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Nicolas Copernicus

1473-1543. Polish doctor and astronomer. Copernicus's interest in astronomy was aroused in his early years at Cracow (1491-94); thereafter he maintained his interest, but was better known as a compassionate physician in his lifetime rather than as an astronomer. His great work, De Revolutionibus, which marks the beginning of the modern scientific era, did not appear until the year of his death. In this work he set forth the modern heliocentric theory: “In the middle of all sits the sun on his throne, as upon a royal dais ruling his children the planets which circle about him.”

Prior to Copernicus it was known that the idea of a heliocentric planetary system was simpler than a geocentric one, but as heavenly bodies were then supposed to move in circles (rather than ellipses) this resulted in no great simplification. With lack of observational evidence either way, the geocentric scheme was favored, admittedly on slender biblical grounds. Copernicus urged that planetary movements were best explained by the heliocentric theory. His researches, though not proscribed by the church, were not encouraged. He lectured in Rome in 1533, but Clement VII feared reaction. In 1541 Copernican views were ridiculed in a comedy. De Revolutionibus was on the papal Index,* 1616-1758.

After publication of his book, Copernicus's views spread slowly, undermining not religion but astrology. The effect on religion was mainly indirect: in geocentric astronomy the fixed stars lie just outside Saturn's orbit; in heliocentric astronomy they are very far away, and an infinite universe is possible. Theologians argued that God could not create infinity, therefore an infinite universe was an atheistic conception.

C. Singer, A Short History of Science (1941); C.C. Gillespie, The Edge of Objectivity (1960); P. Duhem, To Save the Phenomena (1969); biographies include those by H.S. Jones (1943); J. Rudnicki (1943); H. Kesten (1946); and A. Armitage, Sun, Stand Thou Still (1947).