Copernicus Sparked a Scientific Revolution

Everyone knows that the Earth revolves around the Sun, right? It seems like it should be obvious. But Nicolas Copernicus lived in a time when this very thought was ridiculed by the majority of people.

The son of a merchant, Copernicus was born February 19, 1473, in Torun, Poland. He earned degrees in classical antiquity, math, and astronomy at the University of Krakow, medicine at the University of Padua, law and astronomy again at the University of Bologna, and a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara.

Copernicus lived in a time when the accepted model of the universe was Ptolemy’s Model, as taught by the historic figure Ptolemy of Alexandria. In this model, the Sun, along with the six other celestial worlds, all orbited Earth. Furthermore, each of the celestial worlds supposedly moved in epicycles, or smaller circular orbits.

Copernicus was a learned man, so he of course knew the theoretical ideas that supported Ptolemy’s Model. But there was one incredibly irksome issue in the model that he could not resolve. He tried to discuss this problem with other astronomers, but no one could seem to come up with a satisfactory explanation.

Copernicus simply could not shake off this vexing inconsistency. Instead, he pursued ancient texts for an answer. At the time, these texts were believed to contain the solutions to all questions of scientific value. Copernicus finally found answers in the accounts of researcher Aristarchus’s work given by Archimedes and Plutarch, both eminent for their own scientific work. Plutarch was a widely-known philosopher and biographist, and Archimedes was a renowned mathematician, engineer, physicist, astronomer, and inventor. The original writings of Aristarchus had vanished, but the accounts given by Archimedes and Plutarch were dependable.

Aristarchus was a disciple of Pythagoras and held the belief that the Sun is the center of the universe. Fascinated by this supposedly-foolish theory, Copernicus looked at the universe with fresh eyes, and he was awed by what he saw. In 1514, he composed “A Brief Outline” for curious, like-minded friends.

In his "A Brief Outline,” Copernicus stated “the Sun is the center of the planetary system and therefore of the universe.” This was the crux of his hypothesis, albeit controversial to the prevailing theory at the time, Ptolemy’s Model, which conveyed one of the most influential concepts of that era—that Earth, home of the creations of God, was the center of the universe. Ptolemy's Model also emphasized that everything revolved around humans, because, as the hub of the universe, humans are the single most important creations among all existing beings.

Perhaps this is why Copernicus was so reluctant to share his understanding with the world. He was particularly apprehensive about aggravating the Church with his allegedly-preposterous claims. He was also fearful that he might be “hissed off the stage.” So great was his concern that he procrastinated and did not publish his full theory for 25 years. Had Georg Rheticus, a math professor, not sought out his work in 1539, Copernicus' full theory might have died alongside him.

Rheticus was a steadfast believer in the Copernican system. When he learned that Copernicus had no plans to expand his theory, he was aghast. He then proceeded to spend the next two years convincing Copernicus to publish his work. When “On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres” was finally finished in 1543, Copernicus was on his deathbed. He was too weak to hold the fresh, first edition copy that had been delivered to his doorstep. But it didn’t matter.

The revolution had begun.

[Source: Secrets of the Universe]