#28. Nicolas Copernicus

“Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe. Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind.” -Goethe

It was, quite literally, a revolutionary idea. “The earth is not the centre of the universe,” wrote Polish astronomer Mikolaj Kopernik in his Commentariolus. Proposing a sun-centered alternative, he turned the Western world — and, indeed, the entire universe — on its head. Moreover, as Goethe pointed out, the theory’s impact on science was rivaled, if not surpassed, by its philosophical implications.

No, mankind. You are not that important. With that assertion, Mikolaj Kopernik — later Latinized to Nicolas Copernicus — ushered a scientific revolution into the Western world, allowing modern science to develop. These contributions rank him as Western history’s 28th most influential figure.

Copernicus was born in 1473 Poland to two merchants who afforded him an education at the University of Krakow. Fluent in Latin, German, and his native Polish, with a working knowledge of Greek and Italian, Copernicus matured in an era of renewed intellectualism. The medieval world gasped for air as the Renaissance slowly suffocated it.[1]

Copernicus’s lifetime (1473 – 1543) spanned what was perhaps the most momentous 70-year period in Western history. During the year of his birth, the freshly invented printing press was spreading to all corners of Europe. When Copernicus was 19, a Genoese explorer named Christopher Columbus sailed the Atlantic for a recently united Spain. Ten years after his return, Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa. Within a decade, the Florentine artist Michelangelo completed painting the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling while compatriot Niccolo Machiavelli finished an early draft of The Prince. Soon after, Martin Luther of Saxony posted his “Ninety-Five Theses” and started the Protestant Reformation. Four years later, as Luther refused recantation at Worms, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan led the first voyage to circumnavigate the planet (finally showing the world that it was, as Goethe put it, “round and complete in itself”).

Throughout this period, the once omnipotent Roman Catholic Church fell under siege by powerful monarchs, satirical writers, humanist philosophers, and Protestant reformers.[2] As Copernicus bore witness to this era of immense change, he probably had no idea that his crowning achievement would hammer another nail into the coffin of the mighty medieval papacy.

That crowning achievement was his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium—“On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.” He allowed friends to publish it in 1543, his final living year on the planet he wisely displaced. Fearing retribution from resistant traditionalists across Europe, he sat on the manuscript for years before, as the tale goes, seeing the first copy on his deathbed.

Those traditionalists clung to the accepted second century Ptolemaic model of the universe. Ptolemy’s universe was geocentric, or Earth-centered. The apparently misshapen, direction-changing orbits of the visible planets — caused, as we now know, by them actually orbiting something else — were explained by inelegant retrograde “epicycles,” or loops in the orbit.[3] In the ancient world, these seemingly indecisive drifters earned the Greek name for wanderers — planetes — giving us the term “planets” today.

The Christianized late Roman Empire and medieval Catholic Church understandably adopted geocentrism as its universe of choice. What better place to put God’s creation than at the center of everything? Scripture even supported it.[4] Consequently, geocentrism, like Christianity, dominated Western society for centuries.

And why not? For millennia, anyone not well-versed in astronomy could be forgiven for their assumption that the earth stood still at the universe’s center. After all, we cannot feel Earth rotate or travel through space at thousands of miles per hour. Moreover, we observe the stars revolve around us as if they’re painted on a rotating planetarium ceiling. Indeed, we still say that the sun “rises” in the east and “sets” in the west.[5] Frankly, from a purely perceptual point of view, it does feel like we stand at a fixed, immobile center of the cosmos.

But Nicolas Copernicus observed something quite different, and he didn’t even need a telescope (which was invented over 60 years after his death) to do it. De revolutionibus’s proposal was based on naked-eye observation and mathematical calculation. This Aristotelian empiricism helped Copernicus realize that the peculiar Ptolemaic model was aesthetically inferior to a heliocentric — or sun-centered—model.[6] A middle-aged Copernicus shared his ideas with friends in his Commentariolus, written a few decades before the larger work. The “Little Commentary” proposed big changes; it posited that Earth rotates on its axis once every 24 hours, that only the moon revolves around Earth, and, most radically, that the planetes, Earth included, actually revolved around the sun.

Commentariolus made its way around elite European circles and quickly found its way to Rome, where it was given a mixed reception. Luckily for Copernicus, the pope, Leo X, was relatively humanistic compared to many of his predecessors. He allowed Copernicus to continue.[7] Copernicus tread carefully for three decades while quietly constructing the larger De revolutionibus.

Predictably, the more thorough work faced rebuke from religious contemporaries. Few things united the rival Protestants and Catholics of the sixteenth century, but this heretical idea was one of them. Martin Luther, the liberal conservative (not a mistake, as we’ll see when we get to my Top 10), was among the first to rip apart blasphemous heliocentrism.

“People give ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. . . . This fool wishes to reverse the entire scheme of astrology; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.”

Another major Protestant reformer, John Calvin, echoed those sentiments, citing the 93rd Psalm: “‘The world also is stabilized, that it cannot be moved.’ . . . Who will venture to place authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?”

The Catholic Church certainly didn’t venture it. De revolutionibus made its way onto the Church’s Index of forbidden books.

The resistance from multiple wings of Christianity was understandable. Copernicus’s proposition wasn’t just physical; it was metaphysical as well. Geocentrism is inextricably paired with egomania. Indeed, the words geocentrism and egocentrism are almost identical.[8] Think of what’s implied when one accuses another of thinking they’re “at the center of the universe,” or that the “world revolves around them.” The West suffered from that arrogant affliction for nearly its entire history. God created us at the center of everything. We are important. He made the universe for us. We are His most precious creation. From this geocentric premise, we naturally felt like the surrounding universe evidenced our own significance.

Contrarily, evicting Earth from the universe’s epicenter triggers many aftershocks. If we’re not at the center, where are we? Why are we so far from the center? How did we get here? Is there a center of the universe? While we’re at it, what is the universe? How big is it? Are there other planets with life out there, just as unimportant as we are? Did God create them in six days, too?

As post-Copernican science developed, we not only confirmed that we are not at the universe’s center, but we’re actually just one of eight planets[9] orbiting around the sun, which itself is just one star of a few hundred billion that are part of this galaxy, which itself is just one galaxy of perhaps trillions. The numbers boggle the mind, and with the thousands of exoplanets found in the last decade alone, we start to realize that the probability for other life out there is all but certain. We are merely a speck of dust in a vast cosmic ocean.[10] Luther, Calvin, and the Church did their best to resist Copernicus’s idea, but they were on the wrong side of the facts and on the wrong side of history.[11]

As a result, Copernicus forced us not only to rethink our position in the universe, but he gave us a badly needed kick in our prime meridian. No, mankind. You are not that important, and you aren’t nearly as smart as you think you are. So pick it up. Copernicus never said such a thing, but his proposal screamed it.

Copernicus’s accomplishments catalyzed a new era of scientific wonder, starting with his beloved field of astronomy. Few people in history have a “revolution” attached to their name, but with the Copernican Revolution, the Polish astronomer earned it. Future astronomers, if they wanted to be taken seriously, needed to adopt his model.[12] In 1605, Johannes Kepler proposed a more accurate solar system which included elliptical orbits and changing speeds instead of the perfectly round orbits and steadily paced planets proposed by his Polish predecessor. Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei also improved upon the Copernican model, among other contributions, and eventually Isaac Newton explained how and why it all worked.[13]

Importantly, these astronomers’ improvements on Copernicus’s universe start to explain why Copernicus isn’t higher on this Top 30 list. Indeed, other similar lists of important historical figures usually have him somewhere in their top 10. If he proposed an accurate universe and was the first to do so, he would have probably landed in my top 10 as well. However, for my list (which, of course, is the definitive word), he’s relegated to “only” #28 for several reasons.

First, as just stated, his system, though an enormously important step forward, was seriously flawed. He placed the sun at the center of the universe, for example. Furthermore, because he didn’t abandon perfectly circular orbits and the single-speed motion of the planets, he needed to build in his own (less inelegant) epicycles to make his system work. He also supported the mystical explanation of celestial spheres keeping the heavenly bodies in space, a notion which would soon grow archaic. Frankly, it was not until Kepler that we had an accurate map of the solar system. In fact, no astronomer ever fully accepted Copernicus’s model; his reactionary contemporaries tried to re-center Earth, while by the early seventeenth century, Kepler, Galileo, and their successors obliterated each of Copernicus’s proposals, save heliocentrism.

What’s more, Copernicus wasn’t even the first person to propose heliocentrism. A fourth century BC Greek, Heraclides Ponticus, proposed that a rotating Earth, not a circling sun, caused day and night. Other ancient Greeks, most prominently the followers of famed mathematician Pythagoras, joined him.[14] The following century, the first outright heliocentrist in Western history, Aristarchus of Samoa, truly made the breakthrough. Seleucus of Seleuica later used trigonometry to prove Aristarchus correct.[15]

Another mark against Copernicus might be his field of study. Some people could well argue that, “It’s just astronomy. Who cares?” When comparing the relevance of astronomy to the more practical sciences — physics, biology, anatomy, physiology, chemistry, technology, and others — one sees how relatively unimportant astronomy is in our daily lives. It is just astronomy. Who cares?[16]

In this particular case, everyone should care. After four paragraphs arguing against Copernicus’s importance, it’s time to do what he did — let’s put things in perspective.

I’ll admit it right now: I left off many scientists and inventors who had more “practical” inventions and ideas than Copernicus did.[17] However, I firmly believe that the innumerable technological and scientific advancements of the last five centuries were made in a universe where the brilliant minds behind them knew that the earth was not at the universe’s center, that the Church’s doctrine was not infallible, that its reach did not extend to the stars, and that individuals, properly equipped with facts, figures, and observation, could advance our body of knowledge.

In essence, Copernicus created a universe that encouraged science, individualism, and the advancement of man. Thus, it is no accident of historiography that the West’s “Scientific Revolution” began in 1543, the year of Copernicus’s publication.[18] Following Copernicus was an explosion of scientific curiosity and accomplishment. Copernicus not only gave us modern astronomy — his paradigm shifting model was far more important than Kepler’s refinement of it — but he also showed that science must be a servant to facts, not dogma. Aristarchus and heliocentrism were lost to the West for nearly two millennia, but when Copernicus brought it back and showed the irrefutable arithmetic that disproved the prevailing wisdom of the intimidating Catholic Church, the door opened for so many others in so many fields to do the same. I’m not too sure that a world where Bell invents the telephone or Watson and Crick discover DNA is possible without a post-Copernican West to allow and embrace their contributions. The Scientific Revolution was first necessary, and Copernicus caused it happen. The man changed the universe.

Given the wealth of scientific achievements since Copernicus, like venturing away from Earth and into (and out of!) his restructured solar system, perhaps we can now say that mankind turned out to be pretty important after all. That significance, however, does not stem from God placing us at the center of His universe. If we are important creatures, we’ve proven it not through an unswerving faith in that importance, but through our experimentation, our curiosity, and our body of work. Copernicus ushered in the era where those characteristics could shine like the sun around which they orbited.

For these reasons, Nicolas Copernicus deserves his spot as the 28th most influential figure in Western history.


[1]To learn about the beginning of that process, read last month’s entry on Philip IV of France.

[2]Surely it longed for the good old days of only needing to fight Muslims.

[3]That sentence had two useful video links. The first shows just how screwy Ptolemy’s solar system looked, while the second helps wrap our heads around why the planets follow different patterns in our sky than the stars do. It all stems from “apparent” motion, rather than real motion.

[4]Joshua 10:12 writes about God holding still the sun (rather than the earth) in order to postpone nightfall. Psalms 93:1 talks about our immovable world. In Genesis, the creation of heaven, Earth, and man can be interpreted as God’s main focus, which can imply geocentrism.

[5]Which I’m totally cool with. I’d rather avoid saying, “Earth’s rotation gave our meridian the requisite angle to observe the sun at 6:17 this morning.” Trust me, I talk like that if necessary.

[6]The prevalent geocentric theory of the time was so accepted that Copernicus, after realizing a heliocentric model of the universe seemed to make more mathematical sense, repeatedly checked and rechecked his figures. The notion that the earth was moving seemed absurd on the face of it, even to him. In this case, truth was indeed stranger than fiction.

[7]The fact that Martin Luther was about to give Leo all he could handle probably helped Copernicus off the hook. Later, heliocentrists like Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake, and Galileo Galilei, who was tried by the Church as a heretic, forced to recant, and imprisoned for life, were not so lucky.

[8]Admit it: your mind is blown.

[9]Orbit In Peace, Pluto.

[10]Perhaps no piece of art or literature better puts that realization in perspective than Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot,” with a nice youtube interpretation here.

[11]Later that century, in a correspondence between scholar Jerome Wolf and astronomer Tycho Brahe, Wolf wrote, “No attack on Christianity is more dangerous than the infinite size and depth of the universe.”

[12]The afore-footnoted Brahe was probably the last legitimate astronomer to entertain geocentrism, and his Tychonic system offered to merge Ptolemy and Copernicus’s models into a sort of hybrid universe. In essence, Earth would still be at the center, but the other planets would still revolve around the sun, which in turn revolved around the earth. It was a good try, but far too conservative given Copernicus’s breakthrough. For his efforts, Brahe earned an eponymous lunar crater.

[13]You better believe Newton will be getting his own entry. Don’t hold your breath, though —  2019 is an awfully long ways away.

[14]Today, people fawn over athletes, pop stars, and reality TV celebrities. But the Greeks? They followed around mathematicians. The lesson, as always: the Greeks were awesome.

[15]Plus, if we leave the West behind and venture elsewhere, we’ll find Indian and maybe even Egyptian scholars who also beat Copernicus to the punch. But I would no sooner leave the West behind than I would wander into a foreign forest at nightfall. I’ll stick to familiar, well-lit surroundings, thank you very much.

[16]I don’t want to be overly critical of astronomy as a science. I think few sciences engage young people as much as astronomy does, which is probably critical in developing the future scientists of the world. Moreover, there have actually been practical applications to astronomy. Many crucial advances in biology, chemistry, navigation, communications, and physics were impossible without studying the universe. So there, straw man. Take that.

[17]Very tough cuts: inventors and scientists like William Harvey, Antoine Lavoisier, Alexander Fleming, Joseph Lister, Nikola Tesla, William Gilbert, Eli Whitney, the Curies, Jonas Salk, Michael Faraday, William Shockley, Alexander Graham Bell, Max Plank, Charles Babbage, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Dmitri Mendeleev, Neils Bohr, Gregor Mendel, Watson and Crick, Werner Heisenberg, Samuel Morse, Robert Fulton, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Newcomen, and Benjamin Franklin. If you think I’m crazy for leaving them off, consider that I just listed 30 names right there. These difficult eliminations kept me up at nights. Lots of important people have changed the Western world. In other words, this list wasn’t easy… so back off.

[18]Not to be forgotten is Andreas Vesalius’s landmark De humani corporis fabrica (“On the Fabric of the Human Body”), which was also published in 1543 and set the foundation for modern anatomy.


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