Nikolaus Copernicus and the Heliocentric Model

Nicolaus Copernicus
(1473 – 1543)

On February 19, 1473, Renaissance mathematician and astronomer Nikolaus Copernicus, who established the heliocentric model, which placed the Sun, rather than the Earth, at the center of the universe, was born. With the publication of his research he started the so-called Copernican Recolution, which started a paradigm shift away from the former Ptolemaic model of the heavens, which postulated the Earth at the center of the galaxy, towards the heliocentric model with the Sun at the center of our Solar System. In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus published his treatise De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), which presented a heliocentric model view of the universe. It took about 200 years for a heliocentric model to replace the Ptolemaic model. But, Copernicus was not the first to propose a Heliocentric model. Actually, even the ancient Greek philosophers argued about, as e.g. Aristarchus of Samos in the 3rd century BCE, who had developed some theories of Heraclides Ponticus (speaking of a revolution by Earth on its axis) to propose what was, so far as is known, the first serious model of a heliocentric solar system.

Nikolaus Copernicus was born in Poland as the son of successful merchants. He was well educated, speaking Latin, German, and Polish fluently, wherefore most of his later publications were published in Latin. In 1491, Copernicus began his studies at the University of Krakow gathering the basic knowledge in mathematics and astronomy. Besides his astronomical interests, Copernicus evolved a great interest in the philosophical ideas of Aristotele, works by Euclid, or Johannes RegiomontanusTabulae directionum, gathering a great private library. Even though the time at Krakow University was important to his future career in concerns of his knowledge and experience, he left the institution without a degree. Copernicus then attended Bologna University where he was highly influenced by Domenico Maria de Novara, who supported the young scientists with the opportunity to observe and measure the sky.

The work on the heliocentric theory began during Copernicus’ time as his uncles’ secretary in Heilsberg. The first outline was written around 1540 and contained a description of the theory without mathematical explanations and was not intended to be published at any time. Only few fellow astronomers were supposed to read and contribute to his ideas. Tycho Brahe however published a few fragments of the manuscript in his own work ‘Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata‘. Further studies by Copernicus included the observation of the planets Mars and Saturn as well as several studies on the Sun. Especially during the observations of the Sun, Copernicus began measuring the movements of the planets in relation to the Sun. Around 1532, he completed the famous manuscript ‘De revolutionibus orbium coelestium’ and in the following year, Pope Clement VII was told about it and encountered Copernicus with high interest. Still he refused to publish his book despite the fact thet his theory already spread throughout Europe. It is assumed that he feared criticism by fellow scientists as well as problems with the Church. However, he eventually agreed to have the book published in 1543, but unfortunately he passed away in the same year.

One of the first to neglect Copernicus’ heliocentric theory was the Catholic Church’s chief censor. Others rejected the thought of mathematical physics, unable to foresee that Copernicus’ theory would change the field of physics back then critically. His thoughts were claimed to be unproven and irrational since they caused various conflicts with the Bible, especially the Battle of Gibeon in the book of Joshua in which Joshuas prayers cause the Sun and Moon to stand still. One of his greatest opponents depicted Martin Luther, but Philip Melanchthon eventually saw the theory’s importance and the need to teach those wherefore the University of Wittenberg became a center where the heliocentric system was to be studied. Tycho Brahe, one of the greatest astronomers before the invention of the telescope appreciated Copernicus’ efforts, but rejected his system, wherefore he developed his own called the ‘geoheliostatic’ system in which the two inner planets revolved around the sun and that system along with the rest of the planets revolved around the Earth.

On the long run, Copernicus’ system was widely accepted and caused the so called ‘Copernican Revolution’, a now often used metaphor supporting modern developments.

At yovisto, you can learn more about the scientific, social and religious impact of the Copernican Revolution with the lecture ‘Mathematics, Motion, and Truth: The Earth goes round the Sun‘ by Jeremy Gray of Gresham University.

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