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Prominent Poles

Nicolaus Copernicus (Mikolaj Kopernik aka Niclas (?) Koppernigk) – astronomer, mathematician, physician, lawyer, economist

Portrait of Nicolaus Copernicus, astronomer

Born:  February 19, 1473, Torun, Poland

Died:  on May 21, 1543, Frombork, Poland>

Early days. His father, Niclas Koppernigk, lived in Cracow (Poland). After moving to Torun (Poland), where he set up a business trading in copper, he married in 1463 Barbara Watzenrode, who came from a well off family from Torun. They had four children of whom Mikolaj was the youngest. When young Mikolaj was ten years old his father died. His uncle Lucas Watzenrode, a canon at Frombork Cathedral, became his guardian. Mikolaj obtained elementary education in Torun. In 1488 he was sent to the cathedral school of Wloclawek (Poland) where he received a standard humanist education.
Higher education. After three years he entered the University of Cracow (Cracow was then the capital of Poland). By this time Lucas Watzenrode was Bishop of Warmia and he envisaged a church career for two of his nephews. Mikolaj appears on the matriculation records of 1491-92 of the University of Cracow. University education at Cracow was, Kopernik later wrote, a vital factor in everything that he went on to achieve. There he studied Latin, mathematics, astronomy, geography and philosophy. One should not think, however, that the astronomy courses, which Kopernik studied, were scientific courses in the modern sense. Rather they were mathematics courses that introduced Aristotle and Ptolemy’s view of the universe so that students could understand the calendar, calculate the dates of holy days, and also have skills that would enable those who would follow a more practical profession to navigate at sea. Also taught, as a major part of astronomy, was astrology, teaching students to calculate horoscopes of people from the exact time of their birth. It was while he was a student at Krakow that Copernicus began to use this Latin version of his name rather than Kopernik or Koppernigk. He returned to Torun in 1495 but, as was common at the time, did not formally graduate with a degree.
Trip to Italy. Studies at Bologna University.Appointment as a canon.Following the wishes of his uncle Copernicus traveled to Italy, entering the University of Bologna on 19 October 1496, to start three years of study. On 20 October, 1497, he received official notification of his appointment as a canon and of the comfortable income he would receive without having to return to carry out any duties. At Bologna he rented rooms at the house of the astronomy professor de Novara and began to undertake research with him.
Trip to Rome; return to Frombork. In 1500 Copernicus visited Rome and stayed there for a year lecturing to scholars on mathematics and astronomy. While in Rome he observed an eclipse of the moon that took place on 6 November 1500. He returned to Frombork in the spring of 1501 and was officially installed as the canon of the Warmia Chapter. He had not completed his degree in canon law at Bologna so he requested his uncle to allow him to return to Italy to get a law degree and to study medicine. Copernicus was granted leave and provided necessary funds to study medicine by the Cathedral Chapter.
Studies in Padua. In Padua Copernicus studied both medicine and astronomy. In the spring of 1503 he obtained the doctor degree at the University of Ferrara. There is no record that he ever graduated in medicine in Padua.
Return to Poland.When he returned to Poland, Copernicus was again granted leave from his official duties to allow him to help his uncle’s medical needs. For about five years he was also his uncle’s private secretary and personal advisor. Lucas Watzenrode died in 1512 and following this Copernicus resumed his duties as canon in the Warmia Chapter. He now had more time to devote to astronomy, having an observatory in the rooms in one of the towers in the town's fortifications.
Swearing allegiance to Polish king.Also in 1512, together with the entire Frombork chapter, he swore the allegiance to the Polish king Sigismundus I (Zygmunt I Stary).
The Little Commentary. Around 1514 he distributed a little hand written book to a few of his friends who knew that he was the author even though no author is named on the title page. This book, usually called the Little Commentary, set out Copernicus's theory of a universe with the sun at its center. It contains seven axioms There is no one center in the universe. The Earth's center is not the center of the universe. The center of the universe is near the sun. The distance from the Earth to the sun is imperceptible compared with the distance to the stars. The rotation of the Earth accounts for the apparent daily rotation of the stars. The apparent annual cycle of movements of the sun is caused by the Earth revolving round it. The apparent retrograde motion of the planets is caused by the motion of the Earth from which one observes. His reputation was such that as early as 1514 the Lateran Council, convoked by Leo X, asked through Bishop Paul of Fossombrone, for his opinion on the reform of the ecclesiastical calendar .
Administrator of the districts of Olsztyn and Makowory.Fighting against Teutonic Knights. In 1516 Copernicus was given the task of administering the districts of Olsztyn and Makowory in Poland. In 1520-21, during the war between Poland and the Teutonic Knights Copernicus was again living in Olsztyn Castle and organized its successful defense against attacking forces of the Teutonic Knights. As a reward he was appointed Commissioner of Warmia and given the task of rebuilding the district after the war. His close friend, Tiedemann Giese was given the task of assisting him.
Proposal of monetary reforms.As part of the recovery plan, Copernicus wrote a memorandum on monetary reforms presented to the Diet of Grudziadz in 1522. He formulated a law (Gresham-Kopernik law) according to which better money drives out a worse one. It was so highly thought of that the King of Poland substantially accepted it (1528), and Copernicus was nominated deputy counselor on the financial regulations of Royal Prussia (1522-29). In 1526 he assisted Bernard Wapowski, the King’s Secretary, with mapping the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The rough draft of "De Revolutionibus...In 1533 the rough draft of Copernicus’ work “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” was presented to the Pope Clemens VII. Three years later Copernicus was urged by Cardinal Schonberg, then Archbishop of Capua, in a letter, dated at Rome, 1 November, 1536, to publish his discovery, or at least to have a copy made at the cardinal's expense. In 1537 Copernicus was confirmed by the king of Poland as one of four candidates for the Warmia bishoprics.
Accused of concubinate. In 1538-39 bishop Jan Dantyszek accused Copernicus of concubinate, ordered him to fire his housekeeper and prepared a canonical trial. A full account of Copernicus's theory was apparently slow to reach a state in which he wished to see it published.
Rheticus visits Copernicus; Luther criticizes him.In May 1539 a young professor of mathematics and astronomy at the University of Wittenberg, Georg Joachim von Lauchen called Rheticus arrived at Frombork where he spent about two years with Copernicus. In the same year Martin Luther expressed his view of Copernicus: “This fool wants to overturn the entire art of astronomy!” while his coworker Filip Melanchton, said “Some believe that it is wonderful to elaborate such an absurd idea like this Sarmatian astronomer who moves the Earth and stops the Sun. Indeed wise rulers should restrain talented recklessness.” While living with Copernicus, Rheticus wrote to several people reporting on the progress Copernicus was making. By 29 August 1539 De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was ready for the printer. Rheticus took the manuscript with him when he returned to his teaching duties at Wittenberg, and gave it the printer Johann Petreius in Nürnberg. This was a leading center for printing and Petreius was the best printer in town. However, since he was unable to stay to supervise the printing he asked Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran theologian with considerable experience of printing mathematical texts, to undertake the task.
Osiander published "De Revolutionibus..." What Osiander did was to write a letter to the reader, inserted in place of Copernicus's original Preface following the title page, in which he claimed that the results of the book were not intended as the truth, rather that they merely presented a simpler way to calculate the positions of the heavenly bodies. The letter was unsigned and the true author of the letter was not revealed publicly until Kepler did so 50 years later. Osiander also subtly changed the title to make it appear less like a claim of the real world. Some are appalled at this gigantic piece of deception by Osiander, as Rheticus was at the time, others feel that it was only because of Osiander's Preface that Copernicus's work was read and not immediately condemned. In De revolutionibus – published in 1543 - Copernicus states several reasons why it is logical that the sun would be at the center of the universe. In the intended Preface of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium Copernicus showed that he was fully aware of the criticisms that his work would attract:- Perhaps there will be babblers who, although completely ignorant of mathematics, nevertheless take it upon themselves to pass judgement on mathematical questions and, badly distorting some passages of Scripture to their purpose, will dare find fault with my undertaking and censure it. I disregard them even to the extent as despising their criticism as unfounded. Its notable defenders included Kepler and Galileo while theoretical evidence for the Copernican theory was provided by Newton's theory of universal gravitation around 150 years later. Copernicus is said to have received a copy of the printed book, consisting of about 200 pages written in Latin, for the first time on his deathbed. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage. On the Catholic side opposition only commenced seventy-three years later, when it was occasioned by Galileo.
Copernicus' work forbidden by the Congregation of the Index.On 5 March, 1616, the work of Copernicus was forbidden by the Congregation of the Index "until corrected", and in 1620 these corrections were indicated. Nine sentences, by which the heliocentric system was represented as certain, had to be either omitted or hanged. It was removed from the Index in 1828. Tycho de Brahe, did not accept Copernicus's claim that the Earth moved round the sun.
Honors. The name Kopernik was given to: a large crater on the moon and on the Mars, the planetoid Nr.1322, a US satellite OAO-3, Soviet-Polish satellite Kopernik 500, University in Torun, Astronomical Center in Torun.

This information on Kopernik was abbreviated and copied from the article that appeared in
St.Andrews university
GAP is Copyright (C) 1986--1997 by Lehrstuhl D fuer Mathematik, RWTH Aachen, Aachen. Germany and Copyright (C) 1997-2001 by School of Mathematical and Computational Sciences, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, UK GAP can be copied and distributed freely for any non-commercial purpose.

See also:
Witryna Kopernik (Polish)
Catholic encyclopedia
Museum in Frombork

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