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Copernicus in His Prime

Philip Morrison

Nicolaus Copernicus is the Latinate name of the renowned astronomer and polymath, born in 1473 to a well-placed mercantile family in the Polish town of Torun. (Note that in those parts, national frontiers, place names and even shorelines shift over the centuries.) The bright boy, who at age 10 lost his father, found a generous guardian in his uncle Lucas, who soon became a bishop, his see including the Frombork cathedral, set on the shore of the delta of the river Vistula in northern Poland. Mathematics and astronomy drew the young student in time to the national university at Kraków. He continued study at three celebrated Italian universities and returned to Baltic shores at around age 30, as Doctor of Canon Law, Licentiate in Medicine and astronomical revolutionary.

For years thereafter he attended his bishop uncle as official physician; in fact, most of his life was passed fulfilling a dozen diverse appointments as a church official going wherever in stormy times a learned and productive mind was of use. He made maps, attended legislative bodies, held a variety of fiscal posts, acted as diplomat and as civil and military inspector, even wrote a treatise on the minting of money by the new Prussian states. With age he rose to higher administrative positions, although he probably never became a priest.

By his thirties Copernicus had developed a heliocentric theory of the solar system in a document of a few fruitful pages. He improved and circulated it privately in Italy, and during quieter years with his bishop. That phase passed when Lucas died in 1512, and Copernicus embarked on long and varied service for and around the Frombork cathedral.

His celebrated full volume, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, was published three decades later, in Nuremberg in 1543, the year he died. He may never have seen it in print. His almanac tables, showing the moon and Earth with the planets revolving about the sun, met the test of expert observation as well as the old Earth-centered tables had. His literary executors were seriously worried about the impact of his new work; one of them added a preface to temper the author's well-supported claims.

Recent scholarship has uncovered early commentary from Copernicus on the sun-centered solar system, made when he was about 35 or 40. The contents support a remarkably simple way of envisioning how members of the sun's family, including our home planet, make their circumsolar rounds. Of course, almanacs for the elite cannot be prepared without numbers and geometry, but the architecture as a whole can be disclosed by much simpler arguments; grade school experience suffices.

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