When the name Copernicus is mentioned, what often comes to mind is the role that his heliocentric theory played in the Galileo affair. This creates the false impression of Copernicus as a controversial figure at loggerheads with Church authority.
In reality, Copernicus was himself a Church figure. He was a canon (a church administrative role that at the time required ordination to minor orders) at his uncle’s diocese in Warmia. He held a doctorate in canon law.
When his heliocentric system was presented to Pope Clement VII in 1533, it was favorably and enthusiastically received. Cardinal von Schoenberg of Capua encouraged him in a letter to promulgate the theory widely. In the seventy years after the publication of De Revolutionibus (until Galileo published his Siderius Nuncius) Copernicus’ work saw almost no objections on theological grounds.
Mikołaj Kopernik was born in Toruń in modern-day Poland on (it is believed) February 19, 1473. His father was a copper merchant, and his mother came from a prominent family in Toruń. After his father’s death around 1483, he entered the care of his uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, who later became bishop of Warmia. He studied at the university of Krakow, where he became familiar with the best astronomical knowledge of his day.
Between 1496 and 1501, he studied canon law in Bologna, returning in 1503 to complete a doctorate in the subject. His studies also included humanities and astronomy. It was during this period that he undertook some astronomical observations that inspired his heliocentric theory. in 1500, he served as an apprentice in the Papal Curia in Rome.
From 1501-1503 he studied medicine at the University of Padua.
Around 1497, Copernicus was installed as canon in Warmia by his uncle, the bishop of Warmia. He served as secretary to his uncle and administrator of his uncle’s affairs, and (due to his training in medicine) also has his personal physician. His role as canon included economic management of Warmia.
In 1510, he took residence in a tower on the town walls of Frombork (in Warmia). There, he undertook the majority of his astronomical observations.
Copernicus initially wrote out his heliocentric hypothesis around 1514 in a brief outline known as the Commentariolus. (This was not intended for publication, but several astronomers in the region including Tycho Brahe were aware of it.)
In 1537, he was one of four candidates considered for the bishopric of Warmia, but was not selected.
Copernicus fell ill near the end of 1542, and passed away on May 24, 1543. His manuscript De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, was already well into the process of preparation for publication. Some stories romantically claim that he the first printed manuscript was presented to him on his deathbed the day before he passed away. The book was finally published posthumously.
In addition to his astronomical works, Copernicus published a Latin translation of Greek poetry, an economic treatise on the location and management of fiefs in the region, and an economic study on the valuation of money. As an administrator of Warmia, he played a political role, including participating in peace negotiations with neighboring kingdoms. As an economist, he consulted advised the lower parliament of Royal Prussia on matters of monetary reform.
Copernicus is most known for his heliocentric cosmological model, which was a significant departure from the geocentric models that predominated in his day. It should be noted that he was not the first to propose that the Earth moves around the Sun. Even as far back as ancient Greece, Aristarchus figured that the Sun is many times bigger than the moon, and so it would make sense that something so large be at the center. Copernicus in his studies was aware of earlier work. He even gives a citation to Aristarchus in an early draft of De Revolutionibus.
Copernicus initially put forth his hypothesis in the Commentariolus (1513), and later in De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1543). What he presented was a full cosmological model, complete with anticipated orbits for the Earth and other planets. This model had the Sun at the center, with the planets (including Earth) orbiting the Sun, and a sphere of fixed stars at some distance outside the orbit of Saturn (the outermost known planet). The Earth in this model had two primary motions: annual revolution in orbit around the Sun, and daily rotation.
The Ptolemaic geocentric model had to account for strange motions of planets which occasionally appeared to move backwards in their orbits. Copernicus accounted for these motions by having the Earth itself moving; for instance, when Mars engaged in apparent retrograde motion, Earth was in fact catching up with and passing by Mars in its orbit.
His model was not perfect. At the time, all heavenly motion was described in perfect circles, and Copernicus maintained this usage. As we know today, orbits are better described by ellipses. Thus, to maintain consistency with the actual observed position of the planets, his model still required a system of epicycles atop the circular orbits. Note also that it was a cosmological model, or a description of the structure of the whole universe. Today we know that the solar system of planets orbiting the Sun is just one of billions within one galaxy among billions in this vast universe of unimaginable dimensions.
While Copernicus’ system did not meet with the theological criticism in the way that the modern myth suggests, it was not immediately well accepted on its scientific merits either. There were very good, logical reasons to think that the Earth did not move; or rather, that the motion of the Earth would have effects that we do not observe. [Christopher Graney wrote an excellent article on some of these arguments in the Sacred Space Astronomy blog. Please take a moment to read “Copernicus’s On the Revolutions–A Book that Continues to Challenge” and (for paid members) “Editing the Copernican Revolution“.]
Over the period 1512-1515, Copernicus made extensive astronomical observations to serve the proposed reform of the Julian calendar. He contributed his own recommendations on the matter to the Fifth Lateran Council.
Aside from his astronomical work, Copernicus made contributions to the field of economics. There are two economic principles that can be attributed to him.
One is an observation that, in a currency system where debased currency (where the material value is low compared to the face value) is introduced, it will quickly replace all currency of high material value in circulation. (That is, let us say that there are two sets of 1-dollar coins in circulation. Some are made of gold, while others are made of a low-value quantity of baser metals. People will hoard the gold dollars, while freely spending the cheap metal coins. Thus, only the cheap coins are circulated.) Today, this principle is known as Gresham’s Law, or “bad money drives out good,” but Copernicus stated the principle decades before Thomas Gresham.
The other contribution is a quantity theory of money that connects the price of goods directly with the quantity of money in circulation. As more money is made available, prices tend to increase. Copernicus’ theory served as the basis of economic reform intended to stabilize the currency of Prussia.
Things named in honor of Copernicus include:
- The crater Copernicus on the Moon.
- The crater Copernicus on Mars.
- Asteroid 1322 Coppernicus (sic).
- The element Copernicium (atomic no. 112).
- The genus of palm tree Copernicia.
- The star system Copernicus (55 Cancri A).