The massive bulk of the earth does indeed shrink to insignificance in comparison with the size of the heavens.

Early Years

Nicolaus Copernicus was born on 19 February 1473 in Thorn (modern day Torun) in Poland. His father was a merchant and local official. When Copernicus was 10 his father died, and his uncle, a priest, ensured that Copernicus received a good education. In 1491, he went to Krakow Academy, now the Jagiellonian University, and in 1496 travelled to Italy to study law. While a student at the University of Bologna he stayed with a mathematics professor, Domenico Maria de Novara, who encouraged Copernicus’ interests in geography and astronomy.

During his time in Italy, Copernicus visited Rome and studied at the universities of Padua and Ferrara, before returning to Poland in 1503. For the next seven years he worked as a private secretary to his uncle, now the bishop of Ermland.The bishop died in 1512 and Copernicus moved to Frauenberg, where he had long held a position as a canon, an administrative appointment in the church. This gave him more time to devote to astronomy. Although he did not seek fame, it is clear that he was by now well known as an astronomer. In 1514, when the Catholic church was seeking to improve the calendar, one of the experts to whom the pope appealed was Copernicus.

Major Work

Copernicus’ major work ‘De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium’ (‘On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres‘) was finished by 1530. Its central theory was that the Earth rotates daily on its axis and revolves yearly around the sun. He also argued that the planets circled the Sun. This challenged the long held view that the Earth was stationary at the centre of the universe with all the planets, the Moon and the Sun rotating around it. He correctly positioned all of the known planets at the time and explained why the seasons occurred. He also argued that the distance from the Earth to the sun is much less than the distance from the Earth to other stars.

A much earlier geocentric model (geo means Earth) created by Ptolemy featured Earth at the center of the Universe. This model was used by astronomers and other scientists for centuries before Copernicus developed his heliocentric model.

‘De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium’ was published in early 1543 and Copernicus died on 24 May in the same year.


ptolemy model
ptolemy model

Church Anger

The Catholic church had long agreed with the Ptolemy view of the universe. This coincided nicely with the church viewpoint that Earth was the centre of the universe because God had made it so. Any changes to Ptolemy’s idea was not only declaring him wrong, but it was also seen to declare the church wrong! (And we can’t have that now can we?) As a result of Copernican theory, Copernicus’ work was banned by the Church. Scientists who agreed and supported Copernican theory such as the famous Galileo was also dealt with by the Catholic church. Galileo would serve the rest of his life under house arrest.


The ideas of Nicolaus Copernicus were instrumental in the evolution of the field of astronomy. Virtually every notable astronomer who proceeded him was vastly influenced by his theories. Galileo, Johannes Kepler, and others were among the astronomers who sought to add to and improve upon his work.

So there you go, thanks to Copernicus we have a greater knowledge of the cosmos!

For more on the Renaissance and other topics, keep it here!


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