What is known about Corpernicus' life?

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543; also spelled Mikolaj Kopernick) was born in Torun, Prussia (in what is now Poland). He was educated in liberal arts, canon law, and medicine at the universities in Krakow, Poland, and Bologna and Padua, Italy. He received a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara when he was 30. His uncle, the Bishop of Ermland, got him the post as canon of the cathedral of Frauenburg in 1497, and he also served as physician to his uncle.

Copernicus' job as canon involved diplomatic work and administration of church estates. He knew Greek and translated Byzantine poetry into Latin. He was knowledgeable about economics and developed interests in astronomy and mathematics.

He became known for his astronomical observations and calculations, and in 1514 Pope Leo X asked him to help reform the calendar. Copernicus refused because he did not think enough was known about the motions of the Sun and Moon, although he is widely reported to have contributed to calendar reform, nonetheless.

Copernicus began developing his theories in 1512 and presented a short description of his system, Commentariolus, to a small group of friends. His major work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium Libri IV (1543) was published in the same year he died. At the time of his death, he also left a treatise on monetary reform, Monetae Cudendae Ratio, for the Prussian provinces of Poland. First printed in 1816, but written in 1526, this work advocated a uniform coinage, preservation of the quality of the coin, and a charge to the nobility for minting the coin. Copernicus anticipated "Gresham's Law," which states that debased money drives good money out of circulation.

How did Nicolaus Copernicus change the world?

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) changed how educated human beings viewed the world by constructing the heliocentric theory of Earth's relation to our Sun. According to the heliocentric theory, which is now considered common knowledge, Earth and the other planets revolve around the Sun. This heliocentric theory replaced the Ptolemaic geocentric theory, which held that that the Sun and other


Copernicus' heliocentric theory challenged the worldview held by the Catholic Church (iStock).

planets revolve around Earth. Copernicus became dissatisfied with the Ptolemaic system after his travels in Italy at a time when there was a lively revival of interest in ancient Pythagorian theories about the metaphysical importance of number for all aspects of nature. The Ptolemaic system was not mathematically elegant. But in Copernicus' day the Church subscribed to the Ptolemaic theory, because that was the description of the cosmos given in the Bible.

How did Ptolemy's view of the solar system become the accepted theory?

Ptolemy of Alexandria (90-168 c.e.), using observations and existing written work between 127 and 151 c.e., codified the common sense of his time that the Sun and planets revolved around Earth. His work overthrew the more revolutionary writings of Aristarchus of Samos (c. 310-230 b.c.e.), who in On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon claimed that the Sun is much larger than Earth based on his observations of our Moon. According to Archimedes of Syracuse (287-212 b.c.e.), who combined mathematics with observations to found the science of mechanics, Aristarchus said "that the fixed stars and the Sun remain unmoved, that the Earth revolves around the Sun on the circumference of a circle, the Sun lying at the center of the orbit." Aristarchus correctly surmised that to explain the apparent immobility of the fixed stars—and assuming Earth did move—the distances between the stars would have to be huge compared to the diameter of Earth's orbit.

Aristarchus' theory was defended by Seleucus of Babylonia in the second century b.c.e., but the consensus of educated opinion was that Earth was the center of the universe, either as a floating ball that the heavens revolved around, or a stable solid, which was how it appeared to humanity. Hipparchus of Nicaea (c. 190-c. 120 b.c.e.) in Bithynia, around 130 b.c.e., put forth a theory based on the work of Eudoxus of Cnidos (c. 409-350 b.c.e.). According to Eudoxus and Hipparchus, the apparent movement of the Sun, Moon and planets was the result of their presence in crystal spheres that were concentric in relation to Earth. It was this view that Ptolemy used as a basis for his mathematical calculations.

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