Heroes of Space: Nicolaus Copernicus

The Polish astronomer who revolutionised our understanding of the Earth’s place in the Solar System.



Nicolaus Copernicus, born in Toruń, Poland on 19 February 1473, is undoubtedly one of the most important astronomers of all time. He was the first to provide proof that the Sun, rather than the Earth, was at the centre of the Solar System, which many scientists regard as the beginning of our increased scientific understanding of the universe.

Copernicus’ father passed away at the age of ten and thus he entered the care of his uncle, Bishop of Varmia Lucas Watzenrode, who ensured that Copernicus was given a proper education. He studied painting and mathematics at the University of Cracow in 1491 and began to develop an interest in the cosmos.

Upon graduation three years later, Copernicus took a canon’s position at Frombork’s cathedral back in Toruń, a job he held for the rest of his life. A four-year period of leave in 1496 to the University of Bologna saw him meet astronomer Domenico Maria Novara, who would encourage Copernicus to pursue his dream of astronomy. After further studies at the University of Padua and University of Ferrara, where he studied practical medicine and canon law respectively, he resumed his position as a canon.

It wasn’t until 1508 that he formulated his own celestial model, a heliocentric planetary system with the Sun at the centre, which went against the then predominant view that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. The Earth-centric view, popularised by Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd Century, was filled with inconsistencies. It could not account for the retrograde motion of the planets in the sky, nor the annual motion of the Sun, whereas Copernicus’ model could.

Copernicus worked on a complex mathematical model for his theory, and constructed a modest observatory in 1513 to help with his studies. He summarised his findings in a short 40-page manuscript in 1514 called Commentariolus (“Small Commentary” in Latin). The basis of Copernicus’ theory came from his now famous seven axioms that formed the crux of his book. These basically outlined his view that the annual cycle of the Sun and the retrograde motion of the planets were due to the rotation of the Earth, which itself was in orbit around the Sun. Copernicus didn’t get everything right, though. He incorrectly presumed the planets had perfectly circular orbits, something that was not corrected until the 17th Century when German astronomer Johannes Kepler proved them to be elliptical.

He refined and expanded his theory in his 1543 book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (“On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”), which was met with some controversy, particularly from the Roman Catholic Church. It is rumoured that Copernicus died on 24 May 1543 in Frauenburg, Poland clutching a copy of his book, which was subsequently banned posthumously for three centuries.

Despite encountering resistance to his theories Copernicus was adamant he was correct, and he was ultimately proved to be so. We often refer to the heliocentric model of the Solar System today as a Copernican system, and his influence and bravery to question such long-standing and incorrect theories will forever be remembered in the history of astronomy.

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