Occupation: Astronomer, Mathematician, Clergyman
Year born: 1473
Research Areas: Planets, Mechanics
"...Finally we shall place the Sun himself at the center of the Universe. All this is suggested by the systematic procession of events and the harmony of the whole Universe, if only we face the facts, as they say, "with both eyes open."
Source: The Copernican Revolution : Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought (1957) by Thomas S. Kuhn
Nicolaus was born in Thorn, Poland. His father, who sold copper, died when Nicolaus was 10. After his father's death, Nicolaus’ uncle looked after him and made sure he had a good education. When he was 23, Nicolaus went to Italy to study law. In Italy, he stayed with a maths professor and became interested in astronomy.
Nicolaus followed in his uncle’s footsteps and worked for the Catholic Church. At the same time he was spending lots of time doing astronomy. He observed stars, eclipses, and the movements of the planets. In 1514, the Pope asked Nicolaus to help improve the calendar. Nicolaus began to think about his observations of planets in the night sky. He thought about why we have day and night, and why we have years.
Nicolaus used his astronomy and maths skills to develop a new model of the Solar System with the sun at its centre. We call this kind of model, ‘heliocentric’. In his model, the planets all moved around the stationary Sun. Nicolaus calculated that the Earth rotated on its axis each day, and orbited the Sun each year.
Nicolaus delayed making his work public until just before his death, aged 70. This may have been because he was unsure that people would accept his ideas. The heliocentric model went against the science of the time which the Church believed in. In fact, his book ‘On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres’ did not cause much controversy when it was published. It was not until over 70 years’ later that the Catholic Church took action against Galileo for supporting Nicolaus’ ideas.
Nicolaus’ work led to a huge shift in astronomy. The Copernican Revolution let us learn that the Sun, not the Earth, is the centre of the Solar System.
Nicolaus has been honoured in many ways. The element Copernicum is named after him, as is a genus of palm trees, and an exoplanet. There is a monument to him in Warsaw, Poland and the Episcopal Church named a feast day for him.
Nicolaus spoke many languages. It is thought that he spoke Latin, German, Polish, Greek, Italian as well as some Hebrew.