#28. Nicolaus Copernicus

“Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe. Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind.” –Goethe

It was, quite literally, a revolutionary idea. In 1514, Polish astronomer Mikolaj Kopernik, in his “Commentariolus,” posited that the earth is not at the center of everything. With his sun-centered alternative, he turned the Western world—and, indeed, the entire universe—on its head.

As Goethe suggests, this theory’s impact on science was surpassed by its philosophical implications. Mankind, you are not that important.

With that assertion, Mikolaj Kopernik—Latinized to Nicolaus Copernicus—ushered a revolution into the West, one that allowed modern science to develop. These contributions rank him as Western history’s 28th most influential figure.

Copernicus was born in 1473 Poland to two merchants who afforded him an education that culminated in attending the University of Krakow. Fluent in Latin, German, and his native Polish, with a working knowledge of Greek and Italian, Copernicus matured in an era of renewed intellectualism. The medieval world gasped for air as the Renaissance slowly suffocated it.

Copernicus’s lifetime (1473-1543) spanned what was perhaps the most momentous 70-year period in Western history. During the year of his birth, the recently invented printing press was spreading to all corners of Europe. When Copernicus was 19, a Genoese explorer named Christopher Columbus sailed the Atlantic for a uniting Spain. Ten years after Columbus’s return, Leonardo da Vinci began painting the Mona Lisa. Within a decade, the Florentine artist Michelangelo completed the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling while fellow Italian Niccolo Machiavelli finished an early draft of “The Prince.” Soon after, Martin Luther of Saxony posted his Ninety-Five Theses and started the Protestant Reformation. Four years later, as Luther refused recantation at Worms, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan led the first voyage to circumnavigate the planet, finally showing the world that it was, as Goethe put it, “round and complete in itself.”

Throughout this period, the once omnipotent Roman Catholic Church fell under siege by powerful monarchs, satirical writers, humanist philosophers, and Protestant reformers. As Copernicus witnessed this era of immense change, he could scarcely have envisioned how he would one day contribute to it. His crowning achievement ultimately hammered another nail into the coffin of the once mighty medieval papacy.

That crowning achievement was his book “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium”—“On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”—which explains his heliocentric theory. Fearing retribution from resistant traditionalists across Europe, he had sat on the manuscript for years. He finally allowed friends to publish the work in 1543, the year he took his final breath on the tiny planet he rightly displaced. Lore suggests he saw the first copy on his deathbed.

The traditionalists he feared clung to the accepted second century Ptolemaic model of the universe. Ptolemy’s universe was geocentric, or Earth-centered, meaning the sun, planets, and stars revolved around Earth. Ptolemy and others noted the misshapen, direction-changing orbits of the visible planets—caused, as we now know, by them and us actually orbiting something else—and explained them by adding inelegant retrograde “epicycles,” or mini-loops that briefly move the planets off their orbits around us. In the ancient world, these seemingly indecisive drifters earned the Greek name for wanderers—planetesgiving us the term “planets” today.

The Christianized late Roman Empire and subsequent medieval Catholic Church happily adopted geocentrism as its universe of choice. What better place to put God’s creation than at the center of everything? Scripture even supported it.[1] Consequently, geocentrism, like the Church, dominated Western science for centuries.

And why not? For millennia, anyone not well-versed in astronomy could be forgiven for their assumption that the earth stands still at the universe’s center. After all, we cannot feel Earth spin or travel through space at thousands of miles per hour. We observe the stars revolve around us as if they’re painted on a rotating planetarium ceiling. Indeed, we still say that the sun “rises” in the east and “sets” in the west.[2] Frankly, from a basic observational point of view, it does feel like we stand at a fixed, immobile center of the cosmos.

Nicolaus Copernicus, however, observed something quite different, and he didn’t even need a telescope (which was invented over 60 years after his death) to do it. De revolutionibus’s proposal was based on naked-eye observation and mathematical calculation. This Aristotelian empiricism (see #30) helped Copernicus realize that the peculiar Ptolemaic model was aesthetically inferior to a heliocentric—or sun-centered—model.[3] A middle-aged Copernicus shared his ideas with friends in his Commentariolus, written a few decades before his more complete book.

The “Little Commentary” proposed big changes. It posited that Earth rotates on its axis once every 24 hours, that only the moon revolves around the earth, and, most radically, that the planetes, Earth included, actually revolve around the sun.

Commentariolus made its way around elite European circles and even found its way to Rome, where it was given a mixed reception by the Church. Luckily for Copernicus, the pope, Leo X, was relatively humanistic compared to many of his predecessors. He allowed Copernicus to continue.[4] Copernicus trod carefully for three decades while quietly constructing the larger De revolutionibus.

Predictably, the more thorough work faced rebuke from religious contemporaries. Few things united the rival Protestants and Catholics of the sixteenth century, but this heretical idea was one of them. Martin Luther was among the first to rip apart blasphemous heliocentrism:

“People give ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. . . . This fool wishes to reverse the entire scheme of astrology; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.”

Another major Protestant reformer, John Calvin, echoed those sentiments, citing the 93rd Psalm: “‘The world also is stabilized, that it cannot be moved.’ . . . Who will venture to place authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?”

The Catholic Church certainly didn’t venture it. De revolutionibus made its way onto the Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum—the “List of Prohibited Books.”

The resistance from multiple wings of Christianity was understandable. Copernicus’s proposition wasn’t just physical. It was metaphysical as well.

Geocentrism is inextricably paired with egomania.[5] Think of what’s implied when one accuses another of thinking they’re “at the center of the universe” or that the “world revolves around them.” The West suffered from that arrogant affliction for nearly its entire history. God created us at the center of everything. We are important. He made the universe for us. We are His most precious creation. From this geocentric premise, Westerners naturally felt like the surrounding universe evidenced our own significance.

Contrarily, evicting Earth from the universe’s epicenter triggers many aftershocks. If we’re not at the center, where are we? Why are we so far from the center? How did we get here? Is there a center of the universe? While we’re at it, what is the universe? How big is it? Are there other planets with life out there, just as unimportant as we are? Did God create them in six days, too?

Post-Copernican science confirmed not only that we are not at the universe’s center, but we’re actually just one of eight planets[6] orbiting around the sun, which itself is just one star of a few hundred billion that are part of this galaxy, which itself is just one galaxy of perhaps trillions. The numbers boggle the mind, and with the thousands of exoplanets found in the last decade alone, we start to realize that the probability for other life out there is all but certain. We are merely a speck of dust in a vast cosmic ocean.[7] Luther, Calvin, and the Church did their best to resist Copernicus’s idea, but they were on the wrong side of the facts and on the wrong side of history.[8]

Copernicus forced us not only to rethink our position in the universe, but he gave us a badly needed kick in our prime meridian. No, mankind. You are not that important, and you aren’t nearly as smart as you think you are. So pick up the pace. Copernicus never said such a thing, but his proposal screamed it.

Copernicus’s accomplishments catalyzed a new era of scientific wonder, starting with his beloved field of astronomy. Few historical figures have a “revolution” attached to their name, but with the Copernican Revolution, the Polish astronomer earned it. Future astronomers, if they wanted to be taken seriously, needed to adopt his model.[9] In 1605, Johannes Kepler proposed a more accurate solar system which included elliptical orbits and changing planetary speeds instead of the perfectly round orbits and steadily paced planets proposed by his Polish predecessor. Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei also improved upon the Copernican model, Isaac Newton explained how it worked, and then Albert Einstein explained why.[10]

Importantly, these astronomers’ improvements on Copernicus’s universe start to explain why Copernicus isn’t higher on this Top 30 list. Indeed, other similar[11] lists of influential historical figures often have him near or in their top 10. If he proposed an accurate universe and was the first to do so, he would have ranked a bit better for me as well. However, for my list (which, of course, is the definitive word), he’s relegated to “only” #28 for several reasons.

First, as just stated, his system, though an enormously important step forward, was seriously flawed. For example, he not only placed the sun at the center of the solar system, he placed it at the center of the universe, a big mistake that’s merely less wrong than putting the earth there. Furthermore, because he didn’t abandon perfectly circular orbits and the single-speed motion of the planets, he needed to build in his own, less inelegant epicycles to make the timing his system work. He also supported the mystical explanation of celestial spheres keeping the heavenly bodies in space, a notion that quickly grew archaic. Frankly, it was not until Kepler that we had an accurate map of the visible planets’ orbits. In fact, no astronomer ever fully accepted Copernicus’s model; his reactionary contemporaries tried to re-center Earth, while by the early seventeenth century, Kepler, Galileo, and their successors obliterated each of Copernicus’s proposals, save the solar system’s heliocentrism

What’s more, Copernicus wasn’t even the first person to propose heliocentrism. A fourth century BCE Greek, Heraclides Ponticus, proposed that a rotating Earth, not a circling sun, caused day and night. Followers of famed mathematician Pythagoras joined him.[12] The following century, the first outright heliocentrist in Western history, Aristarchus of Samoa, truly made the breakthrough. Seleucus of Seleuica later used trigonometry to prove Aristarchus correct.[13]

Another mark against Copernicus might be his field of study. Some people could well argue that, “It’s just astronomy. Who cares?” What applications were there to heliocentrism? When comparing the relevance of astronomy to the more practical sciences—physics, biology, anatomy, physiology, chemistry—one sees how relatively unimportant astronomy is in our daily lives. It is, in fact, just astronomy. Who cares?[14]

In this particular case, everyone should care. After four paragraphs arguing against Copernicus’s importance, it’s time to do what he did. Let’s put things in perspective.

I’ll admit it right now: I left off many scientists and inventors who had more “practical” inventions and ideas than Copernicus did.[15] However, I’d argue that the innumerable technological and scientific advancements of the last five centuries were made in a universe where their originator’s brilliant minds knew that the earth was not at the universe’s center, that Church doctrine was not infallible, that its reach did not extend to the stars, and that individuals, properly equipped with facts, figures, and observation, could advance our body of knowledge.

In essence, Copernicus created a universe that encouraged science, individualism, and the advancement of man. It is no accident of periodization that the West’s “Scientific Revolution” began in 1543, the year of Copernicus’s big publication.[16] Following Copernicus was an explosion of scientific curiosity and accomplishment. Copernicus not only gave us modern astronomy—his paradigm shifting model was far more important than Kepler’s refinement of it—but he also showed that science must be a servant to facts, not dogma. Aristarchus’s heliocentrism was lost to the West for nearly two millennia, but when Copernicus brought it back and showed the irrefutable arithmetic that disproved the prevailing wisdom of the intimidating Catholic Church, the door opened for so many others in so many fields to do the same. I’m not too sure that a world where more practical advancements is possible without a post-Copernican West to allow and embrace their contributions. The Scientific Revolution was first necessary, and Copernicus was its catalyst. The man changed the universe.

Given the wealth of scientific achievements since Copernicus, like venturing away from Earth and into (and out of!) his restructured solar system, perhaps we can now say that mankind turned out to be pretty important after all. This species’ significance, however, does not stem from God placing us at the universe’s center. If we are important creatures, we’ve proven it not through unfounded faith in the importance itself, but through our curiosity and our accomplishments. Copernicus ushered in the era where those characteristics could shine like the sun around which they orbit.

For these reasons, Nicolaus Copernicus deserves his spot as the 28th most influential figure in Western history.

[1] Joshua 10:12 writes about God holding still the sun (rather than the earth) in order to postpone nightfall. Psalms 93:1 talks about our immovable world. In Genesis, the creation of heaven, Earth, and man can be interpreted as God’s main focus, which implies philosophical, if not literal, geocentrism.

[2] Which I’m totally cool with. I’d rather avoid saying, “Earth’s rotation gave our meridian the requisite angle to observe the sun at 6:17 this morning.” Trust me, I talk like that if necessary.

[3] The prevalent geocentric theory of the time was so accepted that Copernicus, after realizing a heliocentric model of the universe seemed to make more mathematical sense, repeatedly checked and rechecked his figures. The notion that the earth was moving seemed absurd on the face of it, even to him. In this case, truth was indeed stranger than fiction.

[4] The fact that Martin Luther was about to give Leo all he could handle probably helped Copernicus off the hook. Later, heliocentrists like Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake (for many heterodox positions), and Galileo Galilei, who was tried by the Church, forced to recant, and imprisoned for life, were not so lucky.

[5] Indeed, the words geocentrism and egocentrism are almost identical. (Admit it. Your mind is blown.)

[6] Orbit In Peace, Pluto, you adorable dwarf.

[7] Perhaps no piece of art or literature better puts that realization in perspective than Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot.” Look it up.

[8] Later that century, in a correspondence between scholar Jerome Wolf and astronomer Tycho Brahe, Wolf wrote, “No attack on Christianity is more dangerous than the infinite size and depth of the universe.”

[9] The afore-footnoted Brahe was probably the last legitimate astronomer to entertain geocentrism, and his Tychonic system offered to merge Ptolemy and Copernicus’s models into a sort of compromise universe. In essence, Earth would still be at the center, but the other planets would still revolve around the sun, which in turn revolved around the earth. It was a good try, but far too conservative given Copernicus’s breakthrough. For his efforts, Brahe earned an eponymous lunar crater.

[10] Galileo, Newton, and Einstein will be getting their own entries later in the book. The fun is just beginning, folks.

[11] Inferior

[12] Today, people fawn over athletes, pop stars, and reality TV celebrities. But the Greeks? They followed around mathematicians. The lesson, as always: the Greeks were awesome.

[13] Plus, if we leave the West behind and venture into terra incognita for yours truly, we’ll find Indian and maybe even Egyptian scholars who also beat Copernicus to the punch. But I would no sooner leave the West behind than I would wander into a foreign forest at nightfall. I’ll stick to familiar, well-lit surroundings, thank you very much.

[14] I don’t want to be overly critical of astronomy as a science. I think few sciences engage young people as much as astronomy does—I speak from experience as a former child and now a father—which is probably critical in developing the future scientists of the world. Moreover, there actually have been practical applications to more modern astronomy. Many crucial advances in navigation, communications, and physics were impossible without studying the universe. So there, straw man. Take that.

[15] Very tough cuts: inventors and scientists like William Harvey, Antoine Lavoisier, Alexander Fleming, Joseph Lister, Nikola Tesla, William Gilbert, Eli Whitney, the Curies, Jonas Salk, Michael Faraday, William Shockley, Alexander Graham Bell, Max Plank, Charles Babbage, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Dmitri Mendeleev, Neils Bohr, Gregor Mendel, Watson and Crick, Werner Heisenberg, Samuel Morse, Robert Fulton, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Newcomen, and Benjamin Franklin. If you think I’m crazy for leaving them off, consider that I just listed 30 names right there. These difficult eliminations kept me up at nights. Many, many important people have changed the Western world. In other words, this list wasn’t easy… so back off.

[16] Not to be overlooked is Andreas Vesalius’s landmark De humani corporis fabrica (“On the Fabric of the Human Body”), which was also published in 1543 and set the foundation for modern anatomy.


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