Best known for his challenge to the geocentric cosmology of Ptolemy, Nicolaus Copernicus was a man of diverse accomplishments. Canon lawyer, soldier, mathematician, physician, economist, astronomer, and (this is not certain) priest, Copernicus’s fields of study spanned the spectrum. His heliocentric theory sparked a scientific renaissance, commonly termed the Copernican Revolution.
Born in the Prussian city of Thorn on February 19, 1473, Copernicus was the son of a wealthy Polish merchant. His mother was the sister of the future bishop of Ermland. After the death of his parents when he was twelve years old, he was raised by his uncle the bishop. From 1491 Nicolaus attended the University of Cracow, where he studied mathematics and the classics, and in 1496 the University of Bologna, where he studied canon law and astronomy.
At the latter institution he came under the tutelage of the astronomer Novarra, who secured a professorship for him at the University of Rome. Copernicus was formally installed as a canon at Frauenburg in Ermland around 1500. He later obtained a leave of absence from his canonry and returned to Italy to finish his studies, receiving twin doctorates–one in canon law from the University of Ferrara, the other in medicine from the University of Padua.
He returned to Frauenburg, where he managed to fulfill his duties as canon of the cathedral while continuing as a practicing physician and personal secretary to his uncle. He found time to command the defense of the province from an attack by the Teutonic Knights, and he issued a treatise on monetary reform which normalized the system of weights and measures.
Alongside all of these activities, Copernicus continued to record regular and detailed observations of the planetary bodies. His astronomical research would eclipse (no pun intended) his other accomplishments and would rearrange man’s Earth-centered conceptual universe.
In a minor astronomical work, Commentariolus, not printed during his lifetime, he first proposed a heliocentric theory of cosmology, placing the sun at the center of the solar system. This led many of his friends to request that he publish his findings. Among these were Cardinal Schonberg of the Roman Curia, Bishop Giese of Culm, and the future Pope Paul III. Schonberg insisted that Copernicus publish his material in the interest of science.
A young Lutheran scholar, Rheticus, left his chair of mathematics at Wittenberg (where, in 1517, Martin Luther had posted his 95 theses on a church door) to work with Copernicus in Poland and to prepare the scientist’s manuscripts for publication–an early example of ecumenical cooperation. A summary of Coper-nicus’s findings was released, and it met with tremendous hostility from Protestant theologians; there was no such general hostility from Catholics. Rheticus was barred from returning to his post at Wittenberg.
At the insistence of Clement VII the material was expanded into the great work of Copernicus’ career, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), which officially proposed a sun-centered theory to the world. The printed book, dedicated to Clement’s successor, Paul III, reached Copernicus just hours before his death on May 24, 1543.
In 1616, when the Galileo affair was underway, a handful of clerics managed to put De Revolutionibus on the Index of Prohibited Books; no one could read it until certain passages were corrected. Fewer than ten sentences, characterizing the heliocentric theory as fact rather than hypothesis, had to be changed. In 1758 the book was removed, belatedly, from the Index.
Not immediately accepted by the majority of scientists, the heliocentric theory proposed by Copernicus eventually gained universal support and led to revolutionary changes in the scientific world. Controversialists who claim the Galileo Case “proves” the Catholic Church opposed scientific advances seem reluctant to note that Copernicus’s work on the heliocentric theory would not have been completed had not Churchmen urged him on.