The Man Who “Moved the Earth”

By Awake! writer in Poland

“There are certain ‘idle talkers’ who take it upon themselves to pronounce judgment, although wholly ignorant of mathematics, and if by shamelessly distorting the sense of some passage in Holy Writ to suit their purpose, they dare to reprehend and to attack my work; they worry me so little that I shall even scorn their judgments as foolhardy.”

NICOLAUS COPERNICUS wrote the above-quoted words to Pope Paul III. Copernicus included them in the preface to his groundbreaking work entitled On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, published in 1543. Regarding the views expressed in this work, Christoph Clavius, a 16th-century Jesuit priest, said: “The Copernican theory contains many absurd or erroneous assertions.” German theologian Martin Luther lamented: “The fool will upset the whole science of astronomy.”

Who was Nicolaus Copernicus? Why were his views so controversial? And how has he affected modern thinking?

A Young Mind Thirsting for Knowledge

Born on February 19, 1473, in Toruń, Poland, his given name was Mikołaj Kopernik. It was only later, when he started authoring his scholarly works, that Mikołaj adopted the Latinized name Nicolaus Copernicus. His father, a merchant who traded in Toruń, had four children; Nicolaus was the youngest. When Nicolaus was 11 years old, his father died. An uncle named Lucas Watzenrode took charge of Nicolaus and his siblings. He helped Nicolaus obtain a good education, encouraging him to become a priest.

Nicolaus’ education started in his hometown but later continued in nearby Chełmno, where he learned Latin and studied the works of ancient writers. At 18, he moved to Kraków, then the capital of Poland. Here he enrolled in the university and pursued his passion for astronomy. Upon completing his studies in Kraków, Nicolaus’ uncle—who by now had become the bishop of Warmia—asked him to move to Frombork, a city on the Baltic Sea. Watzenrode wanted his nephew to take the position of canon of the cathedral.

However, 23-year-old Nicolaus wanted to quench his thirst for knowledge and convinced his uncle to let him study canon law, medicine, and mathematics at the Italian universities of Bologna and Padua. There Nicolaus associated with the astronomer Domenico Maria Novara and the philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi. Historian Stanisław Brzostkiewicz says that Pomponazzi’s teachings liberated “the young astronomer’s mind from the grasp of medieval ideology.”

In his spare time, Copernicus studied the works of ancient astronomers, becoming so immersed in them that when he found the Latin works incomplete, he learned Greek so that he could study the original texts. By the end of his schooling, Nicolaus had become a doctor of canon law, a mathematician, and a medical doctor. He was also an expert in Greek, being the first person to translate a document from Greek directly into Polish.

Hatching a Revolutionary Theory

When Copernicus returned to Poland, his uncle the bishop appointed him as his personal secretary, adviser, and doctor—a prestigious position. During the following decades, Nicolaus held a variety of administrative positions, both religious and civil. Despite his workload, he continued his study of the stars and planets, gathering evidence to support a revolutionary theory—that the earth was not the stationary center of the universe but, in fact, moved around the sun.

This theory contradicted the teachings of the revered philosopher Aristotle and disagreed with the conclusions of the Greek mathematician Ptolemy. In addition, Copernicus’ theory denied the seemingly obvious “fact” that the sun rose in the east and moved across the sky to set in the west, while the earth remained at a standstill.

Copernicus was not the first person to conclude that the earth revolved around the sun. Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos proposed this theory in the third century B.C.E. Followers of Pythagoras had taught that the earth as well as the sun were in motion around a central fire. However, Ptolemy wrote that if the earth moved, “animals and other weights would be left hanging in the air, and the Earth would very quickly fall out of the heavens.” He added: “Merely to conceive such things makes them appear ridiculous.”

Ptolemy backed Aristotle’s idea that the earth stood still at the center of the universe and was surrounded by a series of clear spheres nestled within each other, upon which the sun, the planets, and the stars were fixed. He assumed that the movement of these clear spheres accounted for the movement of the planets and the stars. Ptolemy’s mathematical formulas explained, with some degree of accuracy, the movement of the planets in the night sky.

It was the deficiencies in Ptolemy’s theory, though, that led Copernicus to search for an alternative explanation for the strange movements of the planets. To substantiate his theory, Copernicus reconstructed the instruments used by the ancient astronomers. Although simple by modern standards, these devices allowed him to calculate the relative distances between the planets and the sun. He spent years determining the precise dates on which his predecessors had made certain important astronomical observations. Armed with this data, Copernicus began work on the controversial document that shifted mankind from the center of the universe.

Controversy Over the Manuscript

Copernicus spent the last years of his life refining and supplementing the arguments and mathematical formulas that underpinned his theory. More than 95 percent of the final document contains technical details supporting his conclusions. This original handwritten document survives and is kept at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. The document is untitled. Therefore, astronomer Fred Hoyle writes: “We do not really know how Copernicus wished his book to be named.”

Even before the work was published, its contents aroused interest. Copernicus had published a brief summary of his ideas in a work called Commentariolus. As a result, reports of his research reached Germany and Rome. As early as 1533, Pope Clement VII heard of Copernicus’ theory. And in 1536, Cardinal Schönberg wrote to Copernicus, urging him to publish a full account of his ideas. Georg Joachim Rhäticus, a professor at Wittenberg University in Germany, was so intrigued by Copernicus’ work that he visited the astronomer and ended up spending two years with him. In 1542, Rhäticus took a copy of the manuscript with him back to Germany and handed it to a printer named Petreius and to a clergyman and proofreader named Andreas Osiander.

Osiander gave the work the title De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). By including the phrase “of the heavenly spheres,” Osiander implied that the work was influenced by Aristotle’s ideas. Osiander also wrote an anonymous preface, stating that the hypotheses in the book were not articles of faith and were not necessarily true. Copernicus did not receive a copy of the printed book, with its unauthorized changes and compromises, until just hours before his death in 1543.

On the Revolutions—A Revolutionary Work

Osiander’s changes initially spared the book from criticism. Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo later wrote: “When printed, the book was accepted by the holy Church and it has been read and studied by everyone without the faintest hint of any objection ever being conceived against its doctrines. Yet now that manifest experiences and necessary proofs have shown them to be well grounded, persons exist who would strip the author of his reward without so much as looking at his book.”

The Lutherans were the first to call the book “an absurdity.” The Catholic Church, despite initially reserving judgment, decided that the book was in conflict with its official doctrine and in 1616 added Copernicus’ work to the list of banned books. It was not removed from this list until 1828. In his introduction to an English translation of the book, Charles Glenn Wallis explains: “The dissensions between Catholics and Protestants made both sects fearful of any scandal which might appear to undermine respect for the Church of the Bible, and consequently they became over-literal in their reading of Scripture and were inclined to condemn any assertion which could be construed as contradicting any literal interpretation of any passage in the Bible.”* Regarding the supposed conflict between Copernicus’ theory and Bible teaching, Galileo wrote: “[Copernicus] did not ignore the Bible, but he knew very well that if his doctrine were proved, then it could not contradict the Scriptures when they were rightly understood.”

Today, Copernicus is revered by many as the father of modern astronomy. True, his description of the universe was refined and improved by later scientists, such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton. However, astrophysicist Owen Gingerich observes: “It was Copernicus who by his work showed us how fragile time-honored scientific conceptions can be.” Through research, observation, and mathematics, Copernicus overturned entrenched religious and scientific misconceptions. In the minds of men, he also “stopped the sun and moved the earth.”


For example, the account recorded at Joshua 10:13, which speaks of the sun being made to stand still, was used to assert that the sun, not the earth, normally moves.

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On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres

  Copernicus divided his work into six parts. Listed below are some of the key ideas appearing in his book.

● Our planet is one of many “travelers” whose movements are governed by the sun sitting on its royal throne.’

● The planets are orbiting the sun in the same direction. The earth is one of them, spinning on its own axis once a day and orbiting the sun once every year.

● Arranged in order of distance from the sun, Mercury is closest, followed by Venus, Earth and its moon, Mars, Jupiter, and finally Saturn.

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Title page of Copernicus’ work: Zbiory i archiwum fot. Muzeum Okręgowego w Toruniu

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An observational instrument used by Copernicus

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Zbiory i archiwum fot. Muzeum Okręgowego w Toruniu

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Items from Copernicus’ study, located at his observatory in Frombork, Poland

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Zdjecie: Muzeum M. Kopernika we Fromborku; J. Semków

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The earth-centered system

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© 1998 Visual Language

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The sun-centered system

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© 1998 Visual Language

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The solar system as we understand it today