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Nicolaus Copernicus was a Polish astronomer and mathematician. He was born February 19, 1473. He was born into a well-to-do family. After his father died, his uncle looked after his education, eventually securing him a position in the church. Copernicus first grew interested in astronomy when he was a student. Later, when he was studying at another university, he started making astronomical observations. During his stay at the University of Bologna, Copernicus most likely studied the writings of Ptolemy, which he was able to read with his newly learnt Greek.
Copernicus left Bologna and his church duties yet again to study medicine at the University of Padua in Italy. However, medicine then and there was very different from what we think of it as nowadays. Medicine in Italy then involved the study of astrology because the Italians believed that the stars and other heavenly objects affected patients. The extent to which this effect was believed to exist differed widely according to each person. Copernicus left without a medical degree because he had to go back to the church, but he did later practice medicine.
In his spare time at the church in Frombork, Copernicus worked on astronomy. Although he was not the first to ever have the idea, Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model of the Solar System in which the Sun is the center of the universe and everything including the Earth revolves around it. This was in direct conflict with Ptolemy’s model of the universe that had been the accepted method for over a thousand years. The first evidence of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory was in Commentariolus, a manuscript he printed.
Unfortunately, historians are unsure why Copernicus began believing in a heliocentric system. This is due to his lack of astronomical writings – he only wrote three manuscripts on the subject of astronomy – and the loss of an important biography on him. Many scholars believe that he disagreed with Ptolemy’s equant, which was Ptolemy’s solution for the irregular motion of the planets. At first, Copernicus’ theory received some backlash because it was a position contrary to the one the church had assumed. However, his theory began to grow in popularity throughout the years. Many astronomers of his time studied the work and thought that Copernicus’ major achievement was in proving Ptolemy’s equant idea false. However, many did not accept the heliocentric idea and largely ignored it at first. Eventually, it did replace the geocentric model as the accepted model of the universe.
Universe Today has articles on ancient astronomy and the difference between geocentric and heliocentric.
Astronomy Cast has an episode on astronomy research.