Happy Birthday Copernicus! Honoring Astronomy’s Great Iconoclast
February 19, 2013

Happy Birthday Copernicus! Remembering Astronomy’s Legendary Iconoclast

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

On this day 540 years ago, the revolutionary mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was born in ToruÅ„, Poland. Throughout his life, he studied art, astronomy, economics, mathematics and physics. He is considered a founder of Heliocentrism, the belief the sun is at the center of the Solar System, a view which he presented in his iconoclastic book entitled “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (“On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”) just before he died. It was this last work and his explanation of Heliocentrism that challenged the way we thought about our Solar System and the Earth´s place in it.

Many years after the release of his famous book, the world began to debate once more the notion of a system of planets which revolved around the sun as opposed to a system which revolves around the earth, known as geocentrism. Today, with the Sun´s place in our Solar System firmly established, we celebrate his work, his calculations and his mind in the most fitting way of our time: Via Google Doodle, the commemorative logos the search-engine giant uses on special holidays.

If you visit Google´s main search page today, you´ll find a model of the Copernican planetary system placed on top of the traditional Google logo. Just as Copernicus suggested in his monumental writings, there are a host of planets slowly orbiting the sun, which is represented by the second “o” in Google.

Though Capernicus wasn´t the first to suggest heliocentrism, the way he explained it and outlined it in “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” caused scientists and other great thinkers to revisit the extremely controversial theory. Copernicus used mathematical terms rather than Aristotelian argumentation to explain his proposed (and correct) location of the sun at the center of the Solar System.

Despite its profound explanatory power, this new way of explaining an unpopular belief was not immediately accepted. Although he had finished his last book in 1530, it remained unpublished until 1543, just months before he passed away. And when it was finally released, most of the major thinkers of the day rejected his work and buried him in an unmarked grave.

Though he backed up his claims with hard mathematics, he made his initial observations by simply watching the sky and studying the sun with his naked eye, as he lacked the telescopic tools necessary for a more accurate study of the heavens.

More than 50 years following Copernicus´ death, Galileo became the first person to study the planets with a telescope. Though Copernicus´ thoughts on Heliocentrism remained unpopular, Galileo began using his telescope to prove the Earth did, in fact, revolve around the Sun just as his Polish predecessor had claimed many years before. Galileo also went on to prove the Earth rotated on an axis rather than the sky rotating around the Earth. This meant the apparent movement of the celestial bodies in the heavens was a result of our movement, not vice versa — an observation that dealt yet another serious blow to the idea of geocentrism. Copernicus laid the groundwork for Galileo and other astronomers to develop the physics necessary to back up his original mathematics.

Copernicus died at 70 years of age from apoplexy and was buried in a cathedral in Frombork, Poland. Hundreds of years after his death, archaeologists began searching for his remains but were unsuccessful. In late 2005, however, a team of archaeologists led by professor Jerzy Gassowski began scanning the floor of Frombork Cathedral and discovered what they believed to be the bones of the legendary astronomer.

Three years later, DNA evidence confirmed that Gassowski had found the bones of Copernicus, and in 2010 the Polish polymath was given a second funeral, led by Józef Kowalczyk, the Primate of Poland. His bones were then buried in the same place where they had been discovered and a black granite tombstone was placed over his grave, this time bearing his name, achievements and a model of the solar system he had proposed.