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The Copernican Revolution

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  • 0:01 Nicolaus Copernicus:…
  • 1:36 The Heliocentric Universe
  • 2:56 The Copernican Revolution
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson will discuss a famous astronomer by the name of Nicolaus Copernicus, his early history, his revolutionary idea, and why his model of the universe was actually wrong.

Nicolaus Copernicus: The Early Years

Nicolaus Copernicus was a Polish mathematician, physician, and astronomer. He was born to a merchant family in 1473. After he was orphaned at the age of 10, his uncle, an important bishop, sent him on his way to the University of Krakow in Poland and other fine universities in Italy. There, he studied law and medicine while remaining passionate about astronomy.

As young Copernicus sat in his classes, learning about astronomy, he learned something very different from what children do today. Back then, he studied the Ptolemaic universe, an idea that included the Earth at the center of our solar system and the universe, something we know not to be the case today.

But back in Copernicus's day, questioning the veracity of such thought was out of the question. This was because a lot of ancient Greek astronomical thought, math, and science had become intertwined with some of the teachings of the Church. This meant that if you spoke out against such science of the day, you automatically, by extension, spoke out against the Church. This, of course, was a dangerous way to go about doing things, for it could get you killed.

This is why it was unlikely that Copernicus considered anything but the Ptolemaic universe out in the open early on. Not to mention, he was appointed a canon at a cathedral at the age of 24, a position he held for the rest of his life.

The Heliocentric Universe

Sometime before 1514, Copernicus wrote an essay where he proposed the heliocentric universe, a universe where the sun was at the center, instead of the Earth. Whether out of modesty or fear of the Church, his early comments on such an idea were passed around anonymously. But because these were nothing but thoughts, without any observations or calculations, Copernicus knew he needed more proof.

And so, over many years, Copernicus worked on his book, The Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, and refined the ideas within it until the early 1540s. What's interesting to note is that most of his work was completed much earlier, around 1529. So much so, that even wise Church officials sought out his advice as to the coming changes his work would bring.

But he didn't publish it as early as 1529 for two likely reasons. One, he knew it would be very controversial and would question the Church's beliefs. And two, at that point, his model wasn't fully complete and couldn't accurately predict things like planetary positions.

In 1542, Copernicus finally sent the manuscript of his book off to be published, but he died in 1543, before the printing of it was completed.

The Copernican Revolution

The revolutionary idea in Copernicus's work was something I already mentioned, a heliocentric planetary system. In this system, with the sun at its center, the Earth moves faster along its orbit than the planets in our solar system that lie further away from the sun. It's like a racetrack, where the cars in the inner edge are running around the track much faster than the cars on the outer edges of the track.

But while such a system of thought was, without a doubt, a revolutionary thing for the time and paved the way to further precise explanations of planetary motions, the actual Copernican model was, in fact, inaccurate. This was because Copernicus stuck to the belief that planets had uniform circular motion whereas we now know they follow slightly noncircular elliptical orbits.

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