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Astro*Dictionary by Michael Erlewine





1 article for "Copernicus, Nicolas"

Copernicus, Nicolas [Astro*Index]

(1473-1543) Polish astronomer and astrologer.

Copernicus is regarded as the father of the Heliocentric system of Planetary Motion. But, this viewpoint was held at least as early as BC 280 by Aristarchus of Samos. He studied mathematics and painting at Cracow. In 1496, he visited Italy to study medicine and canon law, where he read the works of Regiomontanus and became interested in astronomy. In 1500, a conference on calandar reform at Rome further stimulated his interest in astronomy. The Alfonsine Tables (of Alfonso X), even with the improvements of Regiomontanus, were inaccurate for predicting the planetary positions over long periods. And, in 1512, he began to treat a Heliocentric system of Planetary Motion in greater mathematical detail. His treatment simplified the explanation of retrograde motion, showed that the Precession of the Equinox could be accounted for entirely by a wobbling of the spin-axis of the Earth (and, therefore, did not depend upon the stars), and reasoned that the stars must be positioned at vast distances from the Earth (else they would reflect motion caused by the Earth's movement). His treatment was flawed, however, as he preserved the concept of perfectly circular orbits, thus requiring the use of 34 epicycles and eccentrics taken from older theory. (Kepler corrected this error 50 years later). Copernicus committed his views to writing, but wisely delayed publication, thinking that these views might be considered heretical. He returned to Poland in 1505 to serve as canon at the cathedral at Frombork (Frauenberg). About 1530, he prepared a summary of his ideas and circulated that manuscript to various scholars in Europe. Urged by the mathematician Rheticus, Copernicus agreed to the publication of his entire work, dedicating it to Pope Paul III. Rheticus was to oversee its publication, but became involved in doctrinal disputes and was obliged to turn the work over to Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran minister. But, Luther had sharply opposed the Copernican theory. So, Osiander inserted a Preface stating that the theory was not to be taken to represent the actual facts, but should be regarded only as a device for computation of planetary positions. This insertion weakened the work and tarnished the reputation of Copernicus. Not until 1609, did Kepler discover and correct this tampering. The first edition of the book was finally published in 1543, but was overpriced and was allowed to go out of print. The second edition did not appear until 1566 (in Basel, Switzerland), and the third edition was delayed until 1617 (in Amsterdam). Thus, the Scientific Revolution, which ultimately overturned Greek science, progressed quite slowly, not reaching its complete success for 150 years with Newton. While in Poland, in 1807, Napoleon visited the house of Copernicus's birth, and remarked that no statue had been made in his honor. In 1835, Copernicus' book was removed from the list of banned works by the Catholic Church. Yet, in 1839, no Catholic priest would preside at the ceremony when a statue was finally erected in Warsaw.

See also:
♦ Copernican Theory ♦ Kepler, Johannes


Astro*Index Copyright © 1997 Michael Erlewine