Nicolaus Copernicus

Science / Scientist Datebook

Nicolaus Copernicus, polish astronomer and mathematician, and known for the 'Copernican Model' of a sun-centered solar system, was a forerunner of scientific and religious revolution. His treatise "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies" (1543) brought a profound shift in religious and scientific thinking that changed man's view of the universe.

Early Life of Copernicus

Born in Poland and graduate of Cracow University, Copernicus (1473-1543) studied Greek philosophy, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and theology before becoming a canon of the cathedral of Frauenberg, where he settled. Inventor of modern astronomy, Copernicus did more to revolutionize man's conception of himself and his place in the universe than perhaps any other thinker in his time.

Ptolemaic System (Earth-Centered)

Following Aristotle and Ptolemy, and before Copernicus, astronomers favoured the view that the earth was the centre of the universe, with the stars, sun, and the moon revolving about it. This is known as the Ptolemaic system, which is in keeping with many theological teachings in which the universe is seen to be created by God for the express purpose of man. The effect of Copernicus's work turned all this around.

Copernican Model: the Heliocentric System (Sun-Centered)

Copernicus revived the idea that the earth and planets revolve around the sun, which remains in a fixed position. He also proclaimed that in this system the earth has a twofold motion: on one hand it turns on its own axis, rotating one full turn every 24 hours, and on the other, it completely circumnavigates the sun every 364 days. This heliocentric (sun-centred) system was vigorously resisted by the Church, which saw it as usurping man's central place in God's creation of the universe.
By using Pythagorean calculations, Copernicus predicted and accounted for various astronomical observations with amazing accuracy. Although Copernicus claimed his work was no more than hypothetical, eventually the weight of evidence was too great to be ignored. Before long, Copernicus was famously supported by Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton, amongst others.
The Copernican system, as originally established by Copernicus, was actually no more accurate than the Ptolemaic system because Copernicus insisted on circular orbits. The system did not become more accurate until Kepler changed to elliptical orbits. Most people still think of that as the Copernican system, but it would technically be the Keplerian system, which was much more accurate.

Copernican Model Versus Religious Thinking

The heliocentric theory had a profound and negative impact on the Church. It was condemned by the Church, but Copernicus was careful during his life not to incur its wrath, unlike Galileo after him. For fear of censure, he delayed publication of his findings. He even dedicated his work in which he proclaims his heliocentric theory, De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium, with apparent sincerity, to the Pope. Only later, in Galileo's time, did the Church condemned Copernicus's work as heretical.

Copernican Revolution Versus Scientific Thinking

The effect of Copernicus's hypothesis was greatly felt in the intellectual world that philosophers and scientists have since coined the phrase 'Copernican Revolution' to describe his world-changing ideas. The effect of the original 'Copernican Revolution' on the development of Western thought, both philosophical and scientific, gave birth to the scientific age and helped remove many of the superstitions and ignorant beliefs widespread at the time.
For whatever its effect, the hypothesis of Copernicus led to the decline of the power of the Church, and to a new age of scientific developments.


Chambers Biographical Dictionary, edited by Una McGovern (2002)
Philosophy: The Great Thinkers by Philip Stokes Arcturus Publishing Ltd (2007)

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