Confessional Lutheran theology, hagiography, philosophy, music, culture, sports, education,
and whatever else is on the fevered mind of Orycteropus Afer
+ Nicolaus Copernicus +
24 May AD 1543
Mikołaj Kopernik was born in Poland in 1473. His parents died when he was twelve and his uncle Lucas Watzenrode
assumed responsibility for him and his three siblings. The uncle, soon to be Bishop of Ermland, sent him to the University of Cracow, where Mikołaj studied astronomy. He then matriculated at Bologna (Greek, mathematics, Plato), Padua (law and medicine), and Ferrara (Doctor of Canon Law). At some point during his studies he Latinized his name to the now familiar Nicolaus Copernicus.
He returned home after being elected a canon of Frauenberg Cathedral. There he assisted his uncle until Watzenrode's death. After this, he then opened a free medical clinic for the poor.
Nicolaus's varied interests included theology, poetry, and the natural and social sciences. He seems to have been the first person to formulate what is now known as Gresham's Law
, "Bad money drives out good." This means that if there are two kinds of coins in circulation having the same legal or face value, but one is more valuable in terms of its content, consumers will tend to hoard the more valuable coins and spend the less valuable. Soon only the cheaper coins will be in circulation. This idea has been proven out many times, including in the United States, as base metal coins chased their silver equivalents from circulation during the 1960s and beyond.
Above all else, we remember Nicolaus Copernicus as an astronomer. In his day, the common view of the world was the geocentric model
— the earth was motionless and all the heavenly bodies revolved around it. However, others held a heliocentric
view, believing that the earth moved about the sun. Already a century before Galileo's birth, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa wrote, "When we say that the earth does not move, we mean simply that the earth is the point with reference to which man makes his observations of celestial phenomena."
However, this view was much in the minority and most though that the science proved that the earth sat still amidst all Creation. At the same time, the notion that medieval medieval Christians thought the earth flat has been largely disproved. Among those who never held this view were Dante
, who referred to the earth as a sphere in the early 1300's and Thomas Aquinas
in the opening portion of his Summa Theologica
. Other early "round earth" Christians included the Venerable Bede
(see the upcoming post on Thursday) and Irenaeus
, already in the late 100s AD. At issue was the motion, not the shape, of the earth.
A unified theory of the cosmos remained a major stumbling block. Because he geocentric model was interwoven with related theories in philosophy, chemistry, physics, music, natural theology, and the like, it seemed that rejecting any single part endangered the whole theory. Ever more accurate measurements ot the celestial bodies, however, imposed ever more increasing burdens upon the defenders of geocentrism. The patches applied by astronomers and mathematicians couldn't cover all the old theory's holes
Copernicus proposed an elegantly simple solution — suppose that the sun, not the earth, was at the center. His first summary of this theory came in 1530 in a paper called the Commentariolus
("little commentary") and received papal approval. He spent the next thirteen years revising it and expanding his heliocentric theory to book length, all the while rechecking his calculations. As he continued, he constantly rewrote his arguments and delayed publication until absolutely certain that he'd not overlooked a thing.
When satisfied that he need add or change nothing, Copernicus entrusted the final draft to Georg Rheticus
, a former student who became a professor at Leipzig. Rhaeticus published it there. Lutheran pastor Andreas Osiander
added an unauthorized preface stating that the heliocentric model was only a device to simplify computations. He said that Copernicus wrote his heliocentric account as a mere mathematical hypothesis, not as anything containing truth or even great probability. Copernicus received delivery of the printed book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium
("On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres"), only a few hours before his death in 1543.
His work originally found little opposition. Perhaps it would have slowly entrenched itself throughout Western thought, but De Revolutionibus
ran into trouble because of Galileo Galilei
. When Galileo quarreled
with the Italian University establishment and then with the Pope, the whole geocentric model came into question. Because of this, Copernicus's book was placed on the Index donec corrigetur
("until it be corrected") from 1616 to 1758.
Some of Copernicus's ideas didn't stand the test of time. Because the circle was considered a much more elegant — even perfect — form, he resisted the notion of eliptical orbits (as did Galileo), settling instead for a much more cumbersome system of epicycles
. Even after Johannes Kepler
insisted that the ellipse was the only orbit that made sense of the data, acceptance of his thought took a number of years.Collect
Almighty God, who made the heavens to tell Your glory and the firmament to proclaim Your handiwork, we thank You for placing us in a universe governed by Your will according the to laws of Your creation and we bless You for giving us mind capable of studying Your creation and spirits capable of wonder at its majesty; today we praise you especially for the gifts of intellect that You pour out upon your servants Nicolas Copernicus and others, by whom our understanding of the nature of Your creation has been advanced, for our good and Your glory, who live and reign, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.