Copernicus Nicholas

Copernicus, Nicholas (1473-1543) Polish churchman and astronomer who proposed that the planets revolve around a fixed Sun. ('Copernicus' is the Latinized form of his name, by which he is almost always known; the Polish form is Mikolaj Kopernik.) Through his study of planetary motions, he developed a heliocentric theory of the Universe in which the planets' motions in the sky were explained by having them orbit the Sun, as opposed to the geocentric (Earth-centred) model that had been favoured since the days of aristotle and ptolemy. The motion of the sky was now simply a result of the Earth's axial rotation, and, relative to the celestial sphere, the stars remained fixed as the Earth orbited the Sun because they were so distant. An account of his work, de revolutionibus orbium coelestium, was published in 1543.

Copernicus studied canonical law and medicine at the universities of Cracow, Bologna and Padua. At Bologna (1496-1500), he learned astronomy and astrology from Domenico de Novara (1454-1504), using his observations of the 1497 March 9 lunar occultation of Aldebaran to calculate the Moon's diameter. Copernicus returned to Poland in 1503, as a canon in the cathedral chapter of Warmia; he also practised medicine but maintained a lively interest in astronomy, being invited (1514) to reform the julian calendar.

In Copernicus' day it was universally accepted that the Earth was solidly fixed at the centre of the cosmos. Ptolemy had explained planetary motions by having epicycles turn on larger circles around each planet's orbit (see ptolemaic system). Copernicus explored the consequences of fixing the Sun in the centre of the planetary system, with the Earth and the other planets orbiting it. Being a classical scholar rather than a self-conscious innovator, he began to examine the ancient Greek writers to see whether precedents for a heliocentric system existed, and found several, most notably in the writings of Heraclides of Pontus (388-315 bc) and aristarchus of Samos. Precisely what motivated Copernicus' radical departure from traditional astronomy is not known, but it is likely that he was also influenced by works that were critical of the Ptolemaic system, including the Epitome of Ptolemy's Almagest by regiomontanus and Disputations Against Divinatory Astrology by Giovanni della Mirandola (1463-94). While in Cracow, he may have encountered the writings of al-tuIsiI.

In the copernican system, the epicycles of the superior planets (Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) could be discarded because their motions were explained by the effects of the Earth's orbit around a centralized Sun; for the inferior planets (Mercury and Venus) Copernicus centred their epicycles on the Sun instead of on separate carrying circles. Mercury, the swiftest planet, was closest to the Sun, and Saturn, the slowest, orbited at the outer bound of the Solar System, the other planets falling into place according to their periods of revolution.

In 1514 Copernicus first described his new model of the Solar System in a small tract, the commentariolus ('Little Commentary'), which he distributed to only a few colleagues. The heliocentric theory was set forth in greater detail by his student rhaeticus in the work Narratio prima, published in 1540/41. Copernicus' famous book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, considered to be the definitive statement of his system of planetary motions, did not appear until the year of his death. It was Rhaeticus who had finally persuaded him to publish. Copernicus' reticence had had nothing to do with fear of persecution by the Catholic Church: as an ecclesiastical lawyer, he knew that the Church had no dogmatic rulings on scientific matters. What he had feared was academic ridicule in Europe's universities for seeming to contradict common sense.

In De revolutionibus, Copernicus refuted the ancient arguments for the immobility of the Earth, citing the advantages of the new Sun-centred model, which correctly ordered the planets by the rate at which they appeared to move through the heavens, and explaining the phenomenon of retrograde motion. He correctly explained that the motions of the stars that would be produced by a moving Earth were not observable simply because the stars were so far away - 'so vast, without any question, is the divine handiwork of the Almighty Creator'.

Following the publication of De revolutionibus, most astronomers considered the Copernican system as merely a hypothetical scheme - a means of predicting planetary positions, lacking any basis in physical reality and impossible to confirm by astronomical observations. Most astronomers continued to follow Aristotle's physics, in which the Earth was viewed as a perfect, immovable body rather than a transient, moving entity, while the Ptolemaic system actually gave more accurate planetary positions than Copernicus' original scheme. Not until the discoveries of Johannes KEPLER and GALILEO did the Copernican system begin to make physical as well as geometrical sense. As a consequence of Galileo's writings, De revolutionibus was in 1616 placed on the Index of prohibited books by the Catholic Church. The book was not actually banned, however, but small alterations were introduced to make the Copernican system appear entirely hypothetical. But by then Copernicus' book was already being superseded by Kepler's Astronomia nova (1609) and the Rudolphine Tables (1627), which provided the basis for explaining the irregularities in the motions of the planets that had not been satisfactorily accounted for in Copernican system.

Copernicus Large lunar crater (10°N 20°W), known for its complex system of EJECTA and bright RAYS. Situated on the north shore of Mare Nubium, Copernicus dominates the Moon's north-west quadrant. The crater's lava-flooded floor, 92 km (57 mi) wide with multiple central peaks, lies nearly 4 km (2.5 mi) below its highly detailed walls. Dominating the inner ramparts of Copernicus are massive arc-shaped landslides, which formed by collapse and subsidence of the debris left over from the violent impact that created the main crater. A bright, broad (30 km/20 mi) blanket of ejecta surrounds the polygonal walls. Beyond this ring of bright material, Copernicus' majestic rays, best seen at full moon, radiate for hundreds of kilometres. These features testify to the relative 'youth' of Copernicus, which is 800 million years old. Numerous chains of craterlets curve outwards from the main crater in every direction.

Twin mountain ridges, running roughly east-west and separated by a spacious valley, divide the floor of Copernicus in half. The north group of mountains is composed of three major peaks of modest altitudes, the highest peak attaining 750 m (2400 ft). The south ridge, with a huge pyramidal mountain at its centre, is longer than the north ridge.

Nicholas Copernicus

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This book is a facsimile reprint plus could contain imperfections like marks, notations, marginalia plus flawed pages.