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Updated on September 15, 2012
De revolutionibus orbium celetium
De revolutionibus orbium celetium

Renaissance in Europe was a time of great intellectual changes. The old ‘World view’ were giving place to new ones which were hitherto considered heretical. One such concept was the geo centric view of the universe. Since ancient times, people like Hipparchus and Ptolemy had propagated the geo centric theory of the cosmos. This being a very commonsense view and which was backed by many eminent philosophers like Aristotle and later by Aquinas became the accepted notion of the universe.So when Copernicus put forward the heliocentric theory which contradicted the orthodoxy resistance to it was bound to be natural.

Copernicus was born in Thorn(modern Torun)in 1473.He was the youngest of the family and when his father died, his education was looked after by his maternal uncle who was later to become the bishop of Ermland in Prussia. After schooling, he studied in the University of Cracow where he was particularly interested in mathematics and astronomy. He had opportunities to make use of astronomical instruments in furthering his studies. After three years at the university, though his uncle tried to secure a job for him in Freudenberg, he could not get it and so Copernicus proceeded to study at the Law school in Bologna. His acquaintance with the professor of astronomy in the university helped him in expanding his knowledge on the subject. In 1500, he proceeded to Rome, where while teaching mathematics privately, he made detailed observations of Lunar eclipse which later he was to use in his heliocentric theory. Copernicus had a passion of desire for knowledge which prompted him to study further. His dabbling with medicine procured for him a post as medical adviser to his uncle who had by then become a bishop. During these years, apart from studying astronomy, he was engrossed in administrative activities too.

His heliocentric theory was developed gradually and in this he was ably assisted by a young professor of mathematics named Rhetacus. Copernicus felt that the Ptolemaic system was too cumbrous. He had in his intense studies on this found that Hicetas believed that the earth revolved on its axis and like Aristarchus held the view that the earth moved round the sun. This reference to heliocentric theories in ancient scholars gave him the confidence to investigate further. His observation of moving heavenly bodies revealed that Saturn took thirty years to complete a circuit, Jupiter twelve, mars two, Venus nine months and finally Mercury in eighty days. Copernicus therefore hypothesized that ‘in the middle of all the sun…on a royal throne governs the circum ambient family of stars….we find…..a wonderful cemetery in the universe and a definite relation of harmony. Copernicus published his views in the book ‘De revolutionibus orbium celetium’. Ironically Copernicus died on the very day the draft of his book was ready.

In this book, he put forward his heliocentric theory and gave modern explanations to the onset of seasons and the annual motions of the earth. The impact of this theory was far reaching because it changed the traditional thought and belief. While the schoolmen propagated the traditional geocentric theory, Copernicus had the audacity to challenge the orthodoxy. He was in a way bordering on heresy and challenging existing beliefs. Copernicus theory had therefore the dual impact of changing not only scientific perceptions, but also religious too.

Naturally there were many who vehemently objected to his theories. One who was very forceful and articulate was Luther who in his tract TABLE TALK rejected this as an absurd finding. Time however proved that Luther and other critics were wrong and Copernicus right in his observation.


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