15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus

Widely considered to be the effective inventor of modern-day astronomy, Nicolaus Copernicus was a polymath and polyglot.
Christopher McFadden
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  • Copernicus was born in Poland in 1473.
  • Throughout his life, he mastered many subjects and could speak many languages.
  • His famous heliocentric model would change astronomy forever after his death.

Widely considered the "father of modern astronomy," Nicolaus Copernicus is one of the most influential minds of all time.

He is most famous for asserting that the Earth rotates around the sun—a position that was contentious until the middle of the 17th century. However, Copernicus was a versatile scholar who pursued a number of unrelated subjects, including Church law and medicine, before discovering his calling in astronomy.

Despite it being "common knowledge" that the Catholic Church persecuted supporters of heliocentrism, he actually got along well with the Church. He obtained a doctorate in canon law and served as a church canon - a role that was responsible for administering a cathedral or other churches. Before studying astronomy, he scaled back his religious activities, and as a result, he found both admirers and opponents in the Church.

But, that is just the elevator pitch. If you want to know more about this great mind, then join us as we explore his life and works.

What is Nicolaus Copernicus famous for?

Mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (born in 1473, and died in 1543) is most famous for proposing that the Sun was fixed at the center of the solar system and that the Earth revolved around it. In order to eliminate Ptolemy's equant. Developed in order to meet Aristotle's requirement for the uniform circular motion of all celestial bodies, this was a hypothetical point used to explain the observed speed change in different stages of the planetary orbit. Copernicus eventually decided that he could only accomplish his goal by using a heliocentric model.

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Physical model of the geocentric model of the solar system.

Copernicus was troubled by the fact that Ptolemy's geocentric model of the universe failed to follow Aristotle's requirement for the uniform circular motion of all celestial bodies. As a result, he developed the idea of a universe in which the size of the planets' orbits directly related to how far away they were from the Sun.

In addition to correctly speculating on the separation of the known planets from the sun and roughly predicting their orbital periods, Copernicus proposed that Earth rotated once per day on its axis and that progressive changes in this axis were responsible for the occurrence of the seasons.

Although Copernicus's heliocentric theory was somewhat divisive at the time, it marked the beginning of a shift in how scientists perceived the fundamental structure of the universe, and Copernicus came to be recognized as one of the fathers of the Scientific Revolution.

Who was Copernicus?

Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Toruń, a city in north-central Poland on the Vistula River on February 19, 1473. Born into a prosperous merchant family, after the death of his father Copernicus was raised by his uncle, who would later become a bishop. He received the best training available at the time and prepared for a career in canon (church) law.

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Panoramic view of the city of Toruń.

He studied liberal arts at the University of Krakow (now known as Jagiellonian University), including astronomy and astrology. Then, like many other Europeans from his social position, he was sent to Italy to study law and medicine.

He briefly resided in the home of Domenico Maria de Novara, the university's head astronomer, while a student at the University of Bologna. Since astrology and astronomy were both valued equally at the time, Novara was tasked with providing Bologna with astrological forecasts.

Copernicus occasionally helped him with his observations, and Novara exposed him to critiques of astrology and some features of the Ptolemaic tradition of astronomy, which like Aristotle put Earth at the center of the cosmos, but attempted to solve some of the problems with the Aristotelian theory, and was developed by the ancient mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy.

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Monument of Nicolaus Copernicus, Torun, Poland.

Later, Copernicus attended the University of Padua, and in 1503, he was awarded a doctorate in canon law by the University of Ferrara. He went back to Poland and started working as a doctor and church administrator.

He devoted his free time to intellectual interests, which occasionally included astronomical studies. By 1514, his reputation as an accomplished mathematician, physician, and astronomer had grown to the point where church authorities looking to reform the Julian calendar (over time, it had fallen seriously out of alignment with the actual positions of the Sun) sought his advice.

What is Copernicus' heliocentric model?

Most people during Copernicus' lifetime thought that Earth was at the center of the universe and all the planets, the Sun, and the stars rotated around it.

One of the model's obvious mathematical flaws was that the planets sometimes appeared to move backward across the sky over many nights of observation. This is termed retrograde motion.

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Since antiquity, astronomical modeling was based on the premise that the planets move with uniform angular motion on fixed radii at a constant distance from the same center of motion. To make the model work, the ancient astronomer Aristotle proposed that the universe is made of nested, concentric spheres. However, this could not account for variations in the apparent brightness of the planets.

To solve this problem, the Greek astronomer and mathematician Ptolemy proposed a solution which included a number of circles within circles, or epicycles, inside of a planet's course. Some planets required as many as seven circles, resulting in a complex model that many said was unnaturally complex. He also proposed a number of fixed points, or equants, which separated the condition of uniform motion from that of constant distance from a single center.

Copernicus, however, was also interested in the charge, raised by the astronomer Pico, that the very foundations of astronomy were suspect, as astronomers could not agree on anything, including the order of the planets. Copernicus proposed a solution where the Sun is assumed to be at rest and the Earth is assumed to be in motion, causing the rest of the planets to fall into an orderly relationship.

In a handwritten manuscript that was distributed in 1514, Copernicus shared his theory of the world with his friends. In it, he put forth the theory that the Sun, rather than Earth, was the center of the universe. He also thought that the Earth's rotation around the Sun caused the Sun to rise and set, the stars to move, and the seasons to change.

Finally, he proposed that the planets' retrograde motion across the night sky was driven by Earth's speed through space (planets sometimes move in the same directions as stars, slowly across the sky from night to night, but sometimes they move in the opposite, or retrograde, direction).

This book, known as "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres", was probably largely completed by Copernicus by 1532. But despite urging from many of Copernicus' friends and fellow astronomers, he resisted publishing it, as he was concerned its novelty would expose him to scorn and ridicule.

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Close-up of ancient astronomical device made of brass.

As a result, the completed book was only published in 1543, just two months before Copernicus passed away, and after he had lost consciousness from a stroke. According to one story generally regarded as legend, a copy of De revolutionibus was placed in Copernicus’s hands while he was unconscious. He woke just long enough to see his great book and then died. Copernicus passed away on May 24, 1543. He was 70.

To accept Copernicus' theory, it was necessary to abandon much of Aristotelian natural philosophy, which the Church viewed as sacrosanct. However, perhaps because the printer included a disclaimer stating that although the book's thesis was strange, if it assisted astronomers with their calculations, it didn't matter if it wasn't actually accurate, the Church did not instantly condemn the book as heretical.

The fact that the issue was so hard to understand that only the most familiar with the field of study could understand it probably also helped. The book was eventually outlawed by the Church six decades after its publication, in 1616, and then only because of its role in Galileo's work. The book was in fact only 'suspended' by the Church, until it could be "corrected". This was on the grounds that it had encouraged Galileo in his "heresy". The corrections consisted primarily of removing or changing wording that referred to heliocentrism as a fact, rather than a hypothesis.

Religious leader Martin Luther was one of those who opposed the heliocentric solar system model when 'De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium' was published in 1543. As soon as he did, his subordinate, the Lutheran minister Andreas Osiander, said of Copernicus, "This fool intends to flip the whole art of astronomy upside down." But despite such opposition, most considered the work more abstract mathematics than an attack on religious doctrine.

What are some lesser-known facts about Nicolaus Copernicus?

As you can see, Nicolaus Copernicus was one of the most important scientists and mathematicians ever born. But, if you want to know more about him (and why wouldn't you?), then here are some interesting facts and takeaways about his life and work.

1. He hailed from a religious and business-oriented family

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Copernicus came from influential families.

According to some historians, Copernicus was named after a tradesman who mined and sold copper in the Polish settlement of Koperniki. The father of the astronomer, also called Nicolaus Copernicus, was a prosperous copper trader in Krakow.

His mother, Barbara Watzenrode, descended from a wealthy family of merchants, and her younger brother, Bishop Lucas Watzenrode, held a position of authority. Two of Copernicus' three older siblings joined the Catholic Church, one as a canon and the other as a nun

2. He wasn't the first to propose heliocentrism, it turns out

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
10th century CE Greek copy of Aristarchus of Samos's calculations of the relative sizes of the Sun, Moon and the Earth.

Copernicus is most famous for his theory of heliocentrism, as we've discussed in detail above. However, numerous Islamic and ancient Greek thinkers from various cultures had prior discussions on related topics.

For instance, Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos proposed that Earth and other planets rotated around the Sun in the 200s BCE.

3. He also doesn't appear to have acknowledged previous heliocentric proposers

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Detail of a writer or academic's desk with manuscript.

Copernicus was likely aware of preceding mathematicians' contributions to the model. He also acknowledged the heliocentric theories of Aristarchus and other classical Greek astronomers who had published earlier versions of the theory in a draft of his 1543 manuscript.

However, some of these references were omitted when the manuscript was published; the reasons for the removal may range from the references being too vague or based on shaky ground themselves to merely swapping a Latin quote for a "more scholarly" Greek statement that omitted mention of Aristarchus.

4. Copernicus was multilingual

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Nicolaus Copernicus Monument in Torua, Poland

Copernicus probably spoke both Polish and German as a child. When Copernicus's father passed away when he was just ten years old, Lucas Watzenrode paid for his education and he began studying Latin, knowledge of which was necessary for scholars at the time.

At Krakow University, Copernicus started his studies in astronomy, math, philosophy, and logic in 1491. He moved to Bologna University in contemporary Italy five years later to study canon law, where he perhaps also picked up some Italian. He also read Greek while he was studying, thus contemporary historians believe he was likely conversant in five different languages.

5. He also made big contributions to the field of economics

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Portrait of Nicolaus Copernicus on an old one thousand old Polish Zlotych banknote.

Copernicus was an excellent economist in addition to his fame in math and science. He outlined economic suggestions for the Polish monarch in a research paper he published in 1517, especially in light of the devaluation of several of the country's currencies.

His theories on supply and demand, inflation, and government price-fixing influenced later economic theories like Gresham's Law. To the uninitiated, this is the idea that "bad money drives out good" if they exchange for the same price; for instance, if a country issues paper $1 bills and $1 coins, the paper $1 bill will be used as currency more as a result.

His ideas also later influenced the Theory of Money, or the idea that the amount of money in circulation is proportional to how much goods cost.

6. He was a physician without any actual qualifications

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
View of medieval medical instruments on a table.

Copernicus went to the University of Padua to study law before working as a physician's assistant for his ailing uncle, Bishop Watzenrode.

Copernicus spent two years studying anatomy and medical books, yet he graduated from medical school without a doctorate. However, he traveled with his uncle and attended to him as well as other church members who required medical care.

7. He went to four universities before 'graduating'

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Graduating students hands throwing graduation caps in the air.

Copernicus attended colleges in Poland and Italy for more than ten years, but he frequently dropped out before receiving a diploma. But why?

Some historians contend that leaving a university without receiving a degree was common practice at the time. Additionally, Copernicus didn't require a degree to practice medicine or law, to work as a priest, or even to enroll in graduate-level or higher education courses.

However, he did finally earn a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara just before departing for Poland. Edward Rosen, a Copernicus expert, claims that this wasn't strictly for academic grounds but rather that in order to "show that he had not frittered his time away on wine, women, and song, he had to bring home a diploma. That cost much less in Ferrara than in the other Italian universities where he studied."

8. He was wary of making his opinions known

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Engraving of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.

Nearly everyone in Copernicus's day held to the geocentric theory, which holds that the Earth is the center of the universe. Despite this, Copernicus published Commentariolus, sometimes known as "the Little Commentary," a hand-written work on heliocentrism in the 1510s, that was shared among his acquaintances.

The work was popular among astronomers and it quickly spread abroad. It is reported that Pope Clement VII was amenable to the new notion after hearing a discussion of it. Later, Cardinal Nicholas Schönberg wrote Copernicus a letter of support, but Copernicus was still hesitant to publish the complete version.

According to some historians, Copernicus was concerned about mockery from the scientific community because he was unable to resolve all the problems that heliocentrism entailed. Others contend that Copernicus feared persecution since the Catholic Church was cracking down on dissent more and more as the Reformation gained momentum. In any case, he didn't publish his entire work until 1543.

9. On his deathbed, he published his work

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Cancelled U.S. stamp depicting Nicolaus Copernicus..

In the 1530s, Copernicus completed his book "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium" ("On the Revolutions of Celestial Orbs"), which explained in detail his theory of heliocentrism. However, the book was only published in 1543, just weeks before Copernicus died.

What's more, legend has it that just before he died, friends placed the book in his hands and the astronomer came out of his coma just long enough to see his newly printed book.

10. He most likely had never been married, but may have had a lover

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Nicolaus Copernicus Monument sculpted house of Polish Academy of Sciences.

Copernicus likely made a vow of celibacy before taking up a position as a Church official, and he never married.

Although he never had children of his own, he assumed guardianship for his five nieces and nephews after his sister Katharina died.

Did Copernicus honour his promise to live a celibate life? The astronomer moved in with Anna Schilling, a woman in her late forties, in the late 1530s when he was in his sixties.

Schilling served as Copernicus' housekeeper for two years and may have been connected to him; some historians believe he was her grand uncle. For unspecified reasons, the bishop Copernicus served under reprimanded the astronomer twice for letting Schilling reside with him, even advising him to terminate her and writing to other church officials about the situation.

11. Galileo received a penalty for supporting Copernicus

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Galileo Galilei statue in Pisa, Italy.

The Catholic Church rejected Copernicus' book, which was written with the Pope in mind, only many decades after it had been published, adding it to the Index of Prohibited Books in 1616 while it was still being revised. A few years later, the Church lifted the prohibition after making text changes that portrayed Copernicus's theories as entirely speculative.

Galileo Galilei was found guilty of "strong suspicion of heresy" in 1633, 90 years after Copernicus's passing, for endorsing his theory of heliocentrism. Galileo was placed under home detention for the rest of his life after serving one day in jail.

12. He is the name of a chemical element

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Focus on chemical element Copernicium illuminated in periodic table of elements.

In 2010, an element with the atomic number 112 was discovered and given the name Copernicium (Cn) in his honor. The most stable isotope of the element has a half-life of about 30 seconds, making it a highly radioactive substance.

13. In 2008, archaeologists finally found his remains

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Frombork Cathedral , Poland.

Although Copernicus passed away in 1543 and was buried beneath the cathedral where he had been employed, his grave was not marked and archaeologists weren't certain of the precise position of his grave until recently. They conducted excavations in and around Frombork Cathedral until striking gold in 2005 when they discovered a portion of a skull and skeleton under the marble floor of the church, close to an altar.

Archaeologists were able to determine that they had uncovered the astronomer's skeleton after three years of work on forensic facial reconstruction and DNA comparison with hair from one of his books. In 2010, clerics from Poland laid Copernicus to rest once more at Frombork.

His black granite tombstone is now marked with a heliocentric model of the solar system featuring a golden sun encircled by six of the planets.

14. He has an entire Earth observation program named in his honor

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
Image of Italy and the Mediterranean captured by Copernicus Sentinel-3A.

The European Union's Copernicus Earth observation program studies our planet and its surroundings for, as the program states, "the benefit of all European citizens". It provides information services based on in-situ (non-space) data and satellite Earth observation.

The Program is run by the European Commission. The EU Agencies, Mercator Océan, the Member States, the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), and the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) are all partners in its implementation.

"Vast amounts of global data from satellites and ground-based, airborne, and seaborne measurement systems provide information to help service providers, public authorities, and other international organizations improve European citizens' quality of life and beyond. The information services provided are free and openly accessible to users." says the Copernicus program's official webpage.

15. He is also honored with monuments all around the world

15 fascinating facts about the 'Father of Modern Astronomy', Nicolaus Copernicus
The new Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium.

The Nicolaus Copernicus Monument, a renowned statue of the astronomer, is situated next to the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland. Additionally, there are replicas of this monument outside the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium in Montreal and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

In addition to memorials, Copernicus is honored with a museum and research facility at the Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw.

And that is your lot for today.

Copernicus was certainly a very accomplished mind in his own day, and his work, in no small part, laid the foundations for modern astronomy. For this reason, among many, Copernicus remains one of the most respected thinkers of all time.

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