Happy 540th birthday to Renaissance mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus! The publication of Copernicus’ book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, is considered a major event in the history of science.
Best known for his treatise “On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres,” Copernicus asserted that the earth revolved around the sun contrary to the medieval belief that the earth was the center of the universe. The theory was viewed with suspicion by the Church, and his treatise was not published until 1543, the year of his death. Eventually the theory became the cornerstone for a future generation of scientists including Kepler and Galileo, but one of its ardent advocates, Italian cleric Giordano Bruno, was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1600.
De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) is the seminal work on the heliocentric theory. The book offered an alternative model of the universe to Ptolemy’s geocentric system, which had been widely accepted since ancient times. Copernicus initially outlined his system in a short, untitled, anonymous manuscript that he distributed to several friends, referred to as the Commentariolus. A physician’s library list dating to 1514 includes a manuscript whose description matches the Commentariolus, so Copernicus must have begun work on his new system by that time. Most historians believe that he wrote the Commentariolus after his return from Italy, possibly only after 1510. At this time, Copernicus anticipated that he could reconcile the motion of the Earth with the perceived motions of the planets easily, with fewer motions than were necessary in the Alfonsine Tables, the version of the Ptolemaic system current at the time.
Observations of Mercury by Bernhard Walther (1430–1504) of Nuremberg, a pupil of Regiomontanus, were made available to Copernicus by Johannes Schöner, 45 observations in total, 14 of them with longitude and latitude. Copernicus used three of them in De revolutionibus, giving only longitudes, and erroneously attributing them to Schöner. Copernicus’ values differed slightly from the ones published by Schöner in 1544 in Observationes XXX annorum a I. Regiomontano et B. Walthero Norimbergae habitae, [4°, Norimb. 1544].
Remarkably, a manuscript of De revolutionibus in Copernicus’ own hand has survived. After his death, it was given to his pupil, Rheticus, who for publication had only been given a copy without annotations. Via Heidelberg, it ended up in Prague, where it was rediscovered and studied in the 19th century. Close examination of the manuscript, including the different types of paper used, helped scholars construct an approximate timetable for its composition. Apparently Copernicus began by making a few astronomical observations to provide new data to perfect his models. He may have begun writing the book while still engaged in observations. By the 1530s a substantial part of the book was complete, but Copernicus hesitated to publish.
In 1539 Georg Joachim Rheticus, a young mathematician from Wittenberg, arrived in Frauenburg (Frombork) to study with him. Rheticus read Copernicus’ manuscript and immediately wrote a non-technical summary of its main theories in the form of an open letter addressed to Schöner, his astrology teacher in Nürnberg; he published this letter as the Narratio Prima in Danzig in 1540. Rheticus’ friend and mentor Achilles Gasser published a second edition of the Narratio in Basel in 1541. Due to its friendly reception, Copernicus finally agreed to publication of more of his main work—in 1542, a treatise on trigonometry, which was taken from the second book of the still unpublished De revolutionibus. Rheticus published it in Copernicus’ name.
Under strong pressure from Rheticus, and having seen that the first general reception of his work had not been unfavorable, Copernicus finally agreed to give the book to his close friend, Bishop Tiedemann Giese, to be delivered to Rheticus in Wittenberg for printing by Johannes Petreius at Nürnberg (Nuremberg). It was published just before Copernicus’ death, in 1543.
The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was been reburied in Poland in a lavish ceremony 467 years after his death. The astronomer’s processional transfer began at Olsztyn Castle in February, with extended stops at several northern Poland sites with which he had been connected along the way. During a Roman Catholic ritual, the remains were interred beneath the altar of Frombork Cathedral in northern Poland, where the astronomer had been the canon (head priest) and where he originally was buried in 1543. Copernicus died on 24 May 1543.
Commemorating the 540th birth anniversary of Nicolaus Copernicus, Google has posted a doodle which features an animated heliocentric model formulated by the Polish astronomer. The doodle shows the sun placed at the centre of the universe and has the Moon revolving around earth. It also depicts the then known five other planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – revolving around the sun.The second ‘O’ of the Google logo has been replaced with the sun, while the other letters of the word Google, written in Google’s characteristic Catull font, appear in the backdrop.