Happy Birthday: Nicolaus Copernicus is 540 today

Posted: February 19, 2013 by tallbloke in Astronomy, solar system dynamics

Happy Birthday to Nicolaus Copernicus, born this day 540 years ago. Though his work on orbits still left us with epicycles (Kepler would succeed in eliminating them with his elliptical orbits replacing Copernicus’ circular ones) he nonetheless moved the science of astronomy and cosmology forward by his placement of the Sun at the centre of the system. He had the good sense to hold off from publication until near his death, but this didn’t prevent various theologian-astronomers of a more Aristotelian bent from damning him later. It is the fate of innovators to be chastised by the gatekeepers of the times it seems – no matter how right they are. As Jerome Ravetz said to me recently: “The difference between a crank and a rebel may become clear only in retrospect.  Which was Galileo?  He spent a huge part of his working life on a theory that anyone could have told him would never succeed.

Copernicus’ major theory was published in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), in the year of his death, 1543, though he had formulated the theory several decades earlier.

CopernicSystemCopernicus’ “Commentariolus” summarized his heliocentric theory. It listed the “assumptions” upon which the theory was based as follows:

“1. There is no one center of all the celestial circles or spheres.
2. The center of the earth is not the center of the universe, but only of gravity and of the lunar sphere.
3. All the spheres revolve about the sun as their mid-point, and therefore the sun is the center of the universe.
4. The ratio of the earth’s distance from the sun to the height of the firmament (outermost celestial sphere containing the stars) is so much smaller than the ratio of the earth’s radius to its distance from the sun that the distance from the earth to the sun is imperceptible in comparison with the height of the firmament.
5. Whatever motion appears in the firmament arises not from any motion of the firmament, but from the earth’s motion. The earth together with its circumjacent elements performs a complete rotation on its fixed poles in a daily motion, while the firmament and highest heaven abide unchanged.
6. What appear to us as motions of the sun arise not from its motion but from the motion of the earth and our sphere, with which we revolve about the sun like any other planet. The earth has, then, more than one motion.
7. The apparent retrograde and direct motion of the planets arises not from their motion but from the earth’s. The motion of the earth alone, therefore, suffices to explain so many apparent inequalities in the heavens.”[83]

Under strong pressure from his student, Rheticus, and having seen the favorable first general reception of his work, Copernicus finally agreed to give De revolutionibus to his close friend, Tiedemann Giese, bishop of Chełmno (Kulm), to be delivered to Rheticus for printing by the German printer Johannes Petreius at Nuremberg (Nürnberg), Germany. While Rheticus initially supervised the printing, he had to leave Nuremberg before it was completed, and he handed over the task of supervising the rest of the printing to a Lutheran theologian, Andreas Osiander.

Osiander added an unauthorised and unsigned preface, defending the work against those who might be offended by the novel hypotheses. He explained that astronomers may find different causes for observed motions, and choose whatever is easier to grasp. As long as a hypothesis allows reliable computation, it does not have to match what a philosopher might seek as the truth.

Tolosani recognized that the Ad Lectorem preface to Copernicus’ book wasn’t actually by him. Its thesis that astronomy as a whole would never be able to make truth claims was rejected by Tolosani, (though he still held that Copernicus’ attempt to describe physical reality had been faulty), he found it ridiculous that Ad Lectorem had been included in the book (unaware that Copernicus hadn’t authorized its inclusion). Tolosani wrote “By means of these words [of the Ad Lectorem], the foolishness of this book’s author is rebuked. For by a foolish effort he [Copernicus] tried to revive the weak Pythagorean opinion [that the element of fire was at the center of the Universe], long ago deservedly destroyed, since it is expressly contrary to human reason and also opposes holy writ. From this situation, there could easily arise disagreements between Catholic expositors of holy scripture and those who might wish to adhere obstinately to this false opinion. We have written this little work for the purpose of avoiding this scandal.”[92] Tolosani declared “Nicolaus Copernicus neither read nor understood the arguments of Aristotle the philosopher and Ptolemy the astronomer.”[92] He wrote that Copernicus “is very deficient in the sciences of physics and logic. Moreover, it appears that he is unskilled with regard to [the interpretation of] holy scripture, since he contradicts several of its principles, not without danger of infidelity to himself and the readers of his book.


  1. OzWizard says:

    Many happy returns (earth revolutions?), Nic.

  2. mitigatedsceptic says:

    Of course Coppernickers was absolutely wrong as proven by the evidence of one’s eyes.
    The sun rises and sets each day as do the Moon and the stars, each in its own peculiar way. Only a madman thinking God is a mathematician and that He made the world confine its behaviour to strict rules could believe otherwise.
    Can we not trust our own senses? And I don’t want to know what the sun, moon and planets get up to when they are out of sight – that’s their business, not mine.
    Nothing will persuade me that C’nick and Kepler were anything more than toy makers looking for hypotheses that might explain how these things move, other than being pulled by (invisible) horses. Even Newton suggested the preposterous idea of a force acting at a distance.
    Like the climate, very, very close examination of the celestial spheres shows the movements of the stars and especially the planets to be chaotic and their arrangement an instant from now quite unpredictable.
    As to the Earth being ’round’ don’t make me laugh – only navigators need to entertain such an illusion. Earth is flat, apart from a few hills and such like, as I can see looking in all directions. I have asked honest people who have travelled far beyond my sight, what they found. They all agree that its just as flat where they went as it is here – even people in Australia know its flat.
    Clearly we, non-mathematicians, are in the majority and only scientists and their cronies, like power-mad politicians, think otherwise. The majority wins – the sun, moon planets and stars wander about around over a flat earth – that’s what our eyes tell us. That’s the real consensus and that’s that!
    Look what happened to the physical sciences after that lot – Einstein, Heisenberg and to make us all laugh till our sides split – Higgs!
    CharlesII has a lot to answer for – and look we now have a Nurse to care for us. Heigh ho!

  3. Sagars says:

    Shouldn’t we be celebrating his birthday on February 28/March 1?

    Strictly speaking, those earth revolutions complete on 28th February (early March 1 to his exact Sun degree) by the Gregorian Calendar that we use now. 🙂

    19 February 1473 Jul.Cal. (28 Feb 1473 greg.) at 17:13 (= 5:13 PM )

  4. steveta_uk says:

    “Nicolaus Copernicus is 540 today.”

    Think you need to check your facts here. I beleive he actually died some 470 years ago.

  5. vukcevic says:

    ‘Nic Copper Nic’ was born as Niklas Koppernigkt

  6. BengtA says:

    We should also remember Tycho Brahe, 1546-1601, Danish astronomer. His, for that time, accurate observations enabled Kepler to formulate the elliptical movement theory – and later came Newton.
    I have read that the cost of Brahe´s research on the island of Ven was 5 % of the Danish GNP – a wet dream for todays fundseekers.

  7. Brian Williams says:

    It seems to be little known that Bede, in the seventh century, had most of this already figured out. At that time he led a centre of learning that ranked second only to Rome. Unfortunately some trouble with marauding Vikings seems to have caused much of his work to be buried.

  8. tallbloke says:

    He spun a few good yarns that lad. 🙂

  9. oldbrew says:

    steveta_uk says: ‘you need to check your facts’
    February 19, 2013 at 6:06 pm

    No, you have confused his date of birth with his date of death.

  10. I refer readers to my paper: “Copernicus” (Christmas Lecture 1973), Journal of the British Astronomical Association 84 (1974), 257‑71. That is a spoof lecture by a successor of Copernicus on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. In it I show how Copernicus, while the great restorer of technical astronomy, was actually a crank in his cosmology. Not merely theoretical science (Aristotle) and the Bible are against him, but also astronomical observation (no parallax) and experiment (no evidence for rotating earth). I conclude that, in the terms of Oxford philosophers of many years hence, the theory is just “silly”. I found that I was (as usual) too clever by half, and many in my audience were very confused.

    More serious is my argument that what got Copernicus launched on his strange theory was the problem of setting the fundamental reference-frames for observational astronomy. Ptolemy had the sun, and Copernicus had the fixed stars. This got written up with lovely graphics in Scientific American in 1966. It remains in the literature of the history of astronomy.