Remembering Nicolaus Copernicus, the Centre of the World of Astronomy

Author: Sherry Helms

Today is the 540th birth anniversary of Nicolaus Copernicus, one of the most transcendent geniuses of the Renaissance era. Born on February 19, 1473, in the province of Royal Prussia, in the Kingdom of Poland, Copernicus pursued his education with remarkable mathematical achievements. He was a great polymaths with skills as a mathematician, astronomer, jurist with a doctorate in law, physician, polyglot, classics scholar, translator, artist, Catholic cleric, governor, diplomat and economist.

He offered the world perhaps the most significant scientific insight of the human civilization till date, the heliocentric model and theory that placed the Sun at the centre of the solar system, rather than the Earth. He further asserted that the other planets including Earth revolve around the sun. Otherwise, throughout his lifetime almost people believed that a perfectly still earth rested in the middle of the cosmos, where all the heavenly bodies including sun revolved around it. Copernicus was also the first to ascertain that the earth rotates on its axis once every twenty-four hours.

Copernicus’ seminal book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) that publicly expressed his views about the heliocentric hypothesis, is considered as a major achievement  in the history of science. Published just before his death in 1543, this book asserted that the universe is comprised of eight spheres amid which the Sun stood still at the centre, and the other planets including the Earth, in their own spheres, revolve around the Sun. Following his personal observations of the heavenly bodies, Nicolaus Copernicus abandoned the then prevailed Ptolemy’s geocentric system placing the earth at the centre, and created a heliocentric model, with the sun at the centre.

Though Copernicus would not live to hear its extraordinary impact, his book, De revolutionibus is recognized today as one of the most influential scientific works of all time. There’s an interesting story regarding  its popularity:

Four and a half centuries after its initial publication, an astrophysicist Owen Gingerich embarked on an epic quest to see in person all extant copies of the first and second editions of De revolutionibus. The source of his inspiration was two contradictory pieces of information — one is Arthur Koestler’s claim, in his book, The Sleepwalkers, that nobody had read Copernicus’s book when it was published; and the second was Gingerich’s own discovery, in Edinburgh, of a first edition richly annotated in the margins by a leading teacher of astronomy in Europe in the 1540s. This made Gingerich to reason himself that if one copy had been so quickly appreciated, perhaps others were as well, and perhaps they could shed new light on a hinge point in the history of astronomy.

After three decades of investigation, and after traveling hundreds of thousands of miles across the globe –from Melbourne to Moscow, Boston to Beijing, Gingerich has come up with an utterly original book, The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus, complied on his experience and the remarkable insights garnered from examining some 600 copies of De revolutionibus. During his research, he found the books owned and annotated by Galileo, Kepler and many other lesser-known astronomers, which illuminate the long, reluctant process of accepting the Sun-centered cosmos and highlight the historic tensions between science and the Catholic Church. He traced the ownership of individual copies through the hands of saints, heretics, scalawags, and bibliomaniacs. He was called as the expert witness in the theft of one copy, witnessed the dramatic auction of another, and proved conclusively that the De revolutionibus was as inspirational as it was revolutionary.

A blend of the biography of a book, a scientific exploration, and a bibliographic detective story, The Book Nobody Read revives the history of cosmology and offers new appreciation of the enduring power of an extraordinary book and its ideas.

If you want to go deeper into the life and world of Nicolaus Copernicus, you can check out the book, Copernicus’ Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began written by Jack Repcheck. Covering the life and works of the great scientific genius of the Renaissance era, Repcheck tells with every possible details the surprising, little-known story behind the dawn of the scientific age.

Since our solar system and its propounders are included in the subjects to study from early childhood classes, there’s available an attractive picture-book biography of Nicolaus Copernicus for kids — Nicolaus Copernicus: The Earth Is a Planet. Illustrated richly, this book describes many interesting facts about this fascinating 16th-century scientist, covering Copernicus’ passion for astronomy and his rediscovery about the solar system –after studying the works of the ancient Greeks and their idea– that the Earth is not the center of the universe but planets orbiting the Sun at the centre.

The life and achievements of Nicolaus Copernicus has even been powerfully evoked in a novel, Doctor Copernicus by John Banville that offers a vivid portrait of this man of painful reticence, haunted by a malevolent brother and baffled by the conspiracies raging around him and his ideas while he searches for the secret of life. This fictional evocation of the great astronomer is a tour de force, which is equally exciting and beautifully written.

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