the scholars who preceded him. A short essay about 18 pages long, it presents a heliocentric (sun-centered) system that would be the basis of his later, more developed work De Revolutionibus. 

The Commentariolus was passed from scholar to scholar until it disappeared towards the end of the Sixteenth century, not to reappear until it was found and published in 1878. Its main purpose serves to establish Copernicus early thoughts on the heliocentric model. In it, he tries to explain the motion and position of planetary bodies, laying the foundation for certain standards he will use in De Revolutionibus. There are some problems in translating the text from Latin. The ancient tongue is not quite able to handle the mathematical expressions. This was complicated in some cases by Copernicus himself who, for example, sometimes uses the terms circle and sphere interchangeably (Copernicus 6, 13).

Because the Commentariolus was not published, and then temporarily disappeared from the historical record, its impact was limited. While it was passed among Copernicus' colleagues for several decades, De Revolutionibus would be his lasting legacy.

The Commentariolus also reveals that Copernicus had not yet completed his calculations of the Sun and the Moon (Kesten 175). The date of his authorship of the Commentariolus is placed no later than 1514 because he did not begin his observations of the Sun until 1515, and he surely would have referred to such observations had he begun them. Most of Copernicus' significant observations occur after this date. 
Timetable of Copernicus' Observations   
Body Observed
Dates of Observation
Earth's Moon
With his observations of the moon concluding in 1541, Copernicus made the final revisions to a work long in the writing, De Revolutionibus.

De Revolutionibus

"What follows from this demonstration is that the heavens are infinite in relation to the earth. The extent of this immensity we do not know at all (Kesten 181)."
Copernicus, De Revolutionibus, chapter one
  Fig. 2: Page from an original copy of De Revolutionibus that belonged to Copernicus.
Currently at the Jagiellonian Library at the University of Krakow, Poland.
De Revolutionibus, the Book of Revolutions, is, as its name implies, a study the revolutions of the bodies of the solar system. It was written chiefly between 1515 and 1533, followed by a period of intense revision through 1541. The first chapters to be published concerned the mathematical basis Copernicus created for more accurate observations, "his own trigonometry." This aspect of De Revolutionibus is an important contribution. Mathematics must evolve in order to express new concepts, as is the case with any language. In this way, Copernicus helped to develop the mathematical arts by devising "his own trigonometry (Kesten 176, 178)."

By the time De Revolutionibus was published in 1543, (the year of Copernicus' death) most people believed that the Earth was round; however, the thought of whether or not the Earth was in the center of the universe was a far different matter. The idea of a geocentric universe was wrapped up in Western theology and became infallible by association with the church. Copernicus set out to challenge this concept in the first of the five books of De Revolutionibus.   

In the first book, Copernicus describes the universe in general terms, adding as much math as needed to support his work. In comparing the observations of Ptolemy to his own tables and charts, Copernicus observes out they do not match up his more accurate findings. He does, however, use some of Ptolemy's proofs, such as that of a departing ship shrinking as it goes over the horizon, to establish the spherical nature of the Earth. In the late Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, just because people thought the Earth was round that did not necessarily mean they thought it was spherical as well.

Copernicus refers to the work of the ancient scientists such as Heraclides, Ekphantos and Hicetas, who did not believe the Earth stood still, thus establishing precedence for his ideas. Despite this tribute to the ancients, he uses chapter one to disprove Aristotle's and Ptolemy's reasons given in support of the idea that the Earth is at the center of the universe (Kesten 179-180).

       "It does not follow that the earth is in the center, indeed it
       would be astonishing if the immense sphere of stars revolved
       around this little point in twenty-four hours, rather than this
       little point around itself" (Kesten 181).
Copernicus, De Revolutionibus, chapter one

The ancients thought the Earth would fly apart if it actually moved through the universe. They had not considered gravity as an effect that would keep the Earth together during such motion. Copernicus considers gravity as a force in this motion; however, defining it would be left to Isaac Newton. 

       "I consider gravity as nothing but a natural striving with which
       the Creator has endowed the parts in order that they may
       combine into one whole while they collect into a sphere. The
       same is probably true of the sun, the moon and the other
       planets, and yet they are not fixed" (Kesten 181).
                                                Copernicus, De Revolutionibus

Copernicus gives no illustrations to show how he envisioned the motions of the planets and further complicated the matter by inconsistently using various terms. Perhaps this is a habit he carried over from the Commentariolus, but one that likely owes much to the limitations of Latin, in which Copernicus wrote De Revolutionibus.            

Book II of De Revolutionibus is on spherical astronomy and a catalogue of stars, including corrections of Ptolemy's catalogue. Book III is concerned with the length of the solar year, Earth's orbit, and explaining various computation tables. Book IV details the motion of the moon and its eclipses, once again putting Ptolemy's work under a critical eye. Books V and VI involve Copernicus' notes on planetary motions. Rather than using his observations as a starting point, he focuses on what aspects of the Earth's observable motion modified Ptolemy's data. Again, the refutation of Ptolemy is the overt concern of Copernicus in De Revolutionibus, however, he does not abandon Ptolemy entirely. He uses Ptolemy's computations of planetary motions and apogees in his work, accepting the ancient scientist's calculations while rejecting his deductions and theories (Kesten 188). 


While Copernicus' observations and calculations from De Revolutionibus soon became accepted within academic circles, his theories did not. In 1616, the Catholic Church officially condemned the theory of the movement of the Earth. Poland, his homeland, would not introduce his theories into the curriculum of universities until 1722 for Protestant schools and 1782 for Catholic schools. England, owing to its insularity from Europe and its protestant religion, more readily accepted the Copernican heliocentric theory (Dobrezycki 79, 91).

Thomas Digges, son of English mathematician Leonard Digges, published his analysis of De Revolutionibus in his book, Perfit Description of the Coelestiall Orbes, in 1576. His fellow astronomers praised Digges for the accuracy of his observations and calculations, yet it was Digges' adoption of the Copernican heliocentric theory that brought him the critical response of one his era's most noted astronomers, Tycho Brahe (Dobrezycki 192-193).

  Fig. 3: Diagram of the Copernican model of the universe by Thomas Digges  (c. 1545-c.1595)
from Digges' book A Perfit Description of the Coelestiall Orbes (1576).

Works Cited

Copernicus, Nicolaus. Three Copernican Treatises. Trans. Edward
       Rosen. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1959. Print.

Dobrezycki, Jerzey, ed. The Reception of Copernicus' Heliocentric
       Theory. Boston and Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing
       Company and the Ossolineum, the Polish Academy of Sciences
       Press, 1972. Print.

Kesten, Hermann. Copernicus and His World. New York: Roy
       Publishers, 1946. Print.

Mizwa, Stephen. Nicholas Copernicus 1543-1943. New York: The
       Kosciuszko Foundation, 1943. Print.

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