When The Earth Moved
Nicholas Copernicus Changed The World
The Father of Modern Astronomy
February 2003 marked the 460th anniversary of the publication of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, (On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres), a manuscript that changed the world.
Written by the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus and printed in 1543, De Revolutionibus established, for the first time in history, the correct position of the sun among the planets. The book’s findings not only formed the base for astronomers of the future, it inaugurated the great era of theoretical formulation. It is rightfully considered by some to have caused the greatest revolution in science and thought in the last two thousand years.
Copernicus put an end to the belief that the earth was the center of the universe, and degraded the earth to a relatively unimportant tributary of the sun. The sun, said Copernicus, was the center of the planetary system, and instead of being stationary, the earth revolved around the sun in the course of a year while rotating once every twenty-four hours about its axis.
The book, therefore, also challenged the long-standing belief that the earth was the heavenly center of the universe. The repercussions of this interpretation were magnificent.
Copernicus himself originally gave credit to Aristarchus of Samos when he wrote, "Philolaus believed in the mobility of the earth , and some even say that Aristarchus of Samos was of that opinion." Interestingly, this passage was crossed out shortly before publication, maybe because Copernicus decided his treatise would stand on its own merit.
16th Century Renaissance Man
The Renaissance resulted in great achievements in esthetic and literary interests, but advances in science moved slowly during the period. The era, however, opened a door for individuals—like Copernicus—to express beliefs they found contrary to what was accepted.
Their views most often placed these great thinkers at odds with the Church. Fearful of being labeled heretics, many kept their ideas to themselves or within a close circle of friends. Embracing the views of alleged heretics also placed one out of favor with the church, making support for radical ideas hard to come by. Decades after Copernicus’ death, the great astronomer Galileo was forced to disavow his Copernican beliefs to avoid excommunication. The philosopher Giodano Bruno, a Dominican friar greatly influenced by Copernicus, was hunted by the Inquisition and perished in Rome at the stake.
He Moved the Earth
Until Copernicus, the teachings of the Greek astronomer Ptolemy were considered the gospel truth. Ptolemy, who lived in Alexandria in the second century after Christ, taught that the earth was round and calculated its circumference at an astonishingly close approximation to the true figure. The Ptolemaic system, however, taught that the earth was the stationary center of the universe, and the sun, moon, planets and stars revolved around it.
Because the Ptolemaic system enjoyed the endorsement of not only scholars, but also of the church, Copernicus, in fear of trial for heresy, long hesitated to announce his heliocentric view. The fear instilled by the Church made it understandable why Copernicus’ teachings were not greatly noticed at first, and filtered very slowly into the European consciousness. This chilly reception of the correction of an established erroneous theory proved that scientific investigation was a threat to authority.
It was hard to imagine a church Canon a threat to authority, especially since he was dead by the time his teachings served as inspiration to other astronomers and scientists.
Initiated Great Thinking
Because his presentation of De Revolutionibus lacked both observational data and mathematical underpinning (at that time, the gathering of meager data was not part of the scientific system, nor was the practice of justifying laws with countless mathematical proofs)—yet with models and proofs so convincing—it sparked future astronomers and mathematicians to justify his findings, and in effect served as an catalyst for the great inventions and theories in centuries to come.
In putting out his theory of the ordered movement of the planets around the sun, Copernicus stimulated investigation into the whole body of phenomena connected with matter in motion. These researches, conducted by many scholars, among them Kepler, Galileo, and Newton and the most shining names, culminated in the theory of gravitation and the recognition of an eternally established, majestic universe of law.
Hand-in-hand with these brilliant physcio-astronomical discoveries went the development of mathematics. Mathematics reached its eighteenth century culmination with the invention of the calculus by Newton and Leibnitz. It was calculus that made possible the complicated measurements demanded by the study of moving objects and it was in mathematical terms that the laws of motion—not only of solid bodies, but also of such physical phenomena as sound, heat, and light—were seated.
Nicholas Copernicus (Mikolaj Kopernik) was born in Torun on February 19, 1473 of a well-to-do merchant family. He attended St. John’s School on Torun. He studied canon law at the University of Krakow from 1491 to 1495, and from 1496 to 1503, he studied at the Universities of Bologna and Padua. At the university of Krakow, then famous for its mathematics and astronomy, he discovered several contradictions in the system then used for calculating the movements of celestial bodies.
At the University of Bologna, he advanced his theory that the moon was a satellite of the earth. At Padua, he studied medicine.
He became fascinated by celestial motion and observed this phenomena with his naked eye. He then began drawing the positions of the constellations and planets to support his theory.
His uncle Lucas, the Bishop of Varmia, appointed Copernicus a canon of the Church, which provided Copernicus a stipend to study medicine and science. He held the position as a canon of the Chapter of Varmia in Frombork, a little town in the north of Poland, from 1510 until his death in 1543. There he led a busy administrative life which included the organization of armed resistance against provocations by neighboring Teutonic Knights.
His position allowed him to spend most of his time working out his theory. He made astronomical observations using very simple wooden instruments with no lenses (lenses were not invented until 100 years later). About 1515, he earnestly began to compile data and he wrote a short report on his theory which he circulated among astronomers. The first words of the text supplied the title, Commentariolus (Commentary). It took him many years to give the final form to his principal work on the detailed theory of motions in a heliocentric system. In 1539, he published De Revolutionibus. The book was dedicated to Pope Paul III.
The published theory reached him on his death bed, although some accounts say he never saw the printed work. It is believed he died several hours after seeing the printed copy.
The citizens of Torun, his birthplace, erected a monument in front of the city hall with the following dedication: "Nicholas Copernicus, A Torunian Moved the Earth; Stopped the Sun." In 1945, the Nicholas Copernicus University was organized in Torun. In 1973, the 500th anniversary of his birth, was aptly observed by all higher institutions of learning, astronomical observatories, historians, mathematicians, scientists, and biographers. Musical compositions were inspired by his life, and seventy nations throughout the world issued commemorative postage stamps honoring the Polish genius.
Copernicus is buried in Frombork Castle.
Forever in Stone
Throughout the world, there are many monuments, observatories, and buildings named after the famous astronomer. Here are few of the more notable ones:
• In Torun, Poland, his birthplace, a University named in his honor was organized in 1945. A monument to Copernicus stands in front of the town hall.
• A statue in front of the College of Physics in Planty, Poland shows Copernicus as a young student.
• A statue of Copernicus by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, stands in downtown Warsaw.
• The Copernicus Foundation of Chicago was established in 1971. In 1980, the foundation renovated an old theater (complete with a replica of the Royal Castle Clock Tower in Warsaw) and opened The Copernicus Cultural and Civic Center.
• Also in Chicago is one of the most readily recognizable statues of Copernicus. It is located on Solidarity Drive.
• An orbiting space laboratory named after Copernicus is on display at the Air and Space Museum at Independence and 6th St. in Washington, D.C.
• At the main entrance to the Dag Hammarskjold Library at the United Nations Building, is a large bronze head of Copernicus. It was sculpted by Alfons Karny, and was a gift to the U.N. from Poland in 1970. Karney is one of the world’s greatest sculptures of the 20th century. The bust is on permanent display.
• The Kopernik Polish Cultural Center, located in the Polish Community Center in Utica, N.Y., is operated by the Kopernik Polish Cultural Center Committee of the Kopernik Memorial Association of Central New York. It contains a fine permanent collection of Polish works of art, books, artifacts and videotape.
• In 1973, Central New York’s Polonia formed the Kopernik Society to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Copernicus. The society raised money to build the Kopernik Observatory in Vestal, New York, the only one built in the 20th century without support from major donors and government funding. The Kopernik Observatory is next to the planetarium complex at the Roberson Center, making the site to be one of the best public astronomy facilities in the Northwest. Currently, the Kopernik Space Education Center project is underway to expand the original facility.
• A memorial to Kopernik stands in Fairmont Park in Philadelphia. It was erected under the auspices of the Philadelphia Polish Heritage Society.
• The Copernicus Society of America (CSA), established by Edward Piszek, has played a major role in the promotion of Polish heritage in the United States. In 1977, Piszek and the Copernicus Society were instrumental in enabling Fort Ticonderoga to purchase Mount Defiance, near the historic Revolutionary War fortress at which Tadeusz Kosciuszko played a critical role in 1777 to halt the British advance up Lake Champlain. Fort Ticonderoga was the "location" for filming a PBS special on Kosciuszko, a bicentennial project sponsored by the Copernicus Society and the Reader’s Digest Foundation.
Most recently, the Copernicus Society was the motivating force behind W.S. Kuniczak’s translation of the Henryk Sienkiewicz "Trilogy."
• A copy of the Warsaw, Poland statue of the Polish astronomer is in the square by the Dow Planetarium in Montreal, Canada.
Copernicus In Lore
Like many true heroes, there are many folk tales about Copernicus. One, recently retold in Polish Folk Legends by Florence Waszkelewicz-Clowes, tells of a meeting between Copernicus and the legendary magicians Dr. George Faust and Pan Twardowski. Whether or not these real men ever met in the context of the story is speculation, but the tale of their meeting at Pukier Tavern is a popular legend in Poland.
The first edition copy of Copernicus’ "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium" is on permanent display on the main floor of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Sources and Suggested Reading
A History of Europe, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York
Polish Biographical Dictionary, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Chicago
Polish Heritage Travel Guide to the U.S. and Canada, Hippocrene Books, New York
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