Renaissance astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus was born on February 19, 1473, in Torun, Poland.
Copernicus was a revolutionary astronomer and mathematician who turned Renaissance science on its head with the idea that the planets did not revolve around the Earth after all. With this radical notion, Copernicus set astronomy down a new path that transformed how scientists think about the universe.
His book, 'De revolutionibus orbium coelestium' (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) was published just before his death in 1543. It set the stage for all of modern astronomy.
Copernicus was born in modern-day Torun, Poland, to a merchant family. At the age of 18, Copernicus travelled to Italy to study and eventually join the church, following his uncle’s footsteps. It was in Italy, that he was first introduced to astronomy.
By 1514, Copernicus had given up becoming a cleric, instead devoting his time to astronomy, which he excelled at. But even as powerful leaders, including the pope, turned to Copernicus for astronomical advice, he was formulating a theory that would turn the Renaissance world on its head.
At the time, most people subscribed to an Aristotelian model of the universe, which posited that the Earth sat at the center of existence and was surrounded by 55 concentric crystal spheres to which the stars and planets were attached.
In 1514, Copernicus passed around handwritten pamphlets to his close friends that outlined his theories, including that it was the sun, not the Earth, that sat at the center of the universe.
Though Copernicus’ theory had its flaws, it did solve the persistent problem of why planets sometimes appeared to orbit in reverse.
However, the theory was so radical that he didn’t publish it until 1543, when he was on his deathbed.
Though it took nearly 100 years for his ideas to take hold, Copernicus’ book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), rocked the world of the Renaissance.
He died on 24 May 1543 at Frombork, Poland.
Even if it had flaws, his model was nonetheless a start in the right direction, and other astronomers would embrace and expand on it. Successors like Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei continued the scientific revolution that he helped start.
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