Nicolaus Copernicus Essay - Critical Essays

Copernicus, Nicolaus


Nicolaus Copernicus 1473–1543

(Also Kopernik) Polish astronomer and mathematician.

Copernicus is one of the extraordinary thinkers credited with inaugurating the Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth century with the publication of his De revolutionibus orbitum coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, 1543). The revolution in science represents one of the greatest developments in the Western intellectual tradition. Thinkers such as Copernicus, the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and the British mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) departed radically from classical thought and from the ecclesiastical institutions of the Middle Ages. These thinkers brought about a change in the way people think and perceive both themselves and their place in the universe.

Biographical Information

Copernicus was born into a well-to-do family in 1473. Copernicus's father, a copper merchant, died when Copernicus was ten, and Copernicus was taken in by an uncle. In 1491, Copernicus entered the University of Krakow where he studied mathematics and painting. In 1496, he went to Italy for ten years where he studied medicine at Padua and obtained a doctor's degree in canon law at Ferrara. In 1500, in the midst of his studies, Copernicus experienced two events that helped to shape the rest of his life: he attended a conference in Rome dealing with calendar reform and in November of that year witnessed a lunar eclipse. Copernicus continued his medical and legal studies, but also pursued his interest in astronomy, being exposed to the Pythagorean doctrines of cosmology taught in Italy. He developed a dissatisfaction with the Ptolemaic system and conceived the idea of a solar system with the sun at the center. In 1505, Copernicus returned to his native Poland, where he worked as physician to his uncle in his uncle's palace in Heilsberg. In 1512, when Copernicus's uncle died, Copernicus moved to Frauenberg where he belonged to the chapter or regular staff of the cathedral of Frauenberg. While serving in this capacity, Copernicus also developed a system of reform for the currency of the Prussian provinces of Poland (presented as De monetae cudendae ratione, 1526, and published in 1816) and began to make astronomical observations to test his belief in a heliocentric world system.

Copernicus was reluctant to make his ideas public because of their controversial nature. He did allow a summary of the Commentariolus (1530) to circulate among scholars. Johann Albrecht Widmanstadt presented Copernicus' views in lectures at Rome with the current pope, Pope Clement VII, expressing no disapproval. Cardinal Schönberg made a formal request for publication of Copernicus's views. Copernicus published the treatise On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies in 1540. That same year, George Joachim Rheticus, a follower of Copernicus, published another brief account of Copernicus' views in his Narratio prima. The task of overseeing the publication of Copernicus's book was undertaken by a Lutheran minister named Andreas Osiander. Osiander seems to have felt obliged to present Copernicus's material in a way that would not offend Church officials (Martin Luther, the founder of Lutheranism, firmly opposed Copernicus's new theory). Osiander wrote and appended a preface to On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies stating that the heliocentric theory was being presented as a concept to allow for better calculations of planetary positions. The unsigned preface gave the impression that Copernicus himself was undercutting his own theory. In 1542, Copernicus suffered a stroke and paralysis, and continued to decline until his death on May 24, 1543. Tradition relates that the first copy of Copernicus's book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies reached him on his death-bed, but in face he may never have seen his most important work published. In 1609 German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) discovered that Osiander was the author of the preface to the first edition of Copernicus's On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies.

Major Works

On the Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies sets forth Copernicus's heliocentric theory of the solar system, with the sun as the center of a number of plaentary orbits including that of the Earth. Long before Copernicus, Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek astronomer living around 270 BC, had proposed that the sun was the center of things, but his theory was displaced by the teachings of Claudius Ptolemy (c.90-168 AD). Ptolemy proposed that the Earth was the center of the universe. In this system, all the planets, including the Sun and Moon (which were classified as planets) were attached to concentric spheres surrounding and rotating around the Earth. Their motion was governed by the Prime Mover or Just Cause, God. Motions of the planets that presented problems for this geocentric and spherical model were accounted for by means of epicycles (or cycles within cycles). Ptolemy's model of the universe remained dominant for over a thousand years. By Copernicus's time, the tables of planetary positions had become very complex but still did not offer accurate predictions of the positions of the planets over long periods of time. Copernicus realized that tables of planetary positions could be calculated more accurately by working from the assumption that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the world system and that the planets, including the Earth, moved around the sun. Copernicus was not an especially good astronomical observer. It is said that he never saw the planet Mercury, and he made an incorrect assumption about planetary orbits, believing that they were perfectly circular. Because of this, he found it necessary to use Ptolemy's cumbersome concept of epicycles (smaller orbits centered on the larger ones) to reduce the discrepancy between his predicted orbits and those he observed. It wasn't until Johannes Kepler that the elliptical nature of planetary orbits was understood. According to critic Harold P. Nebelsick, Copernicus's system was able to describe the "main movements of the planets with greater simplicity and harmony" than the Ptolemaic system could, and it was able to provide "a more accurate measurement of the distance of planetary orbits" from one orbit to another. The heliocentric model developed by Copernicus could explain the astronomical phenomenon known as retrograde ("backwards") motion better than Ptolemy's geocentric model. The fact that most of the planets appear to change direction periodically is more readily explained by the fact that their orbits are outside that of the Earth. The heliocentric model also explained the absence of such "backward" motion in the planet Venus, whose orbit is inside that of the Earth and therefore smaller.

Critical Reception

The earliest reaction to On the Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies was subdued. Only a limited number of books were printed. Books—and in particular scientific texts with numerous illustrations—were expensive and consequently had limited circulation. The book did achieve a number of converts, but only a few highly advanced mathematicians and astronomers could fully understand it. Copernicus himself dedicated the book to mathematicians and did not seem to think that his findings would appeal to a general readership. A later generation of astronomers building on Copernican theories, including Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) and Johannes Kepler, continued to demonstrate that humankind was still learning about what had previously been thought to be a "fixed firmamant" of stars and planets, and Copernicus has grown in regard as a significant and revolutionary thinker for his times.

Principal Works

Monetae cudendae ratio [On Minting Money] (essay) 1528

De revolutionibus orbitum coelestium [On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies] (essay) 1543


Robert Small (essay date 1804)

SOURCE: "Of the Copernican System" in An Account of the Astronomical Discoveries of Kepler, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1963, pp. 81-92.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally written in 1804, Small discusses how Copernicus came to his conclusions regarding heliocentrism and the diurnal rotation of the earth.]

Though the imperfections of the Ptolemaic system were not immediately perceived, especially during the confusion which attended the decline and destruction of the Roman empire, their effects did not fail, in process of time, to become fully evident. In the ninth century, on the revival of science in the east, under the encouragement of the...

(The entire section is 3298 words.)

Marian Biskup and Jerzy Dobrzycki (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Copernicus the Economist" and "De Revolutionibus" in Copernicus: Scholar and Citizen, Interpress Publishers, 1972, pp. 83-115.

[In the essays below, Biskup and Dobrzycki discuss first Copernicus's work as an economic advisor to the Prussian Estates and then the development of the ideas and text of his De Revolutionibus.]

Copernicus the Economist

Copernicus was for many years in Warmia engrossed in economic matters and monetary questions. He introduced many new and stimulating ideas into economics, some of them much ahead of his time, and hence did not always meet with understanding. But it is worth looking closer at his...

(The entire section is 7436 words.)

Owen Gingerich (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "From Copernicus to Kepler: Heliocentrism as Model and as Reality" in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 117, No. 6, December, 1973, pp. 513–22.

[In the following essay, Gingerich discusses controversies in the early publishing history of De revolutionibus.]

Near the close of Book One of the autograph manuscript of his great work, Copernicus writes:

And if we should admit that the course of the sun and moon could be demonstrated even if the earth is fixed, then with respect to the other wandering bodies there is less agreement. It is credible that, for these and similar causes (and not because of the...

(The entire section is 5470 words.)

Owen Gingerich (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "'Crisis' versus Aesthetic in the Copernican Revolution" in Yesterday and Today: Proceedings of the Commemorative Conference Held in Washington in Honour of Nicolaus Copernicus, Vistas in Astronomy, Vol. 17, 1975, pp. 85-93.

[In the following essay, Gingerich argues against the notion that there was an astronomical crisis in astronomy before Copernicus published his theories.]

In a chapter in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions entitled "Crisis and the Emergence of Scientific Theories", Thomas Kuhn states: "If awareness of anomaly plays a role in the emergence of phenomena, it should surprise no one that a similar but more profound awareness is prerequisite...

(The entire section is 4007 words.)

John Norris (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Copernicus: Science versus Theology" in The Tradition of Polish Ideals: Essays in History and Literature, Orbis Books (London) Ltd., 1981, pp. 132-49.

[In the following essay, Norris discusses the reception of Copernicus's astronomical findings by the Catholic and Protestant churches during the sixteenth centuryry],

This paper is about a Polish citizen and about a revolution which he made. Unlike most Poles, he didn't know he was going to make a revolution, and he probably didn't intend it. He wrote a great and abstruse work, De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium, which hardly any of his contemporaries could read, let alone understand. It was...

(The entire section is 5792 words.)

Edward Rosen (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Exposure of the Fraudulent Address to the Reader in Copernicus' Revolutions" in Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Fall, 1983, pp. 283-91.

[In the following article, Rosen discusses the reasons for and outcome of Andreas Osiander'inserting an anonymous preface into the first publication of Copernicus's De revolutionibus.],

In opposition to the immemorial belief that the earth is stationary, Nicholas Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Nuremborg, 1543)1 proclaimed that the earth is a planet in motion. On its title page this epoch-making work announced the names of its author and publisher. But it gave no hint...

(The entire section is 3838 words.)

Harold P. Nebelsick (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Copernican Cosmology" in Circles of God: Theology and Science from the Greeks to Copernicus, Scottish Academic Press, 1985, pp. 200-57.

[In the following chapter, Nebelsick discusses in detail Copernicus's contributions to astronomical research, including his theory of heliocentrism and his revision of the work of Ptolemy and other ancient astronomers.]

The Development of "Heliocentricity"

When and where Copernicus first began to think seriously about his "heliocentric" system is as difficult to ascertain as are his motives for developing it."57 By the end of the fifteenth century Cracow had gained a reputation as a good...

(The entire section is 15397 words.)

Bernard Vinaty (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Galileo and Copernicus" in Galileo Galilei: Toward a Resolution of 350 Years of Debate—1633-1983, Duquesne University Press, 1987, pp. 3-43.

[In the following article, Vinaty discusses the relevance of Copernicus's research to the development of Galilean cosmology.]

In the course of the second day of the "Dialogue Concerning the Two Principal World Systems, the Ptolemaic and Copernican," Gianfrancesco Sagredo, Venetian patrician and one of the three persons taking part in the dialogue, recounts:

Certain events had but recently befallen me, when I began to hear this new opinion [Copernican] talked about. Being still very...

(The entire section is 18713 words.)

Hans Blumenberg (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "The Theoretician as 'Perpetrator'" in The Genesis of the Copernican World, The MIT Press, 1987, pp. 264-89.

[In the following essay, Blumenberg discusses the metaphors of revolution and violence that have characterized assessments of Copernican cosmology through the years.]

On the base of the Copernicus monument in Torun stands this inscription: Terrae Motor Solis Caelique Stator [Mover of the Earth and Stayer of the Sun and the Heavens]. The kings of Prussia had owed the monument to Copernicus for a long time. On 12 August 1773—that is, in the year of the astronomer's 300th birthday—Frederick the Great had made this promise in a letter to Voltaire....

(The entire section is 12682 words.)

Ann Blair (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Tycho Brahe's Critique of Copernicus and the Copernican System" in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. LI, No. 3, July-Sept., 1990, pp. 355-77.

[Below, Blair discusses astronomer Tycho Brahe 's ambivalence toward Copernican cosmology. Brahe admired Copernicus's desire for mathematical simplicity in his calculations of the motions of the heavenly bodies, but he could not accept Copernicus's theory of heliocentrism.]

For Luther he was the "fool who wanted to turn the art of astronomy on its head"1; for François Viète he was the paraphraser of Ptolemy and "more a master of the dice than of the (mathematical) profession"2; for nearly...

(The entire section is 10534 words.)

Irving A. Kelter (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "The Refusal to Accommodate: Jesuit Exegetes and the Copernican System" in Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, 1995, pp. 273-83.

[In the following essay, Kelter traces the early response of the Catholic exegetical community to Copernican theory.]

On March 5, 1616, the Roman Catholic Church's Sacred Congregation of the Index issued a decree concerning the new Copernican cosmology and current works defending it. The edict prohibited, until corrected, both Nicholas Copernicus' classic work, the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), and the commentary on Job (1584) by the Spanish theologian Didacus à Stunica (Diego de Zúñiga). The Carmelite...

(The entire section is 5949 words.)

Further Reading

American Philosophical Society. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge: Symposium on Copernicus. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1973, 550 p.

A collection of scholarly papers presented at the symposium by Owen Gingerich, Anthony Grafton, Willy Hartner, and Noel Swerdlow on the five hundredth centenary of Copernicus's birth.

Armitage, Angus. Copernicus: The Founder of Modern Astronomy. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1938, 183 p.

Presents an account of the research that led Copernicus to form his theories of...

(The entire section is 733 words.)