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Copernicus, Nicolaus (1473–1543) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

copernicus’ century astronomical university

Given that we have only nineteen of Copernicus’ letters—all of a rather formal nature—it is unlikely that a twentieth-century playwright like Berthold Brecht would base an epic drama on his personal and intellectual struggles. In this respect, Copernicus and Galileo seem polar opposites. In fact, study of the development of Copernicus’ thought provides us with a number of puzzles. He had something of a poetic temperament. The greatest sixteenth-century astronomer, best known by his Latin name, Nicolaus Copernicus, was born Mikolaj Kopernik to a prominent family in Prussian Poland at Thorn (Torun on the Vistula) on 19 February 1473.

Copernicus’ first intellectual home was the University of Cracow—in some ferment over the “new learning’’—which he probably attended from 1491 to 1494. He then went to the University of Bologna, where he studied Greek and Latin literature, mathematics, and astronomy. Elected, at the young age of fourteen, canon of Frauenburg (Frombork), he lectured on mathematics in Rome for the jubilee celebration in 1500 and continued his studies at the great University of Padua in law, theology, and medicine with occasional trips home, where he practiced as a physician among the poor almost up to the time of his death. He also took a special interest in problems of currency in Poland and circulated a work on money reform that was not published until 1816. He died in Frauenburg on 24 May 1543.


That Copernicus’ sole disciple Rhaticus’ great work was in the form of pure calculations in the form of manuals of sines, cosines, and tangents—essentially the book of trigonometry that led to so many practical results from astronomical measurements to survey—may suggest that the disciple was making up for the failings of his master. In Copernicus’ case, that would be the absence of adequate proof of his heliocentric theory in De Revolutionibus in the form of unfudged astronomical readings. Luckily, Copernicus avoided—in the tense era of the Inquisition—suffering immediate controversy over an innovation that gradually gained general scientific acceptance. Throughout his lifetime his astronomical findings found more support from Roman Catholic authorities than Protestants. He was excoriated by Luther in his Table Talk yet received unusual support from Pope Clement VII. The first vernacular versions of passages of De Revolutionibus were developed in Thomas Digges’ Commentaries upon the Revolutions of Copernicus toward the end of the sixteenth century in England. William Gilbert* was a convert.

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