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NICOLAUS COPERNICUS (1473 - 1543)

Nicolaus Copernicus was born February 19th 1473 in Torun, Eastern Poland. He studied mathematics, optics and medicine at Krakow University and went on to study law, Greek and the writings of Plato at Bologna University in Italy. After being appointed canon in Frauenburg Cathedral, Poland, Copernicus visited Rome and spent four years in Padua, studying law and medicine. He was awarded a doctorate in canon law from Padua University in 1503.

Copernicus returned to Frauenburg where he remained for the rest of his life. He did not waste his spare time; he was a painter, he translated Greek poetry into Latin and he observed the skies at night. In fact, Copernicus’s first recorded observation of the heavens is from his days in Bologna; it is here he observed the eclipse of the star Aldebaran by the Moon in 1497. Remember that the telescope would not be invented for another one hundred years so all of Copernicus’s observations were made with an un-aided eye.

Statue of Copernicus, Krakow University, Poland

Statue of Copernicus, Krakow University, Poland © Shirley Burchill 2006

Copernicus published accounts of his celestial observations. Between 1497 and 1529 he sent twenty seven papers to print. However, he is best known for his theory on the movement of the sun and planets. Copernicus, as Aristarchus before him, rejected the idea that the Earth was the centre of the universe (the geocentric theory). He detailed the Heliocentric theory, (that the Earth and the other planets orbit the sun), and supported his theory with mathematical calculations. Copernicus first explained his theory in a short paper written in 1514. This paper was mostly circulated amongst his friends, since the heliocentric theory was not popular with the Church. The Roman Catholic Church officially recognised Ptolemy’s geocentric theory and it was dangerous to speak out against this doctrine.

Even though Copernicus followed his short paper by a book, "Concerning the Revolution of Celestial Spheres", he left his work unpublished. In 1539 a German mathematics professor, George Rheticus, visited Copernicus and stayed with him, as his student, for two years. It was Rheticus who convinced Copernicus to publish. The book was published in 1540 and Copernicus died three years later. He would never know about the commotion his book was going to cause in Catholic Europe.

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