Nicolau Copernicus

Nicolau Copernicus
Detail from a 19th-century copy of a 16th-century portrait of Nicolau Copernicus by an unknown artist, now in the State Library in Krakow. Public Domain; courtesy of Wikimedia

This profile of Nicolau Copernicus is part of
Who's Who in Medieval History


Nicolau Copernicus was also known as:

The Father of Modern Astronomy. His name is sometimes spelled Nicolaus, Nicolas, Nicholas, Nikalaus or Nikolas; in Polish, Mikolaj Kopernik, Niclas Kopernik or Nicolaus Koppernigk.

Nicolau Copernicus was known for:

Recognizing and promoting the idea that the Earth revolved around the sun. Although he was not the first scientist to propose it, his bold return to the theory (first proposed by Aristarchus of Samos in the 3rd-century B.C.) had significant and far-reaching effects in the evolution of scientific thought.



Places of Residence and Influence:

Europe: Poland

Important Dates:

Born: Feb. 19, 1473
Died: May 24, 1543

About Nicolau Copernicus:

Copernicus studied liberal arts, which included both astronomy and astrology as part of the "science of the stars," at the University of Kraków, but left before completing his degree. He resumed his studies at the University of Bologna, where he lived in the same house as Domenico Maria de Novara, the principal astronomer there. Copernicus assisted de Novara in some of his observations and in the production of the annual astrological forecasts for the city. It is at Bologna that he probably first encountered the works of Regiomontanus, whose translation of Ptolemy's Almagest would make it possible for Copernicus to successfully refute the ancient astronomer.

Later, at the University of Padua, Copernicus studied medicine, which was closely associated with astrology at that time due to the belief that the stars influenced the dispositions of the body. He finally received a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara, an institution he'd never attended.

Returning to Poland, Copernicus secured a scholastry (an in abstentia teaching post) at Wroclaw, where he primarily worked as a medical doctor and manager of Church affairs. In his spare time, he studied the stars and the planets (decades before the telescope was invented), and applied his mathematical understanding to the mysteries of the night sky. In so doing, he developed his theory of a system in which the Earth, like all the planets, revolved around the sun, and which simply and elegantly explained the curious retrograde movements of the planets.

Copernicus wrote his theory in De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium ("On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs"). The book was completed in 1530 or so, but it wasn't published until the year he died. Legend has it that a copy of the printer's proof was placed in his hands as he lay in a coma, and he woke long enough to recognize what he was holding before he died.

More Copernicus Resources:

Portrait of Nicolau Copernicus
Nicolau Copernicus in Print

The Life of Nicolaus Copernicus: Disputing the Obvious
Biography of Copernicus from Nick Greene, former Guide to Space/Astronomy.

Nicolau Copernicus on the Web

Nicolaus Copernicus
Admiring, substantial biography from a Catholic perspective, by J. G. Hagen at the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Nicolaus Copernicus: 1473 - 1543
This bio at the MacTutor site includes very straightforward explanations of some of Copernicus's theories, as well as photos of some places significant to his life.
Nicolaus Copernicus
Extensive, well-supported examination of the astronomer's life and works by Sheila Rabin at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Medieval Mathematics and Astronomy
Medieval Poland

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Snell, Melissa. "Nicolau Copernicus." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Snell, Melissa. (2021, February 16). Nicolau Copernicus. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "Nicolau Copernicus." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).