An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: Nikolai Kopernik

Posted on March 5, 2015



When I was at university, I gained a real interest in astronomy. I always knew that the planets and the universe were pretty damn cool, but until then I didn’t realize just how awesome they were. The more I stop to think about it, the more in awe I become of this magical world in which I reside. Throughout history there have been many important figures in the world of astronomy, and one of the most important of those was a Polish renaissance mathematician who went by the name of Copernicus. Nikolai Kopernik, to be exact.

On February 2nd 1473, Nikolai was born in the northern city of Torun, then part of Royal Prussia in the Kingdom of Poland. His parents were merchants, his mother’s side far wealthier than his fathers, and much like Chopin he was the youngest of four children. His father was extremely engaged in politics at the time, and actively supported Poland in their battle against the Teutonic Knights. Nikolai’s father died when the future astronomer was just 10, and his uncle swooped into take the young lad under his wing.

Luckily for Nikolai, his uncle was a powerful figure in good contact with the leading Polish intellectuals. This made sure that the young Nikolai would receive the best education possible. This education started at St John’s School in Torun, before moving onto the cathedral school at Wloclawek, as preparation for his eventual move to the university of Krakow. He would leave for Krakow in 1491, where he would gain his thorough mathematical-astronomical grounding. He had a huge thirst for learning, which obviously stood him in good stead. He was also lucky to be a pupil of Albert Brudzewski, who was a professor of Philosophy but taught Astronomy privately. It was at this time that Nikolai began collecting his vast library on Astronomy.

Strangely for such an intelligent chap however, he left Krakow without finishing a degree. His uncle had received a promotion to Prince-Bishop of Warmia, and he requested that Nikolai be placed in the Warmla canonry. Before he could be installed however, he was sent to Italy to study Canon Law. In 1496, Nikolai Kopernik headed to Bologna. He barely spent any time on Canon Law however, and quickly moved over to Humanities and Astronomy. He began to develop new ideas, in particular in opposition to the widely accepted theory of moon motion put forward by Ptolemy earlier. The peculiarities that he observed here reinforced his bubbling doubts with regards to the widely accepted geocentric system that the Sun orbited around the Earth.

Astronomy began to dominate his every day life. He also studied Medicine at the time, and looked into but quickly dismissed Astrology. In 1503 he received his degree as a Doctor of Canon Law and promptly returned to Warmia at the age of 30. Whilst working as his uncles secretary and physician, he began to work intently on his heliocentric theory of orbit. The observations that he made between 1512 and 1515 of Mars and Saturn suggested to him there was variability in Earth’s eccentricity. His system began to take shape.

In 1514 his initial outline of heliocentric theory was complete. Titled ‘Commentariolus’ (English: Little Commentary), it was a theoretical description of his idea that the Earth travelled around the Sun, all be it one that was devised without the use of any mathematical apparatus. The ‘Little Commentary’ was never intended for distribution. In many ways, this was his first draft. It would only appear in print for the first time in 1878, being only available to close friends at the time. The instruments he used were fairly primitive, based on the same ones used in ancient times.

As 1516 came around, Nikolai would move to live in Olszytn Castle. The Teutonic Knights would soon besiege the town, and it was Kopernik who directed the defence. He really was quite a remarkable chap. He also advised the local Royal Prussian sejmik on their monetary reform. Oh, and he spoke Latin, German and Polish (all fluently), as well as conversational Greek and Italian. He was something of a polymath, this Copernicus chap. In 1526 he would write a study on the value on money. There wasn’t really much he couldn’t do.

After the reception of ‘Commentariolus’, he went on to gather further data for a more detailed piece of work. Around 1532, this was practically completed, which is an all-together far too throwaway phrase for the importance of what he was doing. He resisted publishing his work though, for fear of reprisals from the heavily religious Poles. A series of lectures were given in Rome in 1533 outlining the basic aspects of his theory, and it turned out that the pope and several cardinals were particularly interested in his work, for positive reasons. Indeed, he would receive a letter from the Archbishop of Capua, urging him to publish his work. Rumours of his theory began to spread all over Europe, but Nikolai resisted in going ahead with the publishing of the book.

Rheticus was taken on as his student in 1539, and the book finally got closer and closer to being published. In confidence, Nikolai gave Rheticus a manuscript in the hope that he would write a popularization of the theory. Rheticus would go on to convince Kopernik to publish. Finally, Nikolai gave in, and the book was published. It wasn’t published as a theory however, as he believed that there could only be one true theory. Instead, it was published as a description. Nikolai Kopernik died on May 24th 1543, of Apoplexy and Paralysis. The myth is that he awoke on his deathbed, was presented with a copy of his book, smiled, and passed on. I see no reason to question it, true or not.

So what was this grand theory of his? Well, the idea that the planets orbited the Sun wasn’t exactly an entirely fresh one. Philolaus (480-385BC) had described a system that contained a central fire. Many parts of the Copernican system are close to ideas espoused in Islamic Astronomy also, which had flirted with heliocentricity before, but no more than flirting. Kopernik’s book, published in 1543 and titled ‘On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres’, put forward that the Earth wasn’t the centre of the universe, merely the centre of its own gravity and lunar sphere. It single handedly reignited Astronomy in Europe. Previously astronomers had merely attempted to refine Ptolemy’s ‘Almagest’ system. They were still using the same textbook that was taught in the 1200s.

And that is where Kopernik shined. Instead of patching up an old broken theory, he started afresh, started new. He proposed that all the planets circled the Sun. It certainly wasn’t flawless, but it used far less assumptions than any previously put forward idea. He managed to work out his system in full mathematical detail. This combination of mathematics and physics was revolutionary at the time. Revolutionary is the right word, as this was the first step in the much-needed Scientific Revolution.