A renaissance scientist, Nicolaus Copernicus, had actually set the stage for modern astronomy. Born on 19 February 1473, in modern day Torun in Poland, Copernicus was a revolutionary astronomer and mathematician. He turned Renaissance science on its head with the notion that planets did not revolve around the Earth. He illuminated a new path of knowledge, thus transforming how scientists thought about the many mysteries of the universe. Copernicus reassured the world of science that to know or not to know a fact is already in the mind. He famously once said, “To know that we know what we know and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”
His father died when Copernicus was only 10 years old and he was adopted by his uncle who was a priest. At 18, he went to Italy for his education and his ambition was to follow in his uncle&’s footsteps. A part of his education entailed the study of astrology and reading the stars in order to learn about future events. When he attended Bologna&’s university he worked with a professor of astronomy, Domenico Maria de Novara who was conducting research and studying observations of the firmament. When Copernicus returned to Poland his room was in one of the towers surrounding the town of Frombork and it also had an observatory enabling him to study the night sky. People would watch him in amazement looking up at the sky and appearing detached from the earth and its people. None could fathom the subject of his observations.
During Copernicus’ lifetime most people believed that the Earth was placed at the centre of the universe and the sun, stars and every planet revolved round it. There was a mathematical problem with this theory. Some planets, on occasion, would travel backward across the sky and this was observed to have occurred for several consecutive nights. Astronomers called this retrograde motion. Nola Taylor Redd, writer for space.com explained astronomer Ptolemy&’s view that a number of circles within circles, called epicycles, were incorporated depicting the inside of a planet&’s path. This was thought to complicate the theory and was not followed subse-quently. Although the retrograde motion baffled ancient astronomers during the time of Copernicus, it was later observed that it was only an illusion caused by the motion of the Earth. Incredibly, it was another factor, which added credence to Copernicus’ notion of the Earth&’s revolution on its axis.
By 1514, Copernicus was devoting all his efforts to astronomy. Powerful leaders of the time, including the Pope, turned to Copernicus for astronomical advice. It was during the same year that Copernicus distributed handwritten pamphlets to his friends outlining his theory that the sun and not the Earth, sat at the centre of the universe. Despite the theory not being flawless it did solve a persistent problem of why planets, at times, appeared to orbit in reverse. The theory was radical and Copernicus could not formally publish it until 1543. But subsequent to that year, it took almost a century for his theories to be accepted.
Copernicus’ book, on its own, showed the results of his arduous observations of the sky at night. To publish such radical studies in an age when many thoughts were established by religion, also required courage as evidenced through his revolutionary book in Latin titled, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. The central theory in it was that the Earth rotates daily on its axis and revolves yearly around the sun and in turn, planets revolve around the sun. We later learnt that planets actually orbit around the Sun with its gravity keeping them in orbit.
Copernicus challenged the long held view that the Earth was stationary at the centre of the universe. It instantly rocked the Renaissance world and sparked a scientific revolution. His successors Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei carried the baton forward till his theories were perpetuated through the passage of time and gained acceptance.
A person who deeply influenced the astronomical world, NASA paid tribute to him by naming a 93 km-wide lunar crater as Copernicus crater. By moving the Earth from the centre of the universe, he transformed astronomy from an addendum into the field of study it is today. In honour of his recent 543rd birth anniversary, it would be apt to thank Copernicus, in Latin, Gratias tibi, Nicolaus.