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Nicolaus Copernicus’s 540th Birthday Through the Eyes of a Modern Astronomer

Jay Pasachoff is the proud 21st-century owner of one of the few hundred copies of Copernicus's 1543 book, "De Revolutionibus." (Photo courtesy Wayne Hammond)
Astronomer Jay Pasachoff is the proud 21st-century owner of one of the few hundred copies of Nicolaus Copernicus’s 1543 book, “De Revolutionibus.” (Photo courtesy Wayne Hammond)

 

With Nicolaus Copernicus being featured in today’s Google doodle, many eyes are looking back at the life and work of this great scientist (Copernicus facts). We thought it’d be nice to look around and ahead as well, so we called up NG explorer Jay Pasachoff for a few questions.

Jay Pasachoff is an astronomer who has received 18 grants from the National Geographic Society since 1973. He continues to lead cutting-edge research and observations of the heavens, in particular regarding eclipses. Here’s what he had to say on the 540th anniversary of Nicolaus Copernicus’s birth.

What does Nicolaus Copernicus mean to you?

This painting of Nicolaus Copernicus by illustrator Jean-Leon Huens (1921-1984) was was commissioned by the National Geographic Society for the May 1974 issue of the Magazine. (Painting by Jean-Leon Huens)
This painting of Nicolaus Copernicus by illustrator Jean-Leon Huens (1921-1984) was commissioned by the National Geographic Society for the May 1974 issue of the Magazine. (Painting by Jean-Leon Huens)

Copernicus’s iconoclastic success in discovering that what had been thought–that the Earth was at the center of the Universe–was wrong led me to think more carefully about every supposed fact. Soon after I started my collection of first-edition books by major figures in astronomy—those whose work I described in my own astronomy-survey textbook (“The Cosmos,” 4th Edition,or 3rd Edition). I thought to myself “now is the time to get a Copernicus.” I am thrilled to have had, for nearly 30 years, one of the few hundred copies of his 1543 book, De Revolutionibus (translation: On the Revolutions). It is at the heart of my rare-book collection.

What’s something you think people don’t realize or appreciate enough about him?
That Copernicus was a great mathematician. He didn’t just wake up one day and say, “Hey, let’s say that the Sun instead of the Earth is at the center of the Universe.” If you look at his book, you can see all kinds of diagrams and tables. He showed us how to calculate the periods of the planets from the perspective of the stars rather than from the moving platform of our Earth.

What lessons does he still have for us five centuries after he lived?
My wife and I made a pilgrimage to Copernicus sites in Poland in 2006, just before the International Astronomical Union held its General Assembly in Prague. We were at his birthplace in Torun and the site in Frombork where he was Canon of the Cathedral and where he did most of his work in a high tower. He was recently reburied there in a prominent place in the Cathedral, when his actual bones were tracked down after almost 470 years of anonymous burial.

Is there anything you wish you could have told him to help his work?
Me tell Copernicus anything? I wish I could have watched him work–something shown fictionally in “A More Perfect Heaven,” Dava Sobel’s new play and book about Copernicus and his interaction with the young Rheticus, who persuaded him to publish his work.

Who is your favorite astronomer from the past?
Copernicus is certainly a candidate, and Johannes Kepler is the other contender.

On that note, I will eagerly await Kepler’s birthday. To learn more about the work of both Jay Pasachoff and Copernicus, see the links below.

NEXT: Jay Pasachoff’s Mini Astronomy Lessons

 

Learn More

Jay Pasachoff Bio

Nicolaus Copernicus Info

 

Comments

  1. Apotema
    Italy
    July 14, 2013, 9:23 am
  2. Douglas Orr
    Dallas, TX
    February 23, 2013, 4:33 pm

    Copernicus did not prove or discover that the Earth orbited the Sun. Nor did any of the many others who posited Heliocentric views long before Copernicus. The problem with that idea, which Ptolemey pointed out, was that if the Earth orbited the Sun, the relative positions of the so-called fixed stars would would change during the course of the year. This is in fact true. It’s elementary geometry. What Copernicus came up with was the argument that the positions do change but the stars are so far away that the angular change is unmeasurably small. It wasn’t until the 19th century that astronomers finally had the means to measure that angular change.

  3. Harsh
    February 23, 2013, 2:18 pm

    @Kevin Joyce – i think you take Wikipedia to be know it all. Good for you. I have no argument nor any wish to change, your beliefs & just want to state the facts as they are – irrespective to the exact date/time of aryabatta’s discovery, the fact is true that modern science as we know has roots in ancient India and its scholars who formulated and provided insights thousands (not hundred’s) of years before west “documented” it as there own.
    BTW, Wikipedia is yet another tool created to provide some continued credibility to plagiarism by the west. It is laughable.
    Advice: Be original and do your own research & think out of the box.

  4. Arun
    Toronto, Canada
    February 21, 2013, 7:59 pm

    Although some of the comments are worthy of reading, most of the useless arguments are tribal pride…
    “Great minds discuss ideas; Average minds discuss events; Small minds discuss people”
    Eleanor Roosevelt
    US diplomat & reformer (1884 – 1962

    It is the ideas of Copernicus NG is highlighting and we are celebrating.

  5. Deep
    NJ, USA
    February 20, 2013, 5:17 pm

    Also, how many people know that the decimal number system originated in India and then transmitted to Arabia and then to Europe? Check who invented the zero…You think the Roman Numbers can be used to denote large numbers?

    Fibonacci series was conceptualized way before Fibonacci, by a mathematician called Pingala. You can google it….

    However, the numbers are named after “Fibonacci”. Yup, it is plagiarism of the worst type!!

  6. Deep
    NJ, USA
    February 20, 2013, 5:04 pm

    Looking at the comments, it seems there existed a genius in different parts of the world who discovered that the “Sun” is the center of the Universe and that Earth rotates the Sun. They did it way before “Copernicus” did. Not sure why “Copernicus” is acknowledged so much!

    Further, I endorse the comment made my Harsh.

  7. Kevin Joyce
    February 20, 2013, 4:00 pm

    One last point: the value for pi was given as 3.1416 by Ptolemy (Greek) around 150 A.D., and by Liu Hui (Chinese) around 265 A.D.; Zu Chongzi (Chinese) calculated pi as 3.141592920… in 480 A.D., a figure unsurpassed in accuracy until a millennium later.

  8. Kevin Joyce
    February 20, 2013, 3:54 pm

    @Harsh

    Some further points:

    Trigonometry dates back to ancient Egypt, and ancient Babylon; and was further developed by the Greeks. According to Wikipedia:

    “Systematic study of trigonometric functions began in Hellenistic mathematics, reaching India as part of Hellenistic astronomy.”

    If I were hostile to India, I would say that they “stole” trigonometry from Greece, but it is a silly accusation.

    Algebra, too, finds its origin in ancient Babylon, with subsequent development by the Greeks. Diophantus, a Greek, has been called the “Father of Algebra;” he flourished three centuries before Aryabhata.

    It was a Greek, Eratosthenes, who was first attempted to figure out the circumference of the Earth, in the 2nd century B.C. Aryabhata calculated that measurement more accurately, within 1% of the true figure. As I’ve said, Aryabhata was a superb scientist.

    Finally, the notion that Galileo was blinded as a preventative against heretical stargazing is ridiculous.

    Please “give credit where credit is due,” Harsh.

  9. Kevin Joyce
    United States
    February 20, 2013, 3:19 pm

    @Harsh

    Aryabhata was born in 476 A.D., not 2700 B.C. (!), so Aristarchus beats him out. Furthermore, the evidence for heliocentrism on his part is tenuous:

    “Aryabhata described a geocentric model of the solar system, in which the Sun and Moon are each carried by epicycles. They in turn revolve around the Earth. In this model, which is also found in the Paitāmahasiddhānta (c. CE 425), the motions of the planets are each governed by two epicycles, a smaller manda (slow) and a larger śīghra (fast).”

    And:

    “Aryabhata advocated an astronomical model in which the Earth turns on its own axis. His model also gave corrections (the śīgra anomaly) for the speeds of the planets in the sky in terms of the mean speed of the sun. Thus, it has been suggested that Aryabhata’s calculations were based on an underlying heliocentric model, in which the planets orbit the Sun, though this has been rebutted.”

    Both quotations are from Wikipedia.

    Aryabhata was a superb scientist, however, your Indian chauvinism (and anti-Western bias) is laughable.

  10. Indians were there first!
    February 20, 2013, 12:46 pm

    No offense to old Copernicus, but Indians were there first! And not one of them, many of them, at various times, ALL before Copernicus, mentioned the heliocentric theory, And yes, they also measured planetary motions (without a telescope) and invented calculus before Newton.

    We Indians don’t expected west to change their beloved history books any time soon, but know that you are teaching fake history in your schools.

    e.g. Check out Kerala School of Astronomy

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kerala_school_of_astronomy_and_mathematics

  11. j.ratha
    Rourkela India
    February 20, 2013, 12:21 pm

    thank you Harsh for your right and bold remark on great Indian mathematician Aryabhatta.

  12. M Keny
    INdia
    February 20, 2013, 10:32 am

    Earth Could have had been the centre of some small universe, if would had been a rouge planet caught in a constellational tidal wave of 2-3-or more suns.

  13. ptolemaus
    February 20, 2013, 8:42 am
  14. Ima Ryma
    February 20, 2013, 2:16 am

    Heliocentrism dared to
    State that the sun was center star,
    And Earth just one of retinue,
    Revolving about, near and far.
    Copernicus argued such case,
    With his long writings and long breath,
    Taking up lots of time and space,
    All published just before his death.
    Needless to say, bunches of ists –
    Religion, science, politics,
    Stuck Copernicus on hate lists
    For twisting truth with dirty tricks.

    In the end, Copernicus won,
    Earth being third rock from the sun.

  15. utpal wainganker
    india
    February 20, 2013, 1:14 am

    THIS IS THE TRUTH.. BUT STILL PEOPLE TRYING TO PLAY FULLFILL…

    Aryabhatta born in Kerala, India in 2700 BC, was the first to calculate Pi of 3.1416 and the solar year of 365.358 days . He propounded a heliocentric universe 4200 years before Copernicus, with elliptically orbiting planets and a spherical earth spinning on its axis explaining the motion of the heavens. He was the father of plane / spherical Trigonometry and Algebra, when Europe was in the dark ages.. Today you don’t see this pioneers name in the list of top 100 mathematicians.
    Aryabhatta was the first to compute the circumference of the earth, with an error of just 64 miles.. Aryabhatta gave a method to find the cube root of numbers and dealt with arithmetic,geometric and indeterminate equations in algebra. He dealt with square, cube, triangle, trapezium, circle and sphere in geometry. He was called Arjehir by the Arabs.
    Poor Galileo copied Aryabhatta 400 years later , that the earth is round and circles the sun , and the church blinded him , so that he can never look into another telescope .

    Typical of the west to steal and propagate it as their own, like everything else. Give credit where credit is due, this is plagiarism of the worst type. India has been the center of scientific discovery and theory thousands of years before western copy cats claimed it as their own and wrote the history books.

  16. god
    Heavan
    February 20, 2013, 12:47 am

    lets just forget the details and say Happy Bday to a man of History… Or is that to much to ask ?

  17. Vicki
    February 19, 2013, 11:50 pm

    TO HARSH,
    According to the research…….Aryabhatta was born 476 AD or CE, NOT 2700 BC as you copied and pasted from a poor source.
    F.Y.I. “Pi” or the ACTUAL and ORIGINAL “π” is a Greek letter and was devised around 250 BC by the Greek mathematician Archimedes.

  18. AnnetStone
    February 19, 2013, 11:27 pm

    Enjoyed this most of all doodles.

  19. Doug
    Nebraska
    February 19, 2013, 11:19 pm

    Please note the year of the publication is the same as the year of his death. Published posthumously.

    Galileo should have shown such foresight.

  20. Cloud-man
    Phoenix, Arizona
    February 19, 2013, 11:00 pm

    What an incredible man was Nicolaus Copernicus; so ahead of his time. I wonder what he would comment if he were to view and incredible picture which I took in Phoenix Arizona; And which I believe was formed by the energy of the stellar bodies that reaches the earth: checkout CloudsGodsMural , a dot com site in which I explain my hypothesis as to how there is more happening in the sky than we can imagine — a new discovery. ~Cloud-man

  21. Harsh
    Florida
    February 19, 2013, 10:44 pm

    Aryabhatta born in Kerala, India in 2700 BC, was the first to calculate Pi of 3.1416 and the solar year of 365.358 days . He propounded a heliocentric universe 4200 years before Copernicus, with elliptically orbiting planets and a spherical earth spinning on its axis explaining the motion of the heavens. He was the father of plane / spherical Trigonometry and Algebra, when Europe was in the dark ages.. Today you don’t see this pioneers name in the list of top 100 mathematicians.
    Aryabhatta was the first to compute the circumference of the earth, with an error of just 64 miles.. Aryabhatta gave a method to find the cube root of numbers and dealt with arithmetic,geometric and indeterminate equations in algebra. He dealt with square, cube, triangle, trapezium, circle and sphere in geometry. He was called Arjehir by the Arabs.
    Poor Galileo copied Aryabhatta 400 years later , that the earth is round and circles the sun , and the church blinded him , so that he can never look into another telescope .

    Typical of the west to steal and propagate it as their own, like everything else. Give credit where credit is due, this is plagiarism of the worst type. India has been the center of scientific discovery and theory thousands of years before western copy cats claimed it as their own and wrote the history books.

  22. Mava
    Meh
    February 19, 2013, 10:44 pm

    The establishment of literacy tests in Mississippi during the post-Reconstruction years was an attempt to drive which group out of politics?

  23. April Morrisette
    NC
    February 19, 2013, 10:37 pm

    Two thumbs up to this extraordinary Scientist!

  24. Brandon Cwiklinski
    Kansas
    February 19, 2013, 10:21 pm

    Like rob said his success was modeling it. But even if you don’t ignore the 8th century discoveries he still was able to use, at the time, improving technologies to discover that the earth was not the center of the universe. Also he was the first astronomer of his time to publish his works with proven facts and models to stump even the biggest monarchs. Everyone was afraid to say word against the rulers in fear of death. Back then what the man said was the final word. Lastly, who gives a flying ?!$@ if google didn’t make the earth spin. The didn’t put all the planets either smart ass. That’s the first thing I noticed. But then again they probably used his first model in which he didn’t know the earth spun. Shit he had the earth go around the sun once a day. So before you run your mouth George think about technology they had and what they made of it.

  25. James A. Hooks
    Lumberton, NC
    February 19, 2013, 9:59 pm

    I used Jay’s astronomy book as one of the best, to be used in the class room setting of Univ.Of NC Pembroke over many years. As a Planetarian I looked to the stars of the night sky and let my dreams fly to the distance Galaxies,as if on the wings of an Angel. I learned things, and knew I could never finish. Just be reminded it all started 6-7000 yrs.BC.

  26. David Lehigh
    Oregon, USA
    February 19, 2013, 9:58 pm

    Astrology is fascinating, I traveled to Krakow, Poland to visit Jagiellonian University and walk the staircase to Nicolaus Copernicus study and lab on the second mezzanine. The ticketed tour was @ 9 zloty or $ 3.00. The instruments were made of brass or bronze and inscribed markings for degrees were in possibly Greek or Arabic symbols, quite fascinating , Krakow is equal to Prague and Paris in beauty and intrigue. In 1995 I painted a space-scape and labeled it Copernicus to honor Nicolaus Copernicus : viewed at http://www.spaceprint.com.

  27. David Wilson
    Dallas, Texas, USA
    February 19, 2013, 9:58 pm

    Nice article, but the answer to “What lessons does he still have for us five centuries after he lived?” does not address the question.

  28. andarb
    February 19, 2013, 9:38 pm

    Another interesting and often overlooked element is that Copernicus was not trying to contradict Church doctrine, he was attempting to help produce a better calendar at the request of the Pope!

  29. Vicki
    NYC
    February 19, 2013, 9:27 pm

    WHY IS THERE NEVER ACKNOWLEDGEMENT FOR THE ORIGINAL FATHER OF OUR SOLAR SYSTEM???

    ARISTARXOS: Aristarchus (Ἀρίσταρχος, Aristarkhos, 310 BCE – ca. 230 BCE) of Samos was an ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician who presented the first known model that placed the Sun at the center of the known universe with the Earth revolving around it.

  30. Kepler
    USA
    February 19, 2013, 9:03 pm

    @Rob Grainger, philosophers can promote all kinds of ideas. It doesn’t qualify as a scientific discovery unless there a framework that can be tested, and possibly refuted. Copernicus’ made the discovery and unless those Sanskrit text you mentioned have some good math in them, they represent a religious idea, not a discovery.

    Somebody writing in a book that they think the Sun is the center of the universe means very little by itself. After all, the Sun is pretty spectacular when viewed from the Earth, it is a natural enough thought.

  31. Mauricio Silva
    Hamden, CT
    February 19, 2013, 9:02 pm

    Beautiful art. Great job.
    I believe the word universe is misspelled.

  32. shruthi
    bellary
    February 19, 2013, 8:59 pm

    he was died because of his disclosure of facts about solar system and buried him alive accusing him for blasphemacy he was innocently killed for his revelations ,but proved need not necessary to believe every thing writtten in bible or some other religious text .we remember him and this day as holy day

  33. Muhammad
    USA
    February 19, 2013, 8:46 pm

    Copernicus only rose on shoulders of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (Iran) and Ibn Shatir (Syria). He used Tusi-couple, Urdi’s lemma and his model so close to Ibn Shatir’s model. He also used Epicycles the wrong model of Ptolemy. I don’t follow how his de Revolutionibus became revolution in astronomy?

  34. Rich Katz
    Scottsdale AZ USA
    February 19, 2013, 8:42 pm

    I believe Copernicus was the first to use data (math) to demonstrate (prove) that the Earth rotated around the Sun. Others had postulated the relationship but provided no proof to support the supposition.

  35. Paul Felix Schott
    February 19, 2013, 8:40 pm

    Father like son both Archimedes and his Father Phidias the Astronomer were well know to all wise men of their day that studied the Heavens Above. Long ago Wicked men dried to wipe out Archimedes and his Father Phidias from the History Books.

    More small ones very likely large ones less likely without notice with all the eyes looking to the Heavens Above.

    The PLANETARY DEFENSE is not to protect Earth from men from Mars.
    It is for all mankind with most all Nation in on it to stop if can most all collision with EARTH from a ASTEROID IMPACT. It is if you will a AVOIDANCE SHIELD. “N.E.O.S. Near Earth Object Shield”.

    If only one were to hit or IMPACT EARTH on land get ready for a winter you will never forget. The winter from 1883 -1884 KRAKATOA you will think was a little pebble, and now the stone comes. Krakatoa was a great mountain till it erupted with fire and a blast heard thousands of miles away that cast that Great Mountain into the sea. The Shock Waves were felt around the Globe. The sea was full of Bodies from the Tsunamis more then 35,000 of them, the sea stayed red for weeks. 1884 was a year without a summer as the year 1816 was and many world wide Froze to Death from the KRAKATOA Event.

    A Shock Wave was felt in England from a Event about 7:15 to 7:20 A.M. Siberia time in the morning in June of the year 1908 high in the sky above the Forest in the remote wilderness of Tunguska Siberia heard an explosion that laid flat more than 800 square miles of the forest with all the trees pointing away from the center of the blast with most all the trees laying on their side. Some trees that were right below the blast were still there looking like telephone poles with no bark or branches left on them. This Asteroid did not even hit the Ground and this is known by most as the TUNGUSKA EVENT. For all that lived there it was WORMWOOD Rev 8:11 the wood became full of worms and the rivers water no longer sweet and undrinkable.

    If a Meteor Shower is big enough you might think all the Stars are falling from Heaven.

    About one every 100 years makes it into the Earth’s Atmosphere big enough for all to take note. Some make it to the surface the signs are all over the Planet and moon from the ones that have.

    If you need a visual sign of a collided impact with a planet look to

    “SHOEMAKER – LEVY 9″ July 1994.

    and it was found only a year before in 1993.
    The impacts lasted for hours and some pieces were over a mile in diameter.

    You Need More Look up “PROJECT WORMWOOD” Revelations 8: 10 – 11 based on the “TUNGUSKA EVENT” 1908

    MOSCOW Russia is now saying it will use missiles to intercept Asteroid if need be.

    Better to be safe then sorry.

    GET READY

    Read the one and only book that will count the Bible
    While you still can,
    and May our Lord GOD Bless all that do so.
    John 14 : 6
    Luke 13 : 27
    Matthew 7 : 20 – 27

    Matthew 12:39

    Matthew 24:3 – 14

    The Lord’s Little Helper.
    Paul Felix Schott.

    December 2013 the Heavens above COMET “C/2012 S1″, “ISON”.

    The day will come when

    ALL ON EARTH WILL SEE THIS NO MATTER WHERE YOU ARE. the night side of earth will become day and and day will be blinding bright. The Bow Shock from the Photo Electric Effect from the Sun’s Solar Wind will really be something.

    Shortly there after you will think the stars are falling from the Heavens,

    REV 6:13,

    REV 16:21

    most will be between 60 to 80 pounds that will make it to the ground surface. Nonstop 12 to 14 hours at a time for two days.

    P.S.
    Help others in are Lord’s name Jesus Christ help bring all to know him while you still can.
    Three kings that were wise men once flowed a star with a long tail 2,000 years ago. That lead them to Jesus Christ wise men still look to and hear are Lord Jesus Christ.

  36. Kevin Joyce
    United States
    February 19, 2013, 8:30 pm

    @Rob Grainger

    To which texts are you referring? Wikipedia gives Aristarchus as the first known proponent of heliocentrism, around 300 B.C.

  37. Kathy Candler
    Detroit, Mi, USA
    February 19, 2013, 8:03 pm

    Happy Birthday Mr. C. What a beautiful brain to be 500 years ahead!

  38. ross
    February 19, 2013, 7:59 pm

    Aristarchus of Samos was an ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician who presented the first known model that placed the Sun at the center of the known universe with the Earth revolving around it.
    Born: 310 BC,

  39. George Stephen
    Cincinnati, USA
    February 19, 2013, 7:48 pm

    Qn: When you say ‘Earth’ does that ever include ‘Moon’?
    Ans: Yes! When you say Earth revolves around Sun, Earth includes Moon. Watch this Doodle!

  40. Stephen Clarke
    Dublin
    February 19, 2013, 7:01 pm

    Most people who’ve had the pleasure of meeting Siobhain Smyth would disagree with this theory : )

  41. paul lopez
    school
    February 19, 2013, 6:47 pm

    I am Very Suprised By This Man’s Intelligence

  42. Caitlyn
    February 19, 2013, 6:31 pm

    We just learned about this in science class.

  43. Norm Geltz
    February 19, 2013, 6:10 pm

    @ George. Agree. And, in another thread, someone named “MB” starting tossing stones at me declaring me pedantic. Hey, he said he had to look up the word…so, it was a good thing…he learned a new word today!

  44. Terry Tabosa
    USA
    February 19, 2013, 6:09 pm

    Only if and when we begin to understand these basic principles can we start calling ourselves civilized, otherwise, we’ll simply call ourselves involuted animals.

  45. Marsha J Tyson Darling
    New York City
    February 19, 2013, 5:21 pm

    The Copernicus rotating galaxy is wonderful!!!

  46. George Denniston
    United States
    February 19, 2013, 3:48 pm

    In google’s diagram to honor Copernicus, they fail to have the earth rotate. So the sun will not rise and fall as it usually does.

  47. Andrew Reeves
    Shropshire UK
    February 19, 2013, 3:34 pm

    I have always been fascinated in the solar system and universe and so my invention the copernisis puzzle was born.
    Happy birthday NC
    http://www.copernisis.com

  48. Rob Grainger
    UK
    February 19, 2013, 3:26 pm

    Copernicus’s iconoclastic success in discovering that what had been thought–that the Earth was at the center of the Universe.

    Only if you ignore the 8th Century BC Sanskrit texts that “discovered” this a millennia earlier.

    Copernicus’ breakthrough was accurately modelling this.