Nicolaus Copernicus, his Theory and Times - what do we really know about him

I hope that you will not think that this month Baba Jaga's contribution is simply boring because everybody knows something about Copernicus.

Copernicus (1473-1543) was rediscovered many times. When I was still a schoolgirl, the 500-hundred-year anniversary of his birth was celebrated (1973). Every schoolchild had to recite information about Copernicus's life and achievements. Just a couple of months ago, Copernicus's skull was identified. The old debate revived - was he a German or a Pole? This debate is quite fruitless since in Copernicus' times national identification was not the same as it is today. Copernicus was for his all life a faithful subject of the Polish king and a bitter enemy of the Teutonic Order, although he inherited German blood, especially from his mother's side. Copernicus used only Latin in writing his scientific works since Latin was the language of science and of communication with the world community of scholars.

Copernicus was born in Torun, Polish Prussia (Pomorze), on February 19, 1473. His father Nicolaus was a burger of Krakow. His mother, Barbara Watzelrode, came from an old patrician Torun family. Copernicus' parents died when he was twelve, and he and his brother Andreas were adopted by their uncle, Lucas Watzelrode, who later became a prince-bishop of Warmia.

Newly discovered Copernicus scull on the left. In 1491 Copernicus began to study at Krakow University; in 1496 he went to Italy to continue his studies at the University of Bologna. His name was inscribed on the roll of the Natio Germanorum at the university, but this does not imply that he felt German in any sense, since the so called "Nationes" had more to do with fraternities or societies of people belonging to certain classes and geographic regions. Copernicus was a commoner but he was a nephew of the bishop. There were many non-German names or Polish noblemen who joined this "nation." In 1500 Copernicus went to Rome to give some lectures on mathematics. A year later he returned to Poland where he was compelled to take possession of the canonry in the cathedral church in Frauenburg (Polish: Frombork - a town with a famous cathedral known for its old organs). Copernicus did not stay long in Poland, he soon returned to Italy to University of Padua, which wasfamous for its excellent medicine faculty. Copernicus really enjoyed the time in Italy, but eventually he had to return to Poland (1506). Until the end of the life of his uncle, Lucas Watzelrode, Copernicus acted as a secretary and a doctor. He was entrusted with the finances and administration of the bishopric in Warmia. He even wrote a treatise about money!

Now, lets focus on Copernicus's theory, how and when it was developed, and why Copernicus kept it secret almost until his death.

Copernicus was never a practical astronomer, as, for instance, Tycho Brahe. He did make some observations, but his greatness lay in developing of a new theory, not in conducting any new experimental observations. His theory is based almost entirely on data that were already available from Ptolemy. Copernicus just proposed a completely new interpretation of these old data. The main idea of his new system was developed rather early, probably during his studies in Italy. He even wrote in the preface to De Revolutionibus that he had kept his work secret for nine years, but he spent four times nine years to elaborate and perfect his theory. Copernicus's approach was methodical. He wanted to have solid proof that he was right before he would reveal his theory to the public.

Before Copernicus completed his theory, the so called Commentariolus, a document briefly explaining the theory was circulated among his friends, although it was not officially published until 1876, long after Copernicus's death. The documents contains seven axioms:

1) It is necessary to build a system of celestial movements in which everything moves uniformly around its proper center
2) The Earth is not the center of the Universe but only the center of gravity of the lunar sphere
3) All the spheres revolve around the Sun as their middle-point
4) & 5)The common motion of stars and planets is not due to the motion of the firmament (celestial sphere) but due to the motion of the Earth
6) The sun remains still and its apparent motion (visible from the Earth) is only due to the real motion of the Earth
7) Retrograde motion (the apparent motion backwards with regard to the Earth) and other peculiarities of the motion of planets are only apparent, not real, and are the effects of the motion of the Earth relative to the planets.


Copernicus persistently resisted the publication of his main thesis but he made no secret of his views. This document, Commentariolus, cicrulated widely, found even its way to Pope Clement VII in 1533. It surely did not impress the pope, although it was still considered a hypothesis and nobody actively fought it. Many people urged Copernicus to publish his theory, among them the cardinal archbishop of Capua, Nicholas Schonberg, who even promised to cover all extra expenses, but to no avail.

In 1539 Joachim Rheticus, a young and curious professor from Wittenberg, came to Fruenburg (Fromborg). He was so well received by Copernicus that he stayed there for two years to study the De Revolutionibus. Rheticus wrote a short outline of the Copernican doctrine which was printed as the famous Narratio Prima. The first reactions to this document were favorable and Copernicus was called a new Ptolemy. This publication made any further withholdings of the De Revolutionibus senseless. The manuscript was entrusted to Rheticus to be printed in Nuremberg. The author probably received the first copy of his work on his deathbed on May 24, 1543.

Copernicus took a few precautions before publishing his book. He dedicated his work to the pope, Paul III. It is interesting to understand Copernicus's arguments in the aspect of the epoch in which he lived. Copernicus's main objection against the other systems of ancient and medieval astronomers was that these systems violated the principle of the uniformity of the circular motion of the heavenly bodies! For Copernicus, the circular motion was the most perfect one. Copernicus believed that the SPHERICAL SHAPE IS THE MOST PERFECT, therefore the planets are spherical and the planets seek the natural motion of the same circular shape. He also makes a distinction between natural and violent motions, with the circular motion being the most perfect, uniform, and non-violent. He asserts that the same laws apply to the Earth and the Heavens. So, his concept is rather geometrical in nature…. no wonder, since he lived much earlier than Kepler or Newton! Reference: Alexander Koyre: "Nicolau Copernicus" from "Polish Civilization - Essays and Studies" by Mieczyslaw Giergielewicz.

Copyrights Baba Jaga Corner
June 2006


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  • Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus
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    I recommend the following books:

    Polish Civilization: Essays and Studies (Hardcover) by Mieczyslaw Giergielewicz and Ludwik Krzyzanowski

    The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus , by Owen Gingerich



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