Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus fundamentally altered our understanding of science. Born on February 19, 1473, he popularized the heliocentric theory that all planets revolve around the Sun, ushering in the Copernican Revolution. But he was also a lifelong bachelor and member of the clergy who dabbled in medicine and economics. Dive in to these 15 facts about the father of modern astronomy.
Some historians believe that Copernicus’s name derives from Koperniki, a village in Poland named after tradesmen who mined and sold copper. The astronomer’s father, also named Nicolaus Copernicus, was a successful copper merchant in Krakow. His mother, Barbara Watzenrode, came from a powerful family of merchants, and her brother, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, was an influential Bishop. Two of Copernicus’s three older siblings joined the Catholic Church, one as a canon and one as a nun.
Growing up, Copernicus likely knew both Polish and German. When Copernicus’s father died when he was around 10, Lucas Watzenrode funded his nephew’s education and he started learning Latin. In 1491, Copernicus began studying astronomy, math, philosophy, and logic at Krakow University. Five years later, he headed to modern Italy’s Bologna University to study law, where he likely picked up some Italian. During his studies, he also read Greek, meaning modern historians think he knew or understood five languages.
Copernicus is credited with introducing heliocentrism—the idea that the Earth orbits the sun, rather than the sun orbiting the Earth. But several ancient Greek and Islamic scholars from various cultures discussed similar ideas centuries earlier. For example, Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek astronomer who lived in the 200s BCE, theorized that Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun.
To be clear, Copernicus knew of the work of earlier mathematicians. In a draft of his 1543 manuscript, he even included passages acknowledging the heliocentric ideas of Aristarchus and other ancient Greek astronomers who had written previous versions of the theory. Before submitting the manuscript for publication, though, Copernicus removed this section; theories for the removal range from wanting to present the ideas as wholly his own to simply switching out a Latin quote for a “more erudite” Greek quote and incidentally removing Aristarchus. These extra pages weren’t found for another 300-some years.
He’s known for math and science, but Copernicus was also quite the economist. In 1517, he wrote a research paper outlining proposals for how the Polish monarch could simplify the country’s multiple currencies, especially in regard to the debasement of some of those currencies. His ideas on supply and demand, inflation, and government price-fixing influenced later economic principles such as Gresham’s Law (the observation that “bad money drives out good” if they exchange for the same price; for example, if a country has both a paper $1 bill and a $1 coin, the value of the metal in the coin is higher than the value of the cotton and linen in the bill, and thus the bill will be spent as currency more because of that) and the Quantity Theory of Money (the idea that the amount of money in circulation is proportional to how much goods cost).
After studying law, Copernicus traveled to the University of Padua so he could become a medical advisor to his sick uncle, Bishop Watzenrode. Despite spending two years studying medical texts and learning anatomy, Copernicus left medical school without a doctoral degree. Nevertheless, he traveled with his uncle and treated him, as well as other members of the clergy who needed medical attention.
As an official in the Catholic Church, Copernicus took a vow of celibacy. He never married and was most likely a virgin (more on that below), but children were not completely absent from his life: After his older sister Katharina died, he became the financial guardian of her five children, his nieces and nephews.
Copernicus took a vow of celibacy, but did he keep it? In the late 1530s, the astronomer was in his sixties when Anna Schilling, a woman in her late forties, began living with him. Schilling may have been related to Copernicus—some historians think he was her great uncle—and she worked as his housekeeper for two years. For unknown reasons, the bishop he worked under admonished Copernicus twice for having Schilling live with him, even telling the astronomer to fire her and writing to other church officials about the matter.
Copernicus spent over a decade studying at universities across Poland and Italy, but he usually left before he got his degree. Why skip the diplomas? Some historians argue that at the time, it was not unusual for students to leave a university without earning a degree. Moreover, Copernicus didn’t need a degree to practice medicine or law, to work as a member of the Catholic Church, or even to take graduate or higher level courses.
But right before returning to Poland he received a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara. According to Copernicus scholar Edward Rosen this wasn’t exactly for scholarly purposes, but that to “show that he had not frittered his time away on wine, women, and song, he had to bring home a diploma. That cost much less in Ferrara than in the other Italian universities where he studied.”
During Copernicus’s lifetime, nearly everyone believed in geocentrism—the view that the Earth lies at the center of the universe. Despite that, in the 1510s Copernicus wrote Commentariolus, or “the Little Commentary,” a short text that discussed heliocentrism and was circulated amongst his friends. It was soon found circulating further afield, and it’s said that Pope Clement VII heard a talk about the new theory and reacted favorably. Later, Cardinal Nicholas Schönberg wrote a letter of encouragement to Copernicus, but Copernicus still hesitated in publishing the full version. Some historians propose that Copernicus was worried about ridicule from the scientific community due to not being able to work out all of the issues heliocentrism created. Others propose that with the rise of the Reformation, the Catholic Church was increasingly cracking down on dissent and Copernicus feared persecution. Either way, he didn’t make his complete work public until 1543.
Copernicus finishing writing his book explaining heliocentrism, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Orbs), in the 1530s. When he was on his deathbed in 1543, he finally decided to publish his controversial work. According to lore, the astronomer awoke from a coma to read pages from his just-printed book shortly before passing away.
Copernicus dedicated his book to the Pope, but the Catholic Church repudiated it decades after it was published, placing it on the Index of Prohibited Books—pending revision—in 1616. A few years later, the Church ended the ban after editing the text to present Copernicus’s views as wholly hypothetical. In 1633, 90 years after Copernicus’s death, the Church convicted astronomer Galileo Galilei of “strong suspicion of heresy” for espousing Copernicus’s theory of heliocentrism. After a day in prison, Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
Take a look at the periodic table of elements, and you might notice one with the symbol Cn. Called Copernicium, this element with atomic number 112 was named to honor the astronomer in 2010. The element is highly radioactive, with the most stable isotope having a half life of around 30 seconds.
Although Copernicus died in 1543 and was buried somewhere under the cathedral where he worked, archaeologists weren’t sure of the exact location of his grave. They performed excavations in and around Frombork Cathedral, finally hitting pay dirt in 2005 by finding part of a skull and skeleton under the church’s marble floor, near an altar. It took three years to complete forensic facial reconstruction and compare DNA from the astronomer’s skeleton with hair from one of his books, but archeologists were able to confirm that they had found his skeleton. Members of the Polish clergy buried Copernicus for a second time at Frombork in 2010.
A prominent statue of the astronomer, simply called the Nicolaus Copernicus Monument, stands near the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland. There are also replicas of this monument outside Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and Montreal’s Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan. Besides monuments, Copernicus also has a museum and research laboratory—Warsaw’s Copernicus Science Centre—dedicated to him.