February 19, 2013
In a letter to German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) wrote in 1596:
“I have for many years been a partisan of the Copernican view because it reveals to me the causes of many natural phenomena that are entirely incomprehensible in the light of the generally accepted hypotheses. … I am deterred by the fate of our teacher Copernicus who, although he won immortal fame with a few, was ridiculed and condemned by countless people (for very great is the number of the stupid).”
The concept that Earth was not at the center of all known things forced the western world to re-evaluate many precepts, scientific, cultural and religious. In 150, Claudius Ptolemy, who was an Egyptian scholar living under Roman rule and writing in Greek, published his “Almagest,” which described a spherical universe with an unmoving Earth at its center.
When Nicolaus Copernicus was born on Feb. 19, 1473, in Thorn, Poland, knowledge was horded by the Church – written, copied and shared only with the favored. Copernicus was one of those favored; he was the youngest of four children born to a successful copper merchant. His mother came from a powerful family, and her brother Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, Prince-Bishop of Warmia, would become Copernicus’ patron after his parents died, probably when Copernicus was between 10 and 12. He was educated in mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy at the University of Krakow (founded in 1364). He left the university in 1495, when his uncle, who became Prince-Bishop in 1489, sought to install Copernicus in a vacant canonry. Church politics delayed the appointment for a couple of years, and Watzenrode sent Copernicus and his brother to study in Italy. They studied canon law in Bologna, and Copernicus went on to study medicine at the University of Padua. Though he studied canon law, Copernicus may have been more attracted to the humanist and scientific luminaries in Bologna, which included astronomer Dominica Maria Novara da Ferrara, critic of Ptolemy’s model as too complex. Copernicus recorded his first astronomical observation in 1497 with his teacher.
By 1503, Copernicus received his doctorate in canonical law and completed his medical training in Padua; he returned to Warmia, and served as secretary to the powerful Bishop-Prince, as well as his personal physician. His uncle died in 1512, and while Copernicus continued to hold a variety of positions of power in Warmia, he had more time to write and make observations.
In 1514, Copernicus wrote his first treatise on a heliocentric model of the universe; he shared copies with friends but did not publish what was essentially an outline of his “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.” He completed the manuscript in 1532, but did not publish the book until 1543, just before Copernicus died on May 24.
Popes Leo X, Clement VII, and Paul III did not react negatively to Copernicus, but Martin Luther rejected a heliocentric notion – the Bible tells that Joshua commanded the Sun, not the Earth, to stand still. Yet it was an ally of Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, who sent Joachim Rheticus to study with Copernicus in 1539. Rheticus published the first books outlining some of Copernicus’ work, and pushed him to finally publish his manuscript.
In “Revolutions,” which was dedicated to Pope Paul III, Copernicus proposed that there was no single center of the celestial spheres; that the center of the Earth is not the center of the universe; and that the Earth and the other spheres (planets) revolve around the sun, making it the center of the universe.
His theory was not immediately adopted, and the book did not sell well, only 400 copies were printed. Melanchthon rejected the Copernican model, writing to a friend, “… wise rulers should tame the unrestraint of men’s minds.” Pope Paul IV introduced the “Index Librorum Prohibitorum” (“List of Prohibited Books”) in 1559, and in 1616, Copernicus’ treatise was added to it (it was removed by Pope Benedict XIV in 1758).
But those who read the book, according to astronomer Owen Gingerich in his 2004 book, “The Book Nobody Read,” were important and influential, and Copernican thought fueled the scientific revolution.