Theory That Put The World To Rights

The Copernican Planisphere, illustrated in 1661 by the cartographer Andreas Cellarius
The Copernican Planisphere, illustrated in 1661 by the cartographer Andreas Cellarius

by Ray Setterfield


February 19, 1473 — It was plain to see: every day the sun rose in the east, travelled in an arc around Earth, and set in the west. Our planet, obviously, was the centre of the universe. If they thought about it most people in the Middle Ages believed this was the case. And the Church insisted that it was so.

But a young man in Poland had different ideas. His name was Mikolaj Kopernik, the youngest of four children born to a prosperous copper trader of the same name. His mother also came from a wealthy, upper-class family of merchants. At university their son began using the Latin form of his name which the world would come to know him by – Nicolaus Copernicus.

He enrolled at the University of Krakow in 1491 at the age of 18 to study astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, and the sciences. But he also learned Ancient Greek because his real passion lay in the stars and many of the great astronomy works that he wanted to read were written in that language.

Studies and observations began to convince Copernicus that the geocentric (Earth-centred) view of the universe was open to doubt and that a heliocentric (sun-centred) system was the feasible alternative.

Such claims were dangerously heretical and Copernicus wisely more or less kept them to himself. The punishment for heresy, after all, could be burning at the stake.

He did, however, circulate a hand-written document to trusted friends in 1514. It was entitled Commentariolus (The Little Commentary) and put forward his beliefs that included:

  • Earth is not the centre of the universe.
  • Earth’s rotation on its own axis accounts for the apparent daily rotation of the stars.
  • The apparent annual cycle of movements of the sun is seen because Earth is orbiting it; and
  • The apparent retrograde motion of the planets is caused by the fact that we observe them from a moving location, because Earth is orbiting the sun.

Bravely, Copernicus wrote: “There may be babblers, wholly ignorant of mathematics, who dare to condemn my hypothesis, upon the authority of some part of the Bible twisted to suit their purpose. I value them not, and scorn their unfounded judgment.”

By 1532 Copernicus had finished writing the first manuscript of his groundbreaking book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium – The Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. But he was afraid to publish it because of the possible backlash from the Church and the State.

This was to change seven years later when the German mathematician Georg Joachim Rheticus came to study alongside Copernicus. He read De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, was bowled over by it and told his Polish friend that he owed it to the world to publish.

A cautious Copernicus finally agreed that Rheticus could publish a book giving a basic summary of the heliocentric theory. As expected, the reception was hostile, perhaps typified by the Protestant theologian Martin Luther, who wrote:

“This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the Earth.”

The “fool” was not arrested, however, and so a more confident Copernicus gave his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium manuscript to Rheticus for it to be printed in Germany. The book, shrewdly dedicated to the Pope, was published shortly before Copernicus’s death in 1543, after which backing for his theory steadily grew.

So much so that in 1616 a worried Catholic Church declared that support for heliocentrism was heresy and banned the book, only allowing an edited version in 1620 that removed or changed references to a moving Earth and a central sun.

But the genie was now out of the bottle and other scientists were building on the work of Copernicus to prove that Earth was just one world orbiting one star in a vast cosmos, and that our planet was not at the centre of anything.

It was slow work, though, and in 1632 when Galileo Galilei, building on the Polish astronomer’s ideas, insisted that Earth orbited the sun, he was put under house arrest for committing heresy against the Catholic Church.

Nicolaus Copernicus died in 1543 after a stroke at the age of 70. As well as an astronomer he was a mathematician, physician, classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, economist and Catholic canon.

He did not marry and had no children. He was buried at Poland’s Frombork Cathedral in an unmarked grave. Remains thought to be his were discovered in 2005 and in 2010 they were reburied, his new grave marked with a black granite tombstone decorated with a model of the solar system. 

Published: February 9, 2021


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