Nicolaus Copernicus

Born: 19 Feb 1473 in Torun, Poland

Died: 24 May 1543 in Frombork, Poland

Nicolaus Copernicus is the Latin version of the famous astronomer's name which chose later in his life. The original form of his name was Mikolaj Kopernik or Nicolaus Koppernigk but we shall use Copernicus throughout this article. His father, also called Nicolaus Koppernigk, had lived in Krakow before moving to Torun where he set up a business trading in copper. He was also interested in local politics and became a civic leader in Torun and a magistrate. Nicolaus Koppernigk married Barbara Waczenrode, who came from a well off family from Torun, in about 1463. They moved into a house in St Anne's Street in Torun, but they also had a summer residence with vineyards out of town. Nicolaus and Barbara Koppernigk had four children, two sons and two daughters, of whom Nicolaus Copernicus was the youngest.

You can see a picture of the house in which Copernicus was born.

When young Nicolaus was ten years old his father died. His uncle Lucas Waczenrode, who was a canon at Frauenburg Cathedral, became guardian to Nicolaus and Barbara Koppernigk's four children.

You can see a picture of Lucas Waczenrode.

Nicolaus and his brother Andreas remained in Torun, continuing their elementary education there. In 1488 Nicolaus was sent by his uncle to the cathedral school of Wloclawek where he received a good standard humanist education. After three years of study at Wloclawek he entered the University of Krakow (situated in what was then the capital of Poland). By this time Lucas Waczenrode was Bishop of Ermland and he envisaged a church career for both of his nephews. Andreas, Nicolaus's brother, entered the University of Krakow at the same time, and both their names appear on the matriculation records of 1491-92.

University education at Krakow was, Copernicus later wrote, a vital factor in everything that he went on to achieve. There he studied Latin, mathematics, astronomy, geography and philosophy. He learnt his astronomy from Tractatus de Sphaera by Johannes de Sacrobosco written in 1220. One should not think, however, that the astronomy courses which Copernicus studied were scientific courses in the modern sense. Rather they were mathematics courses which introduced Aristotle and Ptolemy's view of the universe so that students could understand the calendar, calculate the dates of holy days, and also have skills that would enable those who would follow a more practical profession to navigate at sea. Also taught as a major part of astronomy was what today we would call astrology, teaching students to calculate horoscopes of people from the exact time of their birth.

While a student in Kraków, Copernicus purchased a copy of the Latin translation of Euclid's Elements published in Venice in 1482, a copy of the second edition of the Alfonsine Tables (which gives planetary theory and eclipses) printed in Venice in 1492, and Regiomontanus's Tables of Directions (a work on spherical astronomy) published in Augsburg in 1490. Remarkably Copernicus's copies of these works, signed by him, are still preserved.

It was while he was a student at Krakow that Copernicus began to use this Latin version of his name rather than Kopernik or Koppernigk. He returned to Torun after four years of study at Krakow but, as was common at the time, did not formally graduate with a degree. His uncle Lucas Waczenrode was still determined that Copernicus should have a career in the Church and indeed this was a profession which would allow security for someone wanting to pursue leaning. So that he might have the necessary qualifications Copernicus decided to go to the University of Bologna to take a degree in canon law. In the autumn of 1496 he travelled to Italy, entering the University of Bologna on 19 October 1496, to start three years of study. As a native German speaker he joined the "German Nation of Bologna University". Each student contributed to the "German Nation" an amount they could afford and the small contribution that Copernicus made indicates his poor financial position at that time.

While he was there his uncle put his name forward for the position of canon at Frauenburg Cathedral. On 20 October 1497, while in Bologna, Copernicus received official notification of his appointment as a canon and of the comfortable income he would receive without having to return to carry out any duties. At Bologna University Copernicus studied Greek, mathematics and astronomy in addition to his official course of canon law. He rented rooms at the house of the astronomy professor Domenico Maria de Novara and began to undertake research with him, assisting him in making observations. On 9 March 1497 he observed the Moon eclipse the star Aldebaran.

In 1500 Copernicus visited Rome, as all Christians were strongly encouraged to do to celebrate the great jubilee, and he stayed there for a year lecturing to scholars on mathematics and astronomy. While in Rome he observed an eclipse of the Moon which took place on 6 November 1500. He returned to Frauenburg (also known as Frombork) in the spring of 1501 and was officially installed as a canon of the Ermland Chapter on 27 July. He had not completed his degree in canon law at Bologna so he requested his uncle that he be allowed to return to Italy both to take a law degree and to study medicine. Copernicus was granted leave on 27 July 1501 :-

... principally because Nicolaus promised to study medicine, and as a helpful physician would some day advise our most reverend bishop and also the members of the Chapter.

As this quotation indicates, the Cathedral Chapter liked his proposal to study medicine and provided the necessary funds. He set off again for Italy, his time going to Padua. Copernicus had another reason to return to Italy, which he almost certainly did not disclose, and that was to continue his studies of astronomy.

Padua was famous for its medical school and while he was there Copernicus studied both medicine and astronomy. At that time astronomy was essentially astrology and, as such, considered relevant to medicine since physicians made use of astrology. In the spring of 1503 he decided formally to obtain his doctorate in Canon Law, but he did not return to Bologna but rather took the degree at the University of Ferrara. After receiving his doctorate, Copernicus stayed in Ferrara for a few months before returning to Padua to continue his studies of medicine. There is no record that he ever graduated from Padua.

When he returned to his native land, Copernicus was again granted leave from his official duties as a canon in the Ermland Chapter at Frauenburg. This was allow him to be physician to his maternal uncle Lucas Waczenrode, the Bishop of Ermland, but he carried out far more duties for his uncle than medical ones becoming essentially his private secretary and personal advisor. For about five years he undertook these duties and during this period he lived at Heilsberg Castle, a few miles from Frauenburg, the official residence of the Bishop of Ermland.

In 1509 Copernicus published a work, which was properly printed, giving Latin translations of Greek poetry by the obscure poet Theophylactus Simocattes. While accompanying his uncle on a visit to Krakow, he gave a manuscript of the poetry book to a publisher friend there. Lucas Waczenrode died in 1512 and following this Copernicus resumed his duties as canon in the Ermland Chapter at Frauenburg. He now had more time than before to devote to his study of astronomy, having an observatory in the rooms in which he lived in one of the towers in the town's fortifications.

You can see a picture of Copernicus's observatory in Frauenburg.

Around 1514 he distributed a little book, not printed but hand written, to a few of his friends who knew that he was the author even though no author is named on the title page. This book, usually called the Little Commentary, set out Copernicus's theory of a universe with the sun at its centre. The Little Commentary is a fascinating document. It contains seven axioms which Copernicus gives, not in the sense that they are self evident, but in the sense that he will base his conclusions on these axioms and nothing else; see . What are the axioms? Let us state them:

There is no one centre in the universe.

The Earth's centre is not the centre of the universe.

The centre of the universe is near the sun.

The distance from the Earth to the sun is imperceptible compared with the distance to the stars.

The rotation of the Earth accounts for the apparent daily rotation of the stars.

The apparent annual cycle of movements of the sun is caused by the Earth revolving round it.

The apparent retrograde motion of the planets is caused by the motion of the Earth from which one observes.

Some have noted that 2, 4, 5, and 7 can be deduced from 3 and 6 but it was never Copernicus's aim to give a minimal set of axioms. The most remarkable of the axioms is 7, for although earlier scholars had claimed that the Earth moved, some claiming that it revolved round the sun, nobody before Copernicus appears to have correctly explained the retrograde motion of the outer planets. Even when he wrote his Little Commentary Copernicus was planning to write a major work, for he wrote in it (see ):-

Here, for the sake of brevity, I have thought it desirable to omit the mathematical demonstrations intended for my larger work.

It is likely that he wrote the Little Commentary in 1514 and began writing his major work De revolutionibus in the following year.

Given Copernicus's nature it is clear that he would have liked to have lived a quiet life at Frauenburg, carrying out his (relatively few) duties conscientiously and devoting all his spare time to observing, developing his theories of the universe, and writing De revolutionibus. It is equally clear that his fame as an astronomer was well known for when the Fifth Lateran Council decided to improve the calendar, which was known to be out of phase with the seasons, the Pope appealed to experts for advice in 1514, one of these experts was Copernicus. Many experts went to Rome to advise the Council, but Copernicus chose to respond by letter. He did not wish to contribute more to the discussions on the calendar since he felt that the motions of the heavenly bodies was still not understood with sufficient precision.


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