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Copernicus, Nicolaus,

copernicus’s earth idea apparent

Mikolaj Kopernik ( Pol ) [ko per nikuhs] (1473–1543) Polish astronomer: proposed heliocentric cosmology.

Copernicus was the nephew of a prince bishop. Having studied mathematics, law and medicine in Poland and Italy, Copernicus was for most of his life a canon at Frauenburg Cathedral, his duties being largely administrative. Working mainly from the astronomical literature rather than from his own observations, he showed that a cosmology in which Earth and the planets rotate about the Sun offered a simpler explanation of planetary motions than the geocentric model of , which had been universally accepted for well over 1000 years. He circulated his preliminary ideas privately in a short manuscript in 1514 and continued to develop the theory over the next 30 years. Among his suggestions was the idea that the fixed stars were much further away than had previously been thought and that their apparent motion at night (and the Sun’s motion by day) was due to Earth’s daily rotation about its axis, but he retained the conventional idea that the planets moved in perfectly circular orbits. His ideas were first fully described in his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (The Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres) which, although complete by 1530, was not published until 1543. Copernicus himself may only have seen the published book on the day he died.

Copernicus’s ideas were immediately criticized by other astronomers, notably , who argued that if the Earth was moving then the fixed stars ought to show an apparent movement by parallax also. Copernicus’s answer to this, that the stars were too far away for parallax to be apparent, was rejected on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the accepted size of the universe. The idea of a moving Earth was also hard to accept. The Church later officially banned De revolutionibus in 1616 and did not remove it from its Index of Forbidden Books until 1835.

Copernicus’s view that the Sun was the centre of the solar system gained credence from work on Jupiter’s moons in 1609; but the parallax of a fixed star was not measured until 1838 by . However, the idea of a heliocentric (Suncentred) system, with a moving Earth, had been accepted as a reality and not a mere mathematical device long before that; and Copernicus’s circular orbits for planets had been replaced by elliptical orbits by 1609. The ‘Scientific Revolution’ is often dated from Copernicus’s work, reaching its climax with about 150 years later. In the same year (1543) that Copernicus’s De revolutionibus appeared, book On The Structure of the Human Body was published; men’s views of nature were changing fast.

Copernicus, Nicolaus (1473–1543) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION [next] [back] Cooper, Leon Neil

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