Copernicus is the father of modern astronomy and the driving of the astronomical revolution in the 16th Century.

After many years of looking and thinking, Copernicus came to the conclusion that the Earth and the other planets revolve around the Sun.

His observations of the sky and his reflections, led him to formulate the theory that the Earth is not the center of the universe.

Nicolaus Copernicus provided the foundations that allowed Kepler, Galileo, Herschel and Newton to culminate the astronomical revolution.

Planetary orbit
Seasons in the Martian Year as the red planet orbits the Sun  Credit: web “”

In addition to his intelligence and tenacity, Copernicus had the enormous courage to break prudently with what in his time was considered an irrefutable truth.

Family and studies of Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus was born in 1473, in the city of Torun, on the banks of the Vistula, in Poland.

During his childhood and youth, he received an excellent education, thanks to his uncle Lucas, who was his tutor since, at age 10, Nicolás was orphaned.

Torun is a very famous city, mainly because Copernicus was born there. Credit: website

From 1491, Copernicus studied mathematics and art at the University of Krakow, astronomy at Bologna, medicine at the University of Padua, and he obtained the degree of Doctor of Canon Law at Ferrara.

He was a great student of classical authors and confessed himself as a great admirer of Ptolemy, whose Almagest he thoroughly studied.

Jaguelonica University, founded in 1364, is a prestigious University of Krakow,. Credit: wikipedia

Professional life of Copernicus

For 25 years, since he was an assistant to Professor Domenico María de Novara, in Bologna.

His uncle Lucas introduced him to canongy, which he performed for the rest of his life.

Reinstated permanently in his country (1523), he dedicated himself to the administration of the Diocese of Warmia, practiced Medicine, held certain administrative positions and carried out his immense and fundamental work in the field of Astronomy.

Circumstances of the astronomical observations of Copernicus

Copernicus fulfilled his obligations as canon of the Frauenburg Cathedral, attending all religious services.

At the same time, he enjoyed an excellent financial situation, as he was a beneficiary of taxes and contributions from the inhabitants of Frauenburg.

The enormous merit of Copernicus is that all his astronomical observations were made on cold nights in a city that is located far to the north of Europe.

Above all, Copernicus did not have a telescope, so all his measurements were made with very ingenious artisanal means, but without this essential instrument.

Copernicus made repeated and meticulous observations of the movement of the planets that he could see with the naked eye.

Copernicus’s revolutionary discoveries

His great powers of observation allowed him to verify that Venus and Mercury were always close to the Sun.

In addition, he observed that these planets gave the impression that they repeatedly changed direction by moving backwards.

These facts, repeatedly observed, contradicted the theory that these planets revolved around the Earth; because, if that were the case, sometimes they should be located far from the Sun. And this never happened.

Furthermore, Copernicus found it very strange that Venus and Mercury changed the direction of rotation at some times of the year.

Finally he deduced that observations of these real events were easily explained by the theory that the Earth and the planets revolve around the Sun, as stated in ancient times by Aristarchus of Samos.

Planets orbits
Venus and Mercury look close to the Sun because they are actually closer to the Sun. Credit: Biosphere Project.

Copernicus thought that if Mercury is closer to the Sun, it travels a shorter orbit and moves faster than Earth, giving the impression at times of moving backward, because it goes around the Sun several times during the Earth year.

This gives the impression that Mercury changes direction repeatedly when it passes the Earth and then moves away from it. However, it has the same address at all times.

Publications by nicolaus copernicus

Around 1507, Copernicus  produced his exposition of an astronomical system according to which the Earth moves around the Sun.

Although this novel statement only circulated privately, the new ideas spread among scholars.

In the knowledge that his theory could spark a bitter ecclesiastical controversy, Copernicus had decided never to publish them.

In times of the Inquisition it was not wise to challenge ecclesiastical theories, with statements that contradicted biblical interpretations.

As an astronomer, Copernicus knew perfectly well that his theory was right and defeated the teachings of the church.

As a priest, he decided to be cautious because his position and his life were in serious danger.

For the next three decades, Copernicus neither published nor taught his discoveries, but his theory was discussed everywhere.

Artistic composition of planets in the sky. Credit: Unknown

Copernicus continued to refine his theory. He drew up new tables with data on the motion of the planets and wrote extensively about it.

In 1533, encouraged by some friends, Copernicus wrote a sketch of his hypothesis about celestial movements.

Copernicus worked with the hypothesis that the orbits of the planets were circular. This hypothesis forced him to introduce a large number of corrections to his theory, so that it coincided with the real observations of the movement of the planets.

In this manuscript summary he established his theory in 6 axioms, reserving the mathematical part for the main work to be published later under the title “On the revolutions of the celestial spheres“.

This work had an excellent reception, even in the official circles of the Church; so much so that Cardinal Schönberg urged Copernicus to write a treatise in which his heliocentric theory was presented in detail.

He probably never would have done it, except that in 1539, already in the last years of his life, fortuitously and unexpectedly, a young professor of mathematics and astronomy, known by the name of Rheticus, arrived in Frauenburg.

Rheticus was a young Austrian who had a prodigious mathematical talent. Credit: Wikipedia

Rheticus urged Copernicus to publish his theory. Copernicus agreed to do it, but limiting himself to publish the tables he had made of the movements of the planets, without making any mention to the theory behind them.

Finally, Rheticus wrote a book explaining the ideas of Copernicus, whom he only mentioned by his first name and his birthplace.

Rheticus wrote a “letter” to one of his teachers in which he described the “theory of the Reverend Father Dr. Nicholas of Torun, Canon of Ermeland.”

He had the letter printed, which included astrological and biblical comments, and sent it to a few people.

The diffusion of this writing increased the pressure on Copernicus to publish all of his discoveries. In the end he relented.

Rheticus handed over the responsibility of printing it to the Lutheran priest Andreas Osiander who, astutely, had proposed that, if Copernicus decided to publish the book, he should say that the hypotheses it contained “were not articles of faith but mere calculations”.

With this prudent subterfuge, Copernicus would avoid criticism from the Aristotelians and the theologians whom he feared, with good reason.

Copernicus model
Graphic illustration of the heliocentric model of Copernicus. Credit: Wikipedia

It was not until 1543 that the results of the investigations begun in 1507 were published.

The book was entitled “On the movements of the celestial bodies“; it stated that the Sun, and not the Earth, is the center of the universe.

This revolutionary theory marked an important milestone in the history of astronomy.

To protect Copernicus, Osiander wrote a preface, famous in the history of astronomy, which downplayed the book’s importance.

These hypotheses need not be true or even probable; provide a calculation consistent with observations; That’s enough.

As far as hypotheses are concerned, let no one expect anything true from astronomy, which cannot provide it, unless ideas conceived for other purposes are accepted as truths and one of these studies moves away being crazier than when the start. Goodbye“.

The first printed copy of the book, which was dedicated to Pope Paul III (Alexander Farnese), arrived at the hands of the Supreme Pontiff on May 24, 1543.

The preface was unsigned, although all attributed its authorship to Copernicus.

Thanks to this subterfuge, potential antagonists decided that the ideas expressed were so doubtful that even the author believed them.

Later, in 1616, when Galileo raised the dust, the Catholic Church inscribed the book of Copernicus in the Index of Forbidden Books, from where it was not taken until 1835.

However, the daily rotation of the Earth around his axis was not definitively demonstrated until 1855, when the Frenchman Jean Foucalt (1819-1868) used his famous pendulum for it.

Paul 3
Pope Paul III was called Alexander Farnese, he belonged to the powerful Farnese family. Credit: Wikipedia

Death of Copernicus and recognitions

A few days after handing over his book, Copernicus passed away in the city of Frauenburg, at the age of 70, on May 24, 1543.

In 2005, a team of Polish archaeologists claimed to have found his remains in Frauenburg Cathedral.

The authenticity that these remains were actually from Copernicus was verified in 2008 by analyzing a tooth and part of the skull and comparing it with his hair found in one of his manuscripts.

From the skull, police experts, reconstructed his face, matching this with his portrait.

A black granite tombstone now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory and also bears the representation of the Copernicus model of the solar system, a golden sun surrounded by six of the planets.

  • His name appears on the Lutheran Calendar of Saints.
  • The lunar crater Copernicus was named after him.
  • The asteroid (1322) Coppernicus also owes its name to him.
  • ESA’s Copernicus Space Program is also named after the astronomer.
  • In the state of New York exists the Kopernik Observatory and Science Center.
  • In memory of Nicolás Copernicus, on February 19, 2010 the IUPAC names element 112 of the periodic table as copernicium.

    Frauenburg is a town in northern Poland, on the Vistula lagoon. Credit: Wikipedia