Remembering Nicholas Copernicus on his birthday

A very brave scientist

By Paul Gross - Meteorologist
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Nicholas Copernicus was born on this day, Feb. 19, 1473. Given the advancement of human knowledge over the ensuing 543 years, it’s hard to imagine just how primitive our understanding of the heavens was back then. At that time, it was widely accepted “science” that the heavenly bodies in our nighttime sky all orbited the earth. Put simply, Earth (not the sun) was the center of the universe!

But Copernicus was puzzled. He didn’t understand how all of the known planets in the sky had such different orbital movement if they all revolved around the earth. His theory was that the earth and other planets actually orbited the sun…a blasphemous proposition at the time. He published his scientific calculations in what is recognized as one of the most significant publications in scientific history:  “Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.”

To fully appreciate how bold and dangerous this new theory was, Copernicus actually prefaced his writings with a special message to Pope Paul III. His message began with “I can recon easily enough, Most Holy Father, that as soon as certain people learn that in these books of mine which I have written about the revolutions of the spheres of the world I attribute certain motions to the terrestrial globe, they will immediately shout to have me and my opinion hooted off the stage.”  (quoted from The World of Physics, Volume I, as reprinted from The Great Books of the Western World).

Imagine being so fearful of the reactions to your scientific work that you had to first send a special message to the Pope!

So, as we look in awe at the amazing images and science coming from the great telescope observatories orbiting Earth, as well as from the many spacecraft exploring our solar system, let’s take pause and appreciate the courageous work of those scientists who laid the foundation for our current knowledge centuries ago! Happy birthday, Nicholas Copernicus.

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