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The Biography of Nicolaus Copernicus

Disputing the Obvious

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Thorn (Torum), Poland was the birthplace of one of Astronomy’s most influential followers. On February 19, 1473, Nicolaus Copernicus entered a world, which was at the center of the universe, and by the time of his death had turned this world on its ear. This is his compelling biography.

Nicolaus's father, who was a successful merchant, died when Nicolaus was very young, leaving in the care of a maternal uncle, Bishop £ukasz Watzenrode. He received an excellent education, eventually entering Krakow Academy, then well known as Bishop £ukasz Watzenrode. Although he departed Krakow without a degree, he had become so enamored with learning that he continued his education by studying liberal arts at Bologna, medicine at Padua, and law at the University of Ferrara, receiving his doctorate in canon law in 1503.

Soon afterward, he returned to Poland, spending several years with his uncle, assisting in the administration of the diocese and in the conflict against the Teutonic Knights. During this time, he published his first book, which was a Latin translation of letters on morals by 7th-century Byzantine writer, Theophylactus of Simocatta. In 1512, he moved to the cathedral in Frauenberg (Frombork). Even before his trip to Italy, his uncle, the bishop, had secured him a position as canon of the church.

While studying in Bologne, Copernicus was greatly influenced by Domenico Maria, learning with interest of his criticism of the “Geography” of Ptolemy. On March 9, 1497, the men collaborated in observing the occultation (eclipse by the moon) of the star Aldebaran. In 1500, Nicolaus lectured on astronomy in Rome. So, it should have been no surprise that while performing his ecclesiastical duties and practicing medicine, he also returned his attention to astronomy.

Some time during these years, he wrote a short astronomical treatise, De Hypothesibus Motuum Coelestium a se Constitutis Commentariolus (known as the Commentariolus). In this work he laid down the principles of his new heliocentric astronomy. It was not published until the 19th century.

In this same period, he took part in the Fifth Lateran Council's commission on calendar reform in 1515; wrote a treatise on monetary reform; and shortly thereafter, began his major work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres).

Expanding vastly on his earlier work, the Commentariolus, this book was in direct opposition to Aristotle and to the 2d-century astronomer Ptolemy. Instead of the geocentric system based Ptolemaic model, Copernicus proposed that a rotating Earth revolving with the other planets about a stationary central Sun provided a much simpler explanation for the same observed phenomena of the daily rotation of the heavens, the annual movement of the Sun through the ecliptic, and the periodic retrograde motion of the planets.

Although completed by 1530 but De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium was first published by a Lutheran printer in Nürnberg, Germany, in 1543. One often repeated Copernican legend claims that he received a printed copy of his treatise on his deathbed. Nicolaus Copernicus died on May 24, 1543.

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