Why Copernicus is famous nearly 500 years after his death.
In the sixteenth century people believed that the Earth was the center of the universe and everything moved around it. This was the geocentric (earth in the center) model which had been accepted for 1500 years.
The geocentric idea made sense. After all, it does feel like Earth is standing still while the Sun, Moon, stars and planets move. Unfortunately, if Earth is still, the movements we see the planets make are very complicated. Ptolemy (c.90-c.168) made the orbits work in the geocentric system by having the planets go around in little circles called epicycles as they orbited the Earth.
Copernicus had a different idea. He put the Sun at the center, a heliocentric model. (Helios is Greek for sun.) It made some things simpler. For example, it explained why Mercury and Venus are never seen far from the Sun Ė they are closer to the Sun than we are. Copernicus didnít get everything right, but it was a start. Many astronomers found it helpful even though they didnít really believe the Earth was moving.
About sixty years after Copernicus died, Johannes Kepler improved the heliocentric model by showing, mathematically, how the planets move in their orbits. Then several years later Galileo saw four of Jupiterís moons through a telescope. This showed that everything didnít have to go around the Earth.
Human understanding of the universe has changed and it was Copernicus that started this revolution.
Copernicus was born on February 19, 1473 in the city of Torun, a German city that was part of the Kingdom of Poland. We know him by the Latin name he adopted, but some people argue about whether he was Polish or German.
Nicolaus was named for his father who was a businessman. His mother Barbara Watzenrode came from a prominent local family. Nicolaus was the youngest of their four children.
When Nicolaus was eleven, his father died and his uncle Lucas Watzenrode became the guardian of his sisterís children. Watzenrode was a notable churchman, the canon of a cathedral and later a bishop. (The canon of a cathedral is a senior administrator.)
Watzenrode made sure that his nephews got a good education and later helped them into careers in the church. His niece Barbara became a nun and the prioress of a convent. The only one to marry was Katharina who married a local businessman who was a city councillor.
Copernicus was an excellent student. After an elementary education in Torun, he spent three years in a cathedral school and then went to the University of Krakow with his brother Andreas. At the university his interest in astronomy grew, though he never became a professional astronomer. From Krakow he went to Italy to study law and medicine, eventually earning a doctorate in law.
In Italy, he also made his first astronomical observations, and learned Greek so that he could read the great works of astronomy. In fact, he learned the language so well that he published a book of his translations of Greek poetry. He didnít translate them into either German or Polish. Copernicus translated them into Latin, the international language of educated people in those days.
His uncleís influence got Nicolaus the job of canon of Frombork (Frauenberg) cathedral. Frombork is on the Baltic coast of modern Poland. The job gave him an income for life and he spent most of the rest of his life there.
We know Copernicus for his astronomy, but that was something he fit into a very busy life. Besides his duties at the cathedral, he served as a doctor, judge, economist, diplomat and civil administrator. He even helped to organize the defense of the city during one of the wars of the time.
It took thirty years to get into print his great work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). Besides being a busy man, he was also a careful scholar. He wanted to be sure of showing clearly the reasoning behind his ideas.
Copernicus died on May 24, 1543. The printing of his great work was completed as he lay on his deathbed. Legend says that a copy was put in his hands.
The book wasn't sensational at the time. However seventy years after Copernicusís death, the Roman church put it on a banned list and it stayed there for two centuries.
In Copernicusís day few people had burial monuments. By the time his name was famous for the revolution in astronomy, no one knew where he was buried. There were several unsuccessful searches, but it took 21st century technology to find and then to identify his remains.
On May 22, 2010, Copernicus had a second funeral mass. His remains were reburied in Frombork cathedral, but now there is also a stone dedicated to the quiet revolutionary.