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Nicholaus Copernicus is the famous astronomer who first proposed a comprehensive heliocentric model for the universe. This idea was revolutionary since for many centuries astronomers believed the earth to be the center of the universe. The Copernicus model turned astronomy on its head and is seen to this day as the defining moment that started the Scientific Revolution in Europe.
Copernicus was born February 19 1473 in the City Torun in the Kingdom of Poland. He was the son of a well to do Merchant and a merchant’s daughter. Copernicus lost his father and mother at an early age and was sponsored by his maternal uncle who paid for his entire education. He eventually completed his studies in law, medicine, and astronomy. He later became a doctor and church official of the Catholic church.
Despite the astounding nature of his theory he did not publish it until a year before his death. He did this for fear of reprisals from contemporaries and potentially the Church which had been a strong supporter of the earth centered model, as it seemed to be in line with Church doctrine and scripture. However, rumor of his work spread throughout the intellectual community in Europe.
Up until the time of Copernicus the Ptolemaic model was held as the standard. However the model was recognized to have flaws since it did not account for many of the irregular movements of celestial bodies. Copernicus using geometry and other mathematical calculations came to the conclusion that the earth was not the center of the universe. This can be summed up in the six main assertions he made in his finished work.
First, the celestial bodies all moved in uniform circular motions called epicycles. Second, the sun was not the center of the universe either but very near it. Third, the Earth is another planet among others revolving around the sun. They are in order Mercury, Venus, Earth, Moon, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Fourth he established that earth had a daily rotation, an yearly orbit, and and tilted its axis in two directions on an annual basis. Fifth, the motion of Earth explained why certain celestial bodies moved in retrograde. Finally, the distance of the Earth to the Sun is smaller than that of the sun to the stars.
Each of these statement helped to define modern astronomy as we know it. While it was not immediately accepted. It was proven out by the research of astronomers such as Galileo and Johannes Kepler.
If you enjoyed this article there are others on Universe Today that you might enjoy. There is a great article about the heliocentric model. There is also an interesting article about the difference between the geocentric and heliocentric models.
If you want to learn more there more resources online. There is an informative entry about Copernicus in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophers. You can also check out the Galileo web page at the rice university website.
You can also listen to Astronomy Cast. Episode 77 Where is the Center of the Universe is quite interesting.