‘Earth moving, Sun stopping’ astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus, revolutionised our understanding of the universe
Five centuries ago, an astronomer proposed that the planets move around the sun, challenging the idea that the Earth is the centre of the universe.
That astronomer was Nicolaus Copernicus, or Mikołaj Kopernik in Polish, who was born in Toruń on 19 February 1473. The youngest of four children, he grew up in a merchant family. After his father’s death, he was educated by his uncle, who became bishop of the chapter of Warmia.
At the University of Kraków between 1491 and 1494, he studied the liberal arts, including astronomy and astrology, but did not finish his degree. After that, he resumed his studies at the University of Bologna, where he lived in the same house as Italian astronomer Domenico Maria Novara, who had a major influence on him.
After returning to Poland permanently in 1503 at the age of 30, he worked on astronomy in his spare time alongside his official duties as a church canon. This was still a time when astronomers observed the sky with the naked eye – Galileo, the first person to a telescope, was born more than twenty years after Copernicus’ death.
Copernicus is believed to have come up with his “Helio-centric” (literally “sun-centred”) vision of the universe early in the early 1500s. This was a controversial idea at the time, as it presented the Earth as just another planet moving around the Sun, potentially challenging passages in the Bible.
“There may be babblers, wholly ignorant of mathematics, who dare to condemn my hypothesis, upon the authority of some part of the Bible twister to suit their purpose. I value them not, and scorn their unfounded judgement,” he wrote later.
His observations were circulated in a document entitled the Commentariolus (“The Little Commentary”) in 1514. The final version of his theory was published in his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri vi (“Six Books Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs”), which was printed in 1543, the year he died.
Almost 550 years after his birth, Copernicus remains one of the world’s best-known astronomers. Numerous institutions in Poland and abroad have been named after him, including the university in Toruń (his hometown), the Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw and even the EU’s programme for Earth observation.
In 2008, researchers said they had identified Corpernicus’s remains after comparing DNA from a skeleton and hair retrieved from one of the 16th-century astronomer's books.
Copernicus was known to have been buried in the 14th-century Cathedral in Frombork where he served as a canon, but his grave was not marked.
Polish archaeologist Jerzy Gassowski said that forensic facial reconstruction of the skull that his team found buried in the Cathedral bore striking resemblance to portraits of Copernicus.
And DNA from a tooth and bone matched that taken from two hairs retrieved from a book that the 16th-century Polish astronomer owned.
This article was first published in February 2019.