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Copernicus: Founder of Modern Astronomy

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• Part 2: Making His Mark

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Part 1: Early Years

The scientific vision of the solar system that we have today was made popular by Galileo Galilei—who was famously punished for his adherence to such an “outrageous idea”—and made mainstream by Isaac Newton and many others after him. The first proof of this idea, however, was published way back in 1453, by what was then an obscure scientist from Poland, Nicolas Copernicus.

Copernicus was born in Poland near the end of the 15th Century, when the scientific movement was flourishing. His father died when young Nicolas was 10, and the boy became the charge of a rich uncle, Lucas Watzenrode, who gave him what was then a tremendous gift—a good education. Among the subjects he studied at universities in Krakow, Bologna, and Padua were math, astronomy, astrology, medicine, and philosophy. When he was finished, he had a well-rounded education, including law and medicine degrees, and a profound interest in math and science.

It was as an astronomer that he would find his greatest fame and challenges. But in the true spirit of the day, he was these things as well: lawyer, tax collector, a doctor, military governor, and even judge.

In 1500, on a visit to Rome, Copernicus witnessed a lunar eclipse. This experience had a huge effect on the direction his life would take. He became fascinated with astronomy—even moreso than before—and had an observatory built in his home (in Frauenberg).

He was deeply troubled by the common belief—based on the writings of Aristotle—that Earth was the center of the universe and that the Sun revolved around Earth. The eclipse, Copernicus reasoned, was proof that another system was at work in the night sky. He had also made other observations that challenged the common beliefs on Earth’s place in the universal scheme. In 1514, he gave a few copies of a hand-written book to some friends. This tiny book, which he called Little Commentary, is the basis for our modern astronomy. In it, Copernicus lists these seven axioms:

  1. There is no one centre in the universe.
  2. The Earth's centre is not the centre of the universe.
  3. The centre of the universe is near the Sun.
  4. The distance from the Earth to the Sun is imperceptible compared with the distance to the stars.
  5. The rotation of the Earth accounts for the apparent daily rotation of the stars.
  6. The apparent annual cycle of movements of the Sun is caused by the Earth revolving round it.
  7. The apparent retrograde motion of the planets is caused by the motion of the Earth from which one observes.

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