Copernicus, Nicolaus

The original form of his name was Mikolaj Kopernik or Nicolaus Koppernigk. He changed it later in his life to the Latin form Nicolaus Copernicus.

Copernicus was born on 19 February 1473 in Torun, Poland, the son of a merchant. He was only ten years old when his father died, and his uncle, Lukasz Watzenrode, took charge of him and the other children and gave them the opportunity for university training. The uncle was a wealthy Catholic bishop. Copernicus matriculated in Krakow in 1491, and then entered the University of Krakow where he studied Latin, mathematics, astronomy, geography and philosophy. He also studied canon law at Bologna and medicine at Padua in Italy. In 1500 he lectured on astronomy in Rome.

On his return from his studies in Italy in 1507, Copernicus, through the influence of his uncle, was appointed as a canon in the cathedral of Frauenburg where he spent a sheltered and academic life for the rest of his life. He also served as attending physician to the old uncle, and spent much time studying the stars. This Polish-born astronomer is often regarded the founder of modern astronomy.

His interest in astronomy gradually grew to be one in which he had a primary interest. His studies led to his theory that the Earth rotates on its axis once daily and that the Earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. His theory was contrary to the Ptolemaic theory, which was then the generally accepted principle. He completed his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” in 1530 setting out his theory, which contradicted the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The book bears testimony to his unremitting observations of sun, moon, and planets. His work on the heliocentric theory (i.e. that the sun and planets, and not the earth, is the centre of the solar system) was not published for 13 years, and Copernicus actually only received the first copy on 24 May 1543 when he was on his deathbed.

The original manuscript was lost to the world for 300 years, and was eventually found in Prague in the middle of the 19th century. Studying the manuscript it became clear that Copernicus’ pen was seemingly constantly in motion with revisions followed by more revisions – all in Latin, which was the trend for scholarly writings in those days.

Copernicus’ studies and observations convinced him that the earth was also a planet. By categorizing earth as a planet, he also believed that the earth was rotating like the other planets. He then made a new model with the sun in the centre. The earth, moon and the other planets were believed to move around the Sun in a counter-clockwise motion. This new heliocentric theory was commonly known as the Sun-centred theory. This theory is also popularly known as the Copernican system.

His book paved the way to a truly scientific approach to astronomy. Men such as Galileo and Johannes Kepler were overwhelmingly influenced by it.

Copernicus died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 24 May 1543 in Frombork, Poland.