Nicolaus Copernicus

Born: 19 Feb 1473 in Torun, Poland
Died: 24 May 1543 in Frombork, Poland

[Mathematiker Bild]

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Copernicus was a proponent of the view of an Earth in daily motion about its axis and in yearly motion around a stationary sun.
All his life Copernicus was a subject of the King of Poland, but it is possible that his native language was German (his writings are in Latin). Most of East Prussia, including the towns in which he lived, was ceded from Germany to Poland after the Second World War. Nazis, and more recent fellow travellers, claim Copernicus - and East Prussia - as 'German'.

Copernicus came from a middle class background and received a good standard humanist education, studying first at the university of Krakow (then the capital of Poland) and then travelling to Italy where he studied at the universities of Bologna and Padua. He eventually took a degree in Canon Law at the university of Ferrara. At Krakow, Bologna and Padua he studied the mathematical sciences, which at the time were considered relevant to medicine (since physicians made use of astrology). Padua was famous for its medical school and while he was there Copernicus studied both medicine and Greek. When he returned to his native land, Copernicus practised medicine, though his official employment was as a canon in the cathedral chapter, working under a maternal uncle who was Bishop of Olsztyn (Allenstein) and then of Frombork (Frauenburg).

While he was in Italy, Copernicus visited Rome, and it seems to have been for friends there that in about 1513 he wrote a short account of what has since become known as the Copernican theory, namely that the Sun (not the Earth) is at rest in the centre of the Universe. A full account of the theory was apparently slow to take a satisfactory shape, and was not published until the very end of Copernicus's life, under the title On the revolutions of the heavenly spheres (De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, Nuremberg, 1543). Copernicus is said to have received a copy of the printed book for the first time on his deathbed. (He died of a cerebral haemorrhage.)

Copernicus' heliostatic cosmology involved giving several distinct motions to the Earth. It was consequently considered implausible by the vast majority of his contemporaries, and by most astronomers and natural philosophers of succeeding generations before the middle of the seventeenth century. Its notable defenders included Johannes Kepler (1571 -1630) and Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642). Strong theoretical underpinning for the Copernican theory was provided by Newton's theory of universal gravitation (1687).

Article by: J. V. Field, London, August 1995

References (96 books/articles)

References elsewhere in this archive:

Tell me about Copernicus's work on planetary orbits

There is a Crater Copernicus on the moon. You can see a list of lunar features named after mathematicians.

There is also a Crater Copernicus on Mars. You can see a list of planetary features named after mathematicians.

Other Web sites:

Florence, Italy
Clarke University, USA

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JOC/EFR December 1996