Undoubtedly one of astronomy's founding fathers and easily one of the most recognized names in the history of the field, Copernicus lived in the 16th century and was the first astronomer in recent times to write a major work suggesting that the earth revolves around the sun. This idea of a solar system was his greatest contribution, and it provides the basis for our present-day concept of the universe.
Photo. The Sun. Courtesy NASA.
Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Torün, Poland on February 19, 1473 as Niklas Koppernigk -- a name which he would later Latinize into Nicolaus Copernicus. Fortunately for the field of astronomy, his father, a town magistrate, married the daughter of a wealthy merchant, opening vital doors to higher education for Nicolaus at a young age.
After his father died, Copernicus attended the University of Cracow, studying primarily medicine at the time and becoming fascinated by astronomy, and then in 1496 began ten years of studying law at the University of Bologna in Italy. It is interesting to note that, while Copernicus developed an interest in astronomy and was one of the most influential astronomers of all time, he never majored in astronomy and was never a professional astronomer.
Elected a canon of Frauenburg Cathedral in 1497, to a great degree influenced by his uncle, Copernicus almost immediately left the church to complete his doctorate in canon law at the University of Ferrara. With his master's from the University of Bologna, Copernicus would later return to Frauenburg when his uncle fell ill in 1506.
The ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos had actually devised theories which proposed that Earth and other large planets orbited around the sun. Yet by the 16th century, when Copernicus burst upon the astronomical scene, these theories had long since been rejected, and the 1,400 year-old assertion of Ptolemy that the earth was the stationary center of the universe remained the astronomical explanation. Thus turned the wheels of so-called scientific progress in astronomy!
Ptolemy's complex explanation lacked mathematical elegance, and was exceedingly unsatisfying for its many uncertainties and broad assumptions. Copernicus was intrigued by Aristarchus but was frustrated by Ptolemy and set out to create a simpler, more systematic theory of the order of the universe.
While residing at the Frauenburg Cathedral, Copernicus made the majority of the important observations that he would use later in calculating his planetary theory. Interestingly, he would later borrow, without credit, many of Ptolemy's observations to supplement his own.
In an attempt to unravel the mystery of the daily pattern of motion in the sky above him, Copernicus devised an explanation which provides the essential elements of our modern-day theory. Published the year of his death, 1543, and delivered to him on his deathbed, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium -- On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres -- was Copernicus's great triumph: a mathematical explanation of his theory that was appealing for its relative simplicity.
Striving for basic answers to the questions raised by the motion of space, Copernicus arrived at a fundamental conclusion: the earth and all other planets revolve around the sun. It is difficult to conceive today of how radical this assertion was, for the Copernican solar system is as firmly entrenched now as Ptolemy's theory was in Copernicus's day.
The very notion that the earth even moved had to be explained, for Ptolemy had asserted that the earth stood still while the other planets rotated around it. Even so, Copernicus stated that the earth revolves around (orbits) the sun and that it completes one full rotation around its axis every day. The very mobility of Earth, then, was another of Copernicus's great contributions and it made up the entire first portion of De revolutionibus.
Though Copernicus even used his theory to explain the motion of other celestial bodies, he was never able to prove his assertions mathematically. In fact, his proposal of circular orbits for Earth and the other planets was found to be false and many of his calculations were quite inaccurate. However, his theory aroused significant interest, and the early 17th century brought with it astronomers Galileo and Kepler and finally also the long-awaited proof and refinement of Copernicus's theory.
Even with his inexact theory, Copernicus had most certainly changed the astronomical world forever, though it would take some time for his accomplishment to be fully acknowledged and appreciated. He was one of the first and one of the earliest to begin explaining the mystery of space. For this, he has earned a permanent place as one of astronomy's greats.