Copernicuss Legacy

In 1539, a young mathematician arrived at Frauenburg unannounced. His name was Georg Joachim, but he is known simply as Rheticus, which means "the man from Rhaetia," the European city in which he was born. His purpose was to discover from Copernicus more information about this new astronomical system he had heard about. Rheticus, it turned out, was a professor of mathematics from the University of Wittenberg, a purely Protestant community.

Since Rheticus was a Protestant, Copernicus had every right as a devout Catholic not to receive him, but instead he welcomed him. Rheticus set to work studying Copernicus's manuscript, which was in its final stages of completion. After a few months, Rheticus had reproduced the basics of the theory in a little book he called First Account, which he sent to his former professor Johann Schoner. With Copernicus's permission, it was published in 1540.

Because of Rheticus, his encouragement, and the publication of First Account, Copernicus finally agreed to publish his remarkable work, De revolutionibus. In the first pages of the book, Copernicus included the 1536 letter from Nicholas von Schonberg, the Roman Catholic cardinal who had implored him to publish his theory. The rest of the book dealt with his heliocentric model of the solar system and his Sun-centered mathematical calculations that adequately complemented the looping paths performed by the planets.

The book provided many reasons why it was logical for the Sun to exist at the center of the solar system. For instance, the predictions of planetary locations matched the observations that were in existence. Also, with this new system the Moon's apparent size did not have to change, and the astronomical models were no longer off center, this last of which was the most objectionable concept of the Ptolemaic system. It also greatly improved the accuracy of the calendar.

Rheticus took charge of the duties involved in publishing the manuscript and had it sent to a man in Nuremberg named John Petrijus. His involvement came to an end, however, when he was suddenly offered a position at Leipzig University. Rheticus handed the duties of overseeing the publication to a Protestant preacher named Andrew Osiander.

Then, late in 1542, Copernicus had a stroke. He survived, but suffered from apoplexy, a form of partial paralysis. A competent physician, Vicar Fabian Emmerich, attended him, but he was not expected to live long.

Osiander, whose job it now was to publish Copernicus's book, was very concerned about the content of De revolutionibus and how it conflicted with the church's long-established model of the solar system. Copernicus was in no condition to object, so before the book went to press, Osiander took it upon himself to write his own



A reproduction of Copernicus's diagram of the solar system from Book One of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the revolutions of the celestial orbits)

foreword. For years, readers assumed that Copernicus himself had written the foreword.

George Abell states in his book Exploration of the Universe (1969), "Osiander wrote a preface, which he neglected to sign, expressing the (modern) view that the science presented only an abstract mathematical hypothesis, and implying that the theory set forth in the book was only a convenient calculating scheme."

Years later, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571— 1630) finally revealed to the public that the true author of the foreword was not Copernicus but Andrew Osiander.

In May 1543, while Copernicus lay on his deathbed, weakened in mind and body, he was handed the first printed copy of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. A short while later, he died of a brain hemorrhage. Throughout his career, most of his peers considered his theory implausible, but to his own credit the mathematician stood behind his work to the very end. An excerpt from De revolutionibus orbium coelestium reads:

Finally we shall place the Sun himself at the center of the Universe. All this is suggested by the systematic procession of events and the harmony of the whole universe, if only we face the facts, as they say, "with both eyes open."

Although his system still had its problems, such as the idea that all bodies moved in perfect circles (which they do not) and that a sphere of fixed stars surrounded the solar system, today's modern astronomy is based on the Copernican system. Not only did this brave and quiet man provide humankind with the means of understanding the structure of the universe, but he also taught scientists to keep an open mind and never make the mistake of ruling anything out when it comes to making new discoveries.



Born Niclas Koppernigk on February 19 in Torun, Poland


Enters the University of Krakow and is inspired to study astronomy


Begins to study canon law at the University of Bologna, Italy


Receives a canonry at the cathedral in Frauenburg (now Frombork), Poland, allowing him freedom to continue his astronomical work


Observes a lunar eclipse while visiting Rome


Moves to the University of Padua, Italy, to study medicine


Receives a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara, Italy


Acts as secretary and medical adviser to his uncle Lucas Watzenrode

1516 Appointed administrator of two of the outlying estates,

Allenstien and Mehlsack


Moves back to Frauenburg Cathedral and resumes studies

in astronomy


Convinced by German mathematician Rheticus to publish

De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the revolutions

of the celestial orbits)


Rendered helpless by a stroke

1543 His life work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, is published, including an unauthorized foreword written by Andrew Osiander; Copernicus dies on May 24 in Frauenburg, Poland


Andronik, Catherine M. Copernicus: Founder of Modern Astronomy (Great Minds of Science). Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 2002. An excellent, well-organized, and illustrated account of the contributions Copernicus made toward the development of astronomy.

Armitage, Angus. The World of Copernicus. New York: Signet, 1947. A nicely researched classic about Copernicus and his struggle to introduce change to the scientific world.

Copernicus, Nicholas. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (CD-ROM). Oakland, Calif.: Octavo Corporation, 1999. A CD-ROM of Copernicus's edition originally published in Nuremberg, 1543. Contains each page of the treatise and the binding, photographed at very high resolution. Adobe PDF file includes software to view, search, and print.

Goble, Todd, and William J. Boerst. Nicolaus Copernicus and the Founding of Modern Astronomy (Great Scientists). Greensboro, N.C.: Morgan Reynolds, 2003. Tailored toward students in grades 6-8, this is a methodical biography of Nicholas Copernicus addressing the religious turmoil and political unrest of his times as he dared to challenge the medieval astronomical theories with his modern heliocentric model of the solar system.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Copernican Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. A condensed and well-written book on the achievements of Copernicus. The author investigates the cresting theory of Copernicanism and its effects on the other sciences.

Web Sites

The About Network. "Profiles in Courage: Copernicus." Available online. URL: 498.htm?terms=copernicus&COB=home. Accessed November 29, 2004. A 1,000-word biography provided by the About Network profiling Copernicus's accomplishments and their association and conflict with European religious dogma of the time.

Tycho Brahe

Tycho Brahe developed superior observational techniques to study celestial objects. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The Astronomer Who Revolutionized Techniques of Celestial Observation

Tycho Brahe was a Danish astronomer who grew to become such an excellent celestial observer that King Frederick II of Denmark gave him the entire island of Hven, off the coast of Denmark, on which to build what became the finest observatory in all Europe during that time: the castle observatory of Uraniborg. His lifetime of observations was made just before the invention of the telescope;

therefore, he used only his naked eye and precision instruments of his own creation to measure positions of the stars and planets in the night sky.

Telescopes Mastery

Telescopes Mastery

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