Nicolaus Copernicus, who lived from 1473 until 1543, is known for his idea that the sun is motionless at the center of the universe and that the earth and other planets all revolve around it. This Polish astronomer revolutionized beliefs involving the universe, making his thoughts controversial in his time, but common knowledge in our own (Westman).
Before the time of Copernicus, people had extremely different views of the universe. A Greek astronomer named Ptolemy had his own theory of the earth and its relationship with the sun and other planets. Around 140 AD, he came up with a system that showed the earth at the center of the universe with the sun and planets revolving around it in a spherical shape (Reichenbach 15-17). Ptolemy also believed that the earth remained still and that the outermost sphere contained the stars, which were fixed in space (Westman).
Copernicus’s theory showed the earth and other planets revolving around the sun in a circular motion. At the same time, the moon is rotating around the earth as well. Like Ptolemy, Copernicus believed that the stars occupied the region farthest from the sun. Copernicus, however, never stated whether or not these stars were in a fixed sphere around the universe or if they were scattered throughout space. Unlike Ptolemy’s motionless earth, Copernicus said the earth rotates around itself daily, causing night and day (Armitage, 112-15). He also realized that the greater the distance from the sun a planet was, the more time it takes for that planet to completely revolve around the sun (Westman).
At first, Copernicus only planned to use his new system as an easier way to chart the planets’ positions. But, he explained everything with such high detail and mathematics that astronomers around the time of his death began to wonder if his theory might actually be the truth.
He was cautious to publish his ideas because he saw potential for trouble and possibly even a heresy charge from the Catholic Church, who strongly believed in Ptolemy’s earth-centered system. Finally he was persuaded to publish it by some of his early supporters. In doing so, he dedicated his works to Pope Paul III; perhaps to get him and the Church on his side (Asimov, 54-55).
Protestant leaders, not Catholics, were the first to reject Copernicus’s theory. They said it went against the teachings of the Bible that supposedly supported the contrasting system of Ptolemy. Despite this, Protestants were also some of the first supporters of this sun-centered plan (Armitage, 125).
About seventy years later, in 1616, the Catholic Church began to question the Copernican system. Galileo, one of Copernicus’s greatest supporters, used his newly invented telescope to observe the planets and was strongly convinced that Copernicus was absolutely correct. The Church now saw these ideas as a threat to their beliefs concerning the uniqueness of earth as God’s special creation, and soon warned Galileo not to support it. An Inquisition committee reviewed Copernicus’s work and declared it, and the support of it, a heresy. Galileo was brought to trial by the Church in 1633, and was forced to take back all support of the Copernican plan. Due to his old age and sickliness, Galileo did as they pleased and was set under “house arrest” for the remainder of his life, where he was able to continue with substantial scientific discoveries of his own (Armitage, 143-149).
Now Copernicus’s sun centered theory is no longer questioned. Through modern science and mathematics we have been able to prove his ideas as the truth. Copernicus was not able to physically prove his idea because the proper technology (like the telescope) and skills were not available to him. In fact, Copernicus rarely used his own sightings as a basis for his theories (Asimov, 54).
Nicolaus Copernicus and his revolutionary ideas caused a great deal of controversy and problems near the end of the Renaissance in Europe, but they can probably be considered one of the most significant astronomical realizations ever made throughout history. Copernicus not only changed thoughts involving the universe, but science altogether. As a result of his work and of other influential scientists of his time, the Scientific Revolution in Europe began (Asimov, 55). This was a time when science broke away from its restrictions of classical writings and the Bible and took a more productive path that brought countless new inventions and discoveries that would affect people’s lives from then on. Some products of the Scientific Revolution include: the beginnings of modern physics, the telescope, the microscope, the thermometer, and the barometer.
Even though the Copernicus’s theory of the universe was frequently regarded as false hundreds of years ago, people from then on would accept this as common knowledge. Little did he know, but Nicolaus Copernicus would arguably become the cause for an infinite amount of revolutions not just in astronomy, but in scientific thinking in general.
Armitage, Angus. The World of Copernicus. New York: The New American Library, 1947.
Asimov, Isaac. Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964.
Reichenbach, Hans. From Copernicus to Einstein. Trans. Ralph B. Winn. New York: Steingould Corp., 1942.
Westman, Robert S. “Copernicus, Nicolaus.” Microsoft Encarta. 1995 ed.