The Man Who Deciphered the Heavens

I wonder often how humanity figured out things like the Earth revolving around the sun while rotating on its tilted axis every 24 hours. Questions such as our place in the Cosmos, and our understanding of it have wracked humanity for centuries. Religions sought to answer some of these questions through myths and erroneous theories. One man though, was instrumental in moving us from a geo-centric to a helio-centric model.

How one man figured out the vastness of the Universe by contemplating the night skies with his naked eye and working diligently to find the accompanying Mathematical proof is a story well worth reminding ourselves of again.

Nicholas Copernicus was born on Feb 19th 1473, and he died in May, 1543. He was born during the times when the pseudoscience of Astrology and the science of Astronomy were regarded as one and the same. Even then, in his letters, he seems to have warned humanity against believing the astrological predictions based on appearance of comets, and planets, since there was no proof linking our own futures and the astrological happenings in the heavens.

Little is known about the man who revolutionized our understanding of the Cosmos. Copernicus was the Healing Physician for the Bishop, and the Canon (an administrator) for the Catholic Church. His private passion, though, was understanding the Cosmos and our place in it. It is poetic to imagine the man standing and observing the night skies for decades almost every night in Torun somewhere in modern day Poland, figuring out what the Ptolemic system got right, understanding Pythagorean Mathematics, scouring books of scientific interest when he had little access to them. Where they were gaps in the current understanding he fearlessly questioned never resting till he came up with a satisfactory explanation and the Mathematics required to support his own hypothesis. Copernicus expanded his initial calculations through rigorous observations all done with the naked eye. (Galileo’s ’spyglass’ as he called his early telescopes would not be available till 1610.)

Copernicus-Boissard
By Theodor de Bry – Uni Mannheim Mateo (Mannheimer Texte Online); Source [1]; Image:[2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2976063
Though he confided his findings to a few close friends, he was worried about the backlash from the Catholic Church. After all, religion put Earth at the center of the universe, and mythology made the sun ride his chariot to give us life everyday. It would have been dangerous to go all out and refute all theories at once. Man’s place in the Universe would suddenly not just become less grandiose, but downright humbling. We are small specks who happened to evolve into intelligent life on a tiny planet revolving around the sun? The very idea was scary.

1920px-Bartolomeu_Velho_1568
Figure of the heavenly bodies — An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)

Finally, his friends, most persistent among them, mathematician, Georg Joachim Rheticus, convinced him to publish his volumes after checking and double checking the validity of the Mathematics accompanying his proofs. Slowly leading up to the theory of Earth being one of the planets revolving around the Sun, De revolutionizes orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) was published by a house in Nuremberg in modern day Germany.

De_Revolutionibus_ms_p9v
By Nicolaus Copernicus – Commons file De_Revolutionibus_manuscript_p9b.jpg, Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58001466

Copernicus died almost as soon as his book was printed, and the book would have languished in the corners never to be read, had Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei not taken it up again. In many ways, what Copernicus feared would happen to him happened to Kepler and Galileo. They bore the brunt of the Christian Church for overturning their understanding of the world and our importance in it. But the book paved the way for further scientific research.

From Newton’s Theory of Relativity to our current forays into Space with telescopes sending us newer images of galaxies far far away, to the detection of gravitational waves, we are now in a constant state of wonder and on the cusp to more wondrous advances, all thanks to one man. One man, who believed that he could unearth the truth if he stuck with the problem, one man whose friends kept him honest and took the time to support and understand his work.

Books:

  • A More Perfect Heaven – How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos – By Dava Sobel
  • The Book that Nobody Read – Chasing the Revolutions of Nicholas Copernicus – By Owen Gingrich
  • De revolutionizes orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) _ by Nicholas Copernicus
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