Nicolaus Copernicus was a Polish scientist and philosopher. He came up with a model of the universe that placed the Sun at the center instead of the Earth. This model is heliocentrism.
Copernicus was born in Poland on February 19th, 1473. He was the son of a rich business man and the youngest of four siblings. When his father passed away, he ended up in the care of his uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger.
Watzenrode made sure that Copernicus had a good education. He began his earliest studies in Poland. While attending University, he became fascinated by astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. He left Poland after his studies to study Church law in Italy. Copernicus ended up spending most of his time studying mathematics and astronomy.
At that time, it was thought that the Earth was the center of the universe. This is the geocentric model. As Copernicus pondered this model, he noticed several inconsistencies. The geocentric model could not explain things in the sky that were well observed at the time.
For example, astronomers noticed that several planets moved backward across the night sky. This is retrograde movement. In his mind, there had to be a better model.
After studying in Italy, Copernicus returned to Poland. It was here that he started writing his thoughts on the universe. His first manuscript described the universe as having the Sun at its center instead of the Earth. This was a reference to the heliocentric model.
This image shows our modern understanding of the Solar System, with the Sun in the middle.
Copernicus was not the first to propose a heliocentric model. In fact, this idea was proposed nearly 2000 years before in Greece by Aristarchus of Samos. Copernicus was aware of this and cited Aristarchus in his work. However, he was the first to back up his theory with mathematics and persuasive arguments. Most historians believe that he arrived at his conclusions independently of Aristarchus.
Copernicus did not intend to publish the Commentariolus. He hand-wrote the book and only sent it to his close friends. Towards the end of his life, they encouraged him to publish his heliocentric ideas. He published the first manuscript of his full book only two months before he died.
Death and Legac
Copernicus died at the age of 70 from a stroke. His remains were anonymously buried in a Cathedral in Poland. It wasn’t until 2008 that archaeologists confirmed that they had found his remains. He was anonymously buried because he was not famous in his day. His ideas took many years to become popularized.
Eventually, the Catholic church, as well as other Christian faiths, banned his work. This was because his model disagreed with Church teachings. It remained banned for hundreds of years.
A geocentric model of our solar system. Geocentrism was the view of the Catholic Church during Copernicus’s life.
Galileo Galilei was an Italian scientist who also championed heliocentrism. The Catholic Church arrested him one hundred years after Copernicus’s life. Eventually, modern astronomers adopted the heliocentric model. Though we now know that the Sun is the center of our Solar System, not the entire Universe.