24 September 2014

Wonders and Marvels: Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus was a Polish astronomer, best known for his theory that the Sun and not the Earth is at the center of the universe.  He was born on February 19, 1473 in Torun, Poland and died on May 24, 1543 in Frombork, Poland.

His father was a merchant and local official. When Copernicus was 10, his father died, and his uncle, a priest, ensured that Copernicus received a good education. In 1491, he went to Krakow Academy, now the Jagiellonian University, and in 1496 travelled to Italy to study law. While a student at the University of Bologna he stayed with a mathematics professor, Domenico Maria de Novara, who encouraged Copernicus' interests in geography and astronomy.

During his time in Italy, Copernicus visited Rome and studied at the universities of Padua and Ferrara, before returning to Poland in 1503. For the next seven years he worked as a private secretary to his uncle, now the bishop of Ermland.

The bishop died in 1512 and Copernicus moved to Frauenberg, where he had long held a position as a canon, an administrative appointment in the church. This gave him more time to devote to astronomy. Although he did not seek fame, it is clear that he was by now well known as an astronomer. In 1514, when the Catholic church was seeking to improve the calendar, one of the experts to whom the pope appealed was Copernicus.

Copernicus' major work 'De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium' ('On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres') was finished by 1530. Its central theory was that the Earth rotates daily on its axis and revolves yearly around the sun. He also argued that the planets circled the Sun. This challenged the long held view that the Earth was stationary at the centre of the universe with all the planets, the Moon and the Sun rotating around it.

'De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium' was published in early 1543 and Copernicus died on 24 May in the same year.

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James Conroyd Martin is an Irish and Norwegian writer who found himself immersed in Polish culture when a friend told him of a diary of a countess that had been passed down through his family for generations. The diary of a Polish countess became the foundation of the novel Push Not the River and led to a trilogy that included Against a Crimson Sky and The Warsaw Conspiracy.