Historical Astronomers in Context: Nicholas Copernicus

Image from Biography

Nicholas Copernicus (February 19, 1473 – May 24, 1543) was a Polish scientist who mathematically calculated the details of a heliocentric, or sun-centered, solar system.  He uncovered relationships that permitted him to calculate each planet’s orbital period and the distance from each planet to the sun in terms of the astronomical unit (AU), or the Earth-Sun distance.  Copernicus also proposed that the Earth rotates on an axis, and this axis changes in direction very gradually to cause the precession of the equinoxes.

While Copernicus was making his discoveries, a lot was happening in the world. From 1508 to 1512, Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with several colorful and complex scenes from biblical scripture.  On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” to denounce corrupt practices of the Catholic Church. This document sparked the Protestant Reformation. Italian Leonardo da Vinci (April 15, 1452 – May 2, 1519) was an artist, inventor, engineer, scientist, and architect whose work exemplified the humanist ideal of the Renaissance.

Having previously studied the cosmic calendar, it is already clear to me that on the grand scale of things, human civilization and scientific advancement has only comprised a short blip in the vast history of the universe.  Copernicus was alive during the Renaissance, and it is very fascinating to see how other aspects of civilization were progressing alongside important astronomical discoveries. Around the same time that Copernicus was challenging the geocentric model, Martin Luther was denouncing the established church, and artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were creating masterpieces.  It certainly was a time of great innovation and change.


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