Great Astronomers: Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus
portrait plate from “Great Astronomers”

Who is Nicolaus Copernicus?  Astronomers know his work, but may not be familiar with the life of the man who was uncovering the truths about our universe at the same time as Columbus was setting sail for the Americas. Copernicus is the subject of this chapter, excerpted from “Great Astronomers” by Robert Stawell Ball.  We will be featuring reviews of all the chapters in this book as part of a series.

In the first few pages, Ball paints a brief portrait of the astronomer’s town and early days, describing a very intelligent young man who seemed to find success at everything to which he turned his mind.  Copernicus was home-educated until he went to university in Krakow, from which he learned to excel in practicing medicine, artistic painting, canonic law, teaching mathematics, mechanical engineering and eventually astronomy.

The writer then describes what Copernicus carefully and meticulously assembled as his body of evidence supporting the heliocentric model, which was not as simple as it sounds.  The work tells us a bit about the life of Copernicus, but tells us more about the challenges and the mind of the astronomer.

The account is split up into two chapters.  The first chapter outlines what led Copernicus to his discoveries, and the second short chapter only briefly touches on the rest of his life’s work of adding proofs to his heliocentric model, and agonizing over publishing his body of work, well aware of the controversies it would create.  Finally published when he was gravely ill, Copernicus reportedly died a few hours after receiving a copy of the first printing of his book “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres).

The language was challenging a few times, and often comes off as a broad and compact summary, but it’s not written as a scientific text.  It’s in English, the style is very pondering, and sometimes you have to stop and think about what the writer is saying.  For example:

“Possessing somewhat of the ascetic spirit, he resolved to devote his life to work of the most serious description.”

In a short sentence, the writer has addressed a significant turning point in the life of Copernicus around the age of 27.  He completely restructured his life so that he could be utterly dedicated to intelligent pursuit.  He surrounded himself with similar academics, and apparently abandoned his younger, more “frivolous” pursuits such as his artistic painting.

The copy I had for review was an OCR of the original scanned work from the Internet Archive (scanned by the University of Toronto archives).  At times, the translation to text was not accurate, but you could easily guess what the words were supposed to be.  For example, from Page 8: “Copernicus shows clearly how tne observed phenomena could be accounted for…”.  You almost read right over the misspelling of “the”, but it’s there.  That’s probably the easiest example, there were a few other challenging ones.

The version I had for review also deleted drawings and diagrams from the original scan.  I had a look at the original scan, and the omittance of these does not greatly detract from the work.

These chapters would make a very good basis for an after-school special on the man behind some ground-breaking astronomy.  They are capsules of both man and astronomer.

I also now want to see what I can find out about Copernicus’s paintings!  Good writings like this don’t just tell you things, they inspire you to want to find out more.

What I learned about Copernicus:

Until Copernicus, the prevailing view of how the universe worked was Ptolemy’s geocentric model, in which Earth was stationary at the centre of the universe and all the heavenly bodies revolved around it in a “celestial sphere”.  Ptolemy pointed to the Old Testament writings as support for his work.

Other contemporaries of Ptolemy, such as Pythagoras, disagreed but were often shouted down (or worse) as heretical, since such views were contradictory to what was written in the Bible.

Copernicus was a scientific revolutionary.  It seems to us today to be a simple statement of elementary truth – that the earth moves around the sun – but it was unthinkable at the time of Copernicus to state so.  The charge of heresy was certainly one to be avoided in the late 15th century, a hundred years before the work of Galileo confirmed the Copernican heliocentric model and kicked off the scientific revolution.

Copernicus didn’t have many of the fancy or precise instruments that later astronomers used.  Rather, Copernicus used his own mechanical aptitude to fashion much of his own tools with which he painstakingly recorded the movements of the heavenly bodies.

Challenging Ptolemy’s geocentric model was no easy task.  First, Copernicus had to prove that the earth was not stationary, but rotating on an axis once every 24 hours.  The rest of the solar system would come later.  Copernicus had to counter the popular concept that if Earth rotated, the atmosphere above Earth would not rotate with it, and that would produce constantly terrible winds.  Since there weren’t constantly terrible winds, that was seen as evidence that Earth was stationary.

So, how did Copernicus prove these things?  …well, you’ll have to read it for yourself.

Copernicus turned our understanding of the universe inside out by more accurately conceptualizing the way the larger mechanics of our universe really worked.  It’s virtually impossible to understate the contribution of Copernicus to the eventual scientific revolution.

You can download the copy I had for review here, or locate the complete book at the Internet Archive, here.

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