Pioneer Astronomers in History: A Biography of Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus

The pioneer astronomer credited with placing the sun at the center of the solar system was Nicolaus Copernicus.  This short biography will discuss Copernicus’ life and highlight some of his notable accomplishments.

Nicolaus Copernicus was born during the Renaissance on February 19, 1473.  His birthplace was in the Kingdom of Poland, in a town called Toruń (Thorn).  Toruń is a very old city in northern Poland located on the Vistula River.  His father was a merchant and his mother was the daughter of a merchant.  He had one brother and two sisters.

Copernicus attended the University of Krakow where he studied astronomy, mathematics, and geometry.  He was also exposed to the philosophical and physical science teachings of Aristotle and Ptolemy.  These early influences shaped his thinking of the structure of the heavens.


Copernicus' Heliocentric System

In 1497 Copernicus enrolled in the University of Bologna in Italy to study canon law.  In 1500 he traveled to Rome where he studied medicine and law.  After he finished his university studies, he practiced medicine for about six years – from 1506 until 1512 in Heilsberg.

His real passion, however, was astronomy.  Throughout his life, he was intent on understanding how the earth, sun and stars moved in the sky.  He spent much of his free time in observatories watching the heavens.  In 1513, he began writing his first thoughts about his heliocentric system, which stated that the Sun – not the Earth was at the center of the Universe.  His thinking culminated in a book he published on the subject in 1543.  The book was called On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.

To his credit, Nicolaus Copernicus was many years ahead of his time.  The current thinking at the time was that the Earth was the center of the Universe and all the stars and planets revolved around it.  It wasn’t until the mid 1600’s that the works of Galileo, Newton, and Kepler provided strong theoretical evidence that he was, in fact, right.

Copernicus died in Frombork, Poland on May 24, 1543.

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