Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543)

Copernicus was a scholarly Polish priest whose mathematical and philosophical ideas challenged our sense of place in the cosmos. He was born in 1473 in Toruń, Poland, and like his brother was sponsored by his uncle to attend Krakow University to study Latin, mathematics, astronomy, geography and philosophy in preparation for a career in the Church. The study of astronomy was particularly important for the clergy at this time, as they needed this expertise to devise the calendar and set the dates for important feast days.

As part of his studies, Copernicus read Latin translations of the works of Ancient Greek mathematicians such as Aristotle and Ptolemy. This interest in astronomy continued throughout Copernicus’s career, although he had to undertake further studies in medicine, astrology and canonical law to maintain his role within the Church. Nevertheless, his skills and interest in mathematics and astronomy were recognised in 1514 when a Church council requested him to investigate reforming the calendar. At the same time, Copernicus began to circulate a manuscript which outlined his criticisms of the Ptolemaic (Earth-centred) view of the universe. He was dissatisfied with the cumbersome mathematics and models, which contradicted his own views of a harmonious universe with the Sun at the centre and the planets surrounding in perfectly circular orbits.

Over the next 30 years Copernicus developed his ideas in his spare time and was eventually persuaded by his friend Rheticus (1514-74) to publish them. Thus Copernicus went on to write the book which we celebrate today, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). It was published in March 1543, just two months before Copernicus’s death in Frauenberg (now Frombork), Poland. Many scholars welcomed the practical value of his work, which enabled them to produce more accurate predictions of planetary positions, but they disagreed with his assertion that a Sun-centred (heliocentric) universe was a physical reality rather than just a mathematical model.

There are a few remaining artefacts relating to Copernicus and his work at the University of Krakow and in Frombork Museum, but our knowledge of his life is still limited. Fortunately, over 250 copies of the first edition of his book are known to exist and several items have been named in his honour, such as a crater on the Moon and the chemical element with the atomic number 112.

More recently, techniques used in archaeology and forensic science have been used to confirm that a grave discovered at Frombork Cathedral in 2005 contains the remains of Copernicus, and a memorial stone has now been installed to denote his final resting place.