Copernicus, Sun, Earth, and Sweet Science

CopernicusOn February 19, 1473, Nicolaus Copernicus is born in Torun, a city in north-central Poland on the Vistula River. The father of modern astronomy, he was the first modern European scientist to propose that Earth and other planets revolve around the sun.

Copernicus was named after his father, a well to do merchant who dealt primarily in copper. After his father’s death in 1483, his maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger took the boy under his wing and saw to his education and career. While there are no surviving primary documents on the early years of Copernicus’ childhood and education., it is believed that Watzenrode first sent young Copernicus to St. John’s School, at Toruń, where he himself had been a master. He then attended the Cathedral School at Włocławek, up the Vistula River from Toruń, which prepared pupils for entrance to the University of Kraków, Watzenrode’s alma mater in Poland’s capital. Copernicus then attended the University of Krakow where he studied liberal arts, including astronomy and astrology.

Without taking a degree, probably in the fall of 1495, Copernicus left Kraków for the court of his uncle Watzenrode, who in 1489 had been elevated to Prince-Bishop of Warmia and sought to place his nephew in the Warmia canonry vacated by the 26 August 1495 death of its previous tenant, Jan Czanow. For unclear reasons—probably due to opposition from part of the chapter, who appealed to Rome—Copernicus’ installation was delayed, inclining Watzenrode to send his nephew to study canon law in Italy, seemingly with a view to furthering their ecclesiastic careers and thereby also strengthening his own influence in the Warmia chapter
While studying at the University of Bologna, he lived for a time in the home of Domenico Maria de Novara, the principal astronomer at the university. Novara had the responsibility of issuing astrological prognostications for Bologna. Copernicus sometimes assisted him in his observations, and Novara exposed him to criticism of both astrology and aspects of the Ptolemaic system, which placed Earth at the center of the universe.

Copernicus later studied at the University of Padua and in 1503 received a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara. He returned to Warmia where assumed various duties in the court of the Prince Bishop of Warmia. In his free time, he dedicated himself to scholarly pursuits, which sometimes included astronomical work. By 1514, his reputation as an astronomer was such that he was consulted by the Bishop of Fossombrone to assist with attempts to reform the Julian calendar. A treatise by the Bishop, Secundum compendium correctionis Calendarii (1516), mentions Copernicus among the learned men who had sent the Council proposals for the calendar’s emendation.

Sometime between 1508 and 1514, he wrote a short astronomical treatise commonly called the Commentariolus, or “Little Commentary,” which laid the basis for his heliocentric (sun-centered) system. In this work, which was only made available to his friends, he correctly postulated the order of the known planets, including Earth, from the sun, and estimated their orbital periods relatively accurately.

In his life’s work, Copernicus’ groundbreaking argument that Earth and the planets revolve around the sun led him to make a number of other major astronomical discoveries. While revolving around the sun, Earth, he argued, spins on its axis daily. Earth takes one year to orbit the sun and during this time wobbles gradually on its axis, which accounts for the precession of the equinoxes. Major flaws in the work include his concept of the sun as the center of the whole universe, not just the solar system, and his failure to grasp the reality of elliptical orbits, which forced him to incorporate numerous epicycles into his system, as did Ptolemy. With no concept of gravity, Earth and the planets still revolved around the sun on giant transparent spheres.


Because of these problems and others, Copernicus delayed publication of his major astronomical work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri vi, or “Six Books Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs,” nearly all his life. Completed around 1530, it was not published until 1543–the year of his death. Legend has it that he was presented with the final printed pages of his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium on the very day that he died, allowing him to take farewell of his life’s work. He is reputed to have awoken from a stroke-induced coma, looked at his book, and then died peacefully

In his dedication to De revolutionibus–an extremely dense scientific work–Copernicus noted that “mathematics is written for mathematicians.” If the work were more accessible, many would have objected to its non-biblical and hence heretical concept of the universe. For decades, De revolutionibus remained unknown to all but the most sophisticated astronomers, and most of these men, while admiring some of Copernicus’ arguments, rejected his heliocentric basis. It was not until the early 17th century that Galileo and Johannes Kepler developed and popularized the Copernican theory, which for Galileo resulted in a trial and conviction for heresy. Following Isaac Newton’s work in celestial mechanics in the late 17th century, acceptance of the Copernican theory spread rapidly in non-Catholic countries, and by the late 18th century it was almost universally accepted.

In celebration to the dedication and advancement of truth and knowledge despite the objections of the establishment, Deputy Dave’s Drink of the Day: Sweet Science
1 ½ oz Scotch Whiskey
½  oz Drambuie
1 ½ oz Orange Juice

Shake well over ice cubes in a shaker, strain into a cocktail glass, and serve.


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