The New Student's Reference Work/Copernicus, Nicolaus

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Copernicus (kō̇-pẽr′-nĭ-kŭs), Nicolaus, the founder of modern astronomy, born at Thorn in Prussia, Feb. 19, 1473; died at Frauenburg, May 24, 1543. Previous to the time of Copernicus—or, roughly speaking, previous to the discovery of America—there existed among scholars a great variety of views regarding the structure of the solar system and regarding its relation to the fixed stars. The chief merit of Copernicus is that he first solved in a fairly satisfactory manner the great problem of the motion of the planets. If not the first to propose, he certainly was the first to work out, in detail, an explanation which is so simple as to command acceptance from everyone who clearly understands it. Instead of assuming, as the Egyptians and the Greeks and most people after them had done, that the earth is the center of the solar system, Copernicus assumed that the sun is the center, that the earth and the other planets revolve about the sun in circular orbits and that the earth rotates on its own axis. There are a number of details which Copernicus was unable to explain because he did not know that the orbits of the planets are elliptical, as was proved later by Kepler. Copernicus was educated at the University of Cracow, whither he went in 1491. Later he spent some years of study at Bologna and Padua, and at the latter place he took the degree of doctor of medicine in 1499. In 1503 he went to Frauenburg, where he practiced medicine and held several important offices in the church. The years from 1507 to 1530 were spent in the preparation of his immortal book: The Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, which, however, was not printed until after his death in 1543. The defense of the Copernican system was, therefore, left largely to his successors, principally among them to Giordano Bruno of Italy and to Galileo. The position of Copernicus in history may be more easily retained in memory, if the student will recall that he and Michael Angelo were contemporaries, there being only two years' difference in their ages. On the day that Michael Angelo died, Feb. 18, 1564, Galileo, the great defender of Copernicus, was born; while in the year that Galileo died, 1642, the illustrious Newton, who was to perfect and simplify the Copernican system, was born in England.