Article abstract: Copernicus discarded the Ptolemaic system and introduced the theory that the planets, including the earth, revolve around the sun. He defended the right of learned men to discuss scientific theories, even when they differ from currently accepted beliefs and contradict religious dogma.
Nicolaus Copernicus’ family origins and the commercial interests of his hometown, Thorn (modern Toruń), reflect the dual claim which Germans and Poles alike have upon him. His father, Mikołaj (Nicolaus) Kopernik, was an immigrant from Kraków who married a daughter of a prominent burgher family, Barbara Watzenrode, and, like other Thorn merchants, prospered from the exchange of Hanseatic goods for the wheat, cattle, and other produce of Poland. Thorn burghers were subjects of the Polish king, but Polish tradition allowed associated lands such as Prussia to govern themselves autonomously. Consequently, they made their political wishes felt through their representatives in the Prussian diet rather than directly to the king.
Had Mikołaj not died in 1483, his sons, Andreas and Nicolaus, would probably have entered upon careers in commerce. The guardianship, however, fell to their uncle, Bishop Lucas Watzenrode of Ermland (Warmia), who was best able to provide for them a future in church administration. A university education being indispensable to holding church offices, Bishop Lucas sent the boys to study first in Kraków, then in Italy. Nicolaus not only became a master of mathematics and astronomy but also acquired knowledge of medicine, painting, and Greek. Upon his return to Prussia in 1503, Nicolaus followed the contemporary practice of Latinizing his name, Copernicus, and became one of the canons in the Ermland cathedral chapter. As his uncle’s physician, assistant, and heir apparent, Copernicus was present during inspection tours, provincial diets, and royal audiences. For several years he managed the diocese efficiently but without enthusiasm—his uncle was a hard taskmaster who lacked a sense of humor. Eventually, Copernicus announced that his interests in astronomy were greater than his ambition to become a bishop. From that time on, like most of the other canons, he lived according to clerical rules but remained a simple administrator who had no thought of becoming a priest.
The first of several portraits made during his lifetime show Copernicus to have been a dark, handsome man dressed in simple but elegant clothing, with nothing of either the cleric or the dandy about him. He was so utterly unremarkable in other respects that few anecdotes about him exist, leaving relatively little information about his personal life and intellectual development. Yet two facts stand out. First, Copernicus was a Humanist whose closest friends and associates were poets and polemists. His translation of an ancient author, Theophilactus Symocatta, from Greek into Latin was the first such publication in the Kingdom of Poland, and he dedicated the work to his humanistically trained uncle, Bishop Lucas. Later Copernicus used Humanist arguments to defend his astronomical theories. Second, Copernicus must be seen as a bureaucrat whose busy life made it difficult for him to make the observations of the heavens on which his mathematical calculations were based. At one time or another, he was a medical doctor, an astrologer, a mapmaker, an administrator of episcopal lands, a diplomat, a garrison commander in wartime, an economic theorist, an adviser to the Prussian diet, and a guardian to numerous nieces and nephews.
About 1507, Copernicus seems to have become persuaded that the Ptolemaic system (which asserted that the earth was the center of the universe) was incorrect. From that point on, he spent every spare moment trying to demonstrate the correctness of his insight that the sun was the center of the planetary movements (the solar system).
His first description of his theory, the Commentariolus (1514; English translation, 1939), circulated among his friends for many years. Eventually, it came to the ears of Cardinal Schönberg, who wrote a letter asking Copernicus to publish a fuller account. This letter was ultimately published in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543; On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, 1939) as a proof that high officials in the papal curia approved of scholars’ discussing the existence of a solar system. Copernicus made no answer. Instead, he asked his bishop to assign him light duties at some parish center where he could make his observations and concentrate on mathematical calculations. This request was difficult to grant, because...
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