Nicolaus Copernicus

On this date in 1473, astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (né Nicolaus Koppernigk) was born the youngest of four children in Torun, Poland. He studied a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, Latin, Greek, mathematics, law, medicine and astronomy, at the universities of Krakow, Bologna, Padua and Ferrara. His uncle, a bishop, strongly encouraged him to pursue a career in the church since it would provide economic security, so he pursued a doctorate in canon law.

His uncle helped secure him the position of canon at Frauenburg Cathedral in 1497, which provided a comfortable income and did not require much work. This allowed Copernicus the freedom to pursue interests such as economics, medicine, law, diplomacy, art and astronomy. A bishop later threatened to take away his income unless he entered the priesthood but he continued to refuse. His opinion was so valued that the Fifth Lateran Council sought his views on calendar reform in 1514.

Around this time, Copernicus began circulating his Little Commentary, criticizing the Ptolemaic system that placed Earth at the center of the universe. Copernicus made astronomical observations without the aid of a telescope, which was not invented until 1609.

His most significant contribution to astronomy and science was “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). In it he postulated that Earth and the other planets revolve around the sun, in opposition to the church’s universe, in which the sun and other planets revolve around Earth. He completed the book in 1530 and did not allow for its publication until 1541, at the urging of one of his admirers. Without Copernicus’ permission, a preface was anonymously added right before publication, classifying the work as mere hypothetical speculation.

Copernicus supposedly received the published book just before his death. Even though Copernicus dedicated his book to Pope Paul III, who had a fondness for astronomy, in 1616 the book was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books (publications deemed immoral and impious by the Catholic Church). In part, Galileo was condemned to house arrest and Giordano Bruno was executed for the heretical “Copernican” view that Earth was not the center of the universe.

“The Copernican theory contains many absurd or erroneous assertions,” wrote Christoph Clavius, a 16th-century Jesuit priest. It wasn’t just Catholics who were upset. “The fool will upset the whole science of astronomy,” complained Martin Luther.

Toward the end of 1542, Copernicus, who never married, was seized with apoplexy and paralysis and died not much later at age 70. (D. 1543)

Freedom From Religion Foundation