Copernicus

Index

Introduction

Timeline of Astronomy

Copernicus: Biographical Outline

Bibliography

Contents

Introduction

Nicolaus Copernicus (the Latinized form of his name used in his writing) is a Janus figure. He looks both back to the Middle Ages and forward to the Scientific Revoution. The arguments he uses reflect this dual perspective; he uses both Medieval appeals to authority and theological appropriateness as well as “scientific” proofs. Copernicus also illustrates the role of the printing press in the scientific revolution and the importance of the spread of influence of Arabic and Greek learning.

He was born in 1473 in Torun, Poland, which had recently been freed from the rule of Teutonic Knights. His father died when he was young, and he was then supported by his uncle. He later received income from the church from his position of canon in the cathedral chapter; he refused to become a priest.

As was common at the time, his education was received from many different places, sometimes without completion of a degree. He studied at the University of Krakow before being elected canon. He then studied law, formally, at the University of Bologna in Italy. He also, however, studied astronomy and Greek, and lectured on astronomy in Rome. He got permission from the cathedral chapter to study medicine at Padua and later received a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara. He then settled in Frombork as canon there, shortly after the death of his uncle.

Copernicus benefited from the publications of a Greek-Latin dictionary (1499), various classical Greek works in Greek and Latin translation, and Greek translations of Arabic astronomical works. He cites numerous classical (e.g. Plato, Aristotle) and Hellenistic (e.g. Ptolemy, Euclid) and Arabic (Alpetragius = Al-Bitruji) scholars in his works. He himself published (1509) a Latin translation (from Greek) of Theophlyactus Simocatta’s Letters. His other works include a treatise on monetary reform (1522), a Commentariolus (seven scientific assumptions “published” in manuscript only and distributed among friends), advice to the pope on reform of the calendar, a set of astronomical papers, Letter against Werner (1524), Narratio Prima (a less mathematical work for a more lay audience, 1540), and his most famous de Revolutionibus orbium caelestium. This was published by Rheticus, professor of mathematics at Wittenberg, at the press of Petreius, a more scientific printer, and including 142 woodcut illustrations. Copernicus died in 1543, having “seen” a copy on his deathbed; over 250 copies of the original edition are extant. A second edition was printed in Basel in 1565; about 290 copies of this edition are extant. (facsilime of autograph copy). There is controversy over the title of his work, whether it included “orbium caelestium.” Our word “revolution” acquired its meaning of a sudden, radical change from the title of Copernicus’ work, which, indeed, caused a revolution in thought. The original introduction to his work was replaced by a pseudonymous preface stating the the system was hypothetical, for “calculation purposes” only. Giordana Bruno was burned at the stake for defending the heliocentric universe (among other things) in 1600. In 1616, the work was prohibited by the church, but was allowed if “corrected,” a unique treatment. Censorship was mainly limited to Italy; it was not carried out in Spain or much in the rest of Europe. Copernicus’ work was, in fact, more widespread and more read than originally thought. Annotated copies have been identified belonging to Tycho Brahe, Galileo (who was condemned by the Inquisition in 1633 for defending the Copernican system), and Kepler (whose elliptical planetary orbits finally did away with the need for epicycles).

Timeline of Astronomy

  • Babylonian observations
    (beginning c. 6th century BC) pre-Socratic Greek philosophers try to explain the universe
  • Aristotle (4th century BC)
    c. 310-234 BC Aristarchus of Samos (Greek): first astronomer recorded as believing the earth moves around the sun. (he was disregarded)
  • 2nd century AD (c. 100-178) Ptolemy of Alexandria.
    His Almagest became the "Bible" for astronomy for the Middle Ages. He used epicycles (system of circles on circles) to explain the motions of celestial bodies. See here for more information on the Ptolemaic System See here for more information on Ptolemy’s use of epicycles, equants, and deferents.
  • 7th century: Isidore of Seville distinguishes astronomy from astrology.
    Rise of Arab astronomy
  • 813 Caliph Mamun the Great founds Baghdad school of astronomy
    Prince Al Battani (Albategnius); Al Sufi; Abul Wafa
    star charts and catalogues
  • 987-1038 Alhazen, Arab astronomer at Cairo.
  • 1001, 1054 Chinese astronomers observe supernovae
  • fl. c. 1180 Al-Bitruji (Latin Alpetragius): Arab astronomer in Spain.
  • 1543 Copernicus De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium
    Tycho Brahe (planets around the sun, but the sun around the earth)
  • 1600 Giordano Bruno burned at stake for defending heliocentric universe (among other things)
  • 1608 invention of telescope (Lippershey in Holland)
  • Galileo (condemned by Inquisition 1633 for defending Copernicus’ system)
  • Kepler (Laws of Planetary Motion 1609, 1618; elliptical orbits did away with the need for epicycles)

Copernicus: Biographical Outline

Bibliography

Edward Rosen’s translation of Copernicus book 1 and part of book 6

Picture of Copernicus; Latin chapter titles (for all books) and facsimile of Copernicus’ autograph (manuscript) copy. (From Bibliotheca Augustana, Bibliotheca Latina). Link

On the Revolutions: Nicholas Copernicus. Trans. with notes by Edward Rosen, ed. by Jerzy Dobrzycki (Pickler Library: QB 3.C6613.1978)

Copernicus: On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. Trans. by A.M Duncan. 1976. (Pickler Library: QB41.C7613.1976).

Gingerich, Owen. The Eye of Heaven: Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler. 1993. (Pickler Librayr: QB15.G563.1993).

Rosen, Edward. Three Copernican Treatises: The Commentariolus of Copernicus, the Letter against Werner, The Narration Prima of Rheticus. 3rd ed, rev. (with biography and bibliography). 1971. (Pickler Library: QB 41.C7543.1971).

Cambridge Illustrated History of Astronomy. Ed. Michael Hoskin. (Pickler Library: QB15.C36.1997).