Home Up

Authors born between 1450 and 1500 CE

Erasmus ] Machiavelli ] Wang Yang-ming ] [ Copernicus ] More ] Vives ] Rabelais ]

Click Up For A  Summary Of Each Author




The Decision to Publish

The Reason for A New System

The Mobility of the Earth

The Universe Is Spherical

The Earth Is Spherical

The Motion of the Heavenly Bodies

Circular Motion of the Earth

The Position of the Earth

The Immensity of the Heavens

The Sun as Stationary

The Planets Circle the Sun

The Symmetry of the Universe

Summary—the Earth’s Triple Motion






Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1527 CE) was born Mikolaj Kopernik in Torun, Poland. His uncle, Bishop Watzenrode, arranged for his university education. He studied liberal arts, mathematics and optics at the University of Krakow, canon law at Bologna, and medicine at Padua. At Bologna he worked on astronomical measurements with a mathematics professor, Domenico Maria de Novara, and became aware of the inaccuracies inherent in Ptolemaic predictions of the motion of the planets. He received his doctorate in Italy in 1503.On his return from Italy, where the notion that the earth revolved around the sun was being discussed, he attempted to test the concept by means of observation.


He returned to become canon of Frauenberg in 1512, but was not an ordained priest. He was occupied instead with administrative and political affairs and with providing medical assistance to local citizens. In 1514 he put forward his views on reform of the calendar developed by Julius Ceasar, to bring it back into synchrony with the solar year. In 1517 he developed a plan for reform of the currency.


He began his major work on the heliocentric view of the solar system (The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) at about this time, publishing a brief popular account in 1530. This was circulated widely, and eventually was the subject of a lecture given in Rome. Pope Clement II approved of the ideas expressed and transmitted a request via the Polish Cardinal that the ideas be published in full. A complete text of Copernicus’ work was published in 1543, shortly before his sudden death in May of that year. Copernicus himself remarked on the long time it took him to complete this work. It is worth noting that although the concept is relatively simple, the development of the theory mathematically—given the need to research ancient records of doubtful accuracy—would extend over a long period for somebody working only in their spare time.


Copernicus argued that the earth rotates daily on its axis, that the Moon rotates around the earth, and that the earth-moon system rotates about the sun. He explained that the planets also revolved around the sun, Venus and Mercury being inside the earth’s orbit. He also described the slow precession of the earth’s axis (which required reference to ancient records).


His ideas of relative motion and of a finite but unbounded universe indicate an original mind. In addition, there is behind his scientific approach a philosophical position that sees nature as a harmonious whole that is disturbed only by violence: that things left in accordance with nature preserve themselves in their own best arrangement. His theory gained acceptance among mathematically inclined astronomers, but the removal of the earth from the center of the universe was too radical for most people. The theory was formally banned by the church at the time of Galileo.


Short extracts from the dedicatory letter to Pope Paul III and from the main text follow. The mathematical treatment and the geometric figures are omitted.



            From the Dedicatory Letter to Pope Paul III



The Decision to Publish


1. . . I debated with myself for a long time whether to publish the volume which I wrote to prove the earth's motion or rather to follow the example of the Pythagoreans and certain others, who used to transmit philosophy's secrets only to kinsmen and friends, not in writing but by word of mouth, as is shown by Lysis' letter to Hipparchus. And they did so, it seems to me, not, as some suppose, because they were in some way jealous about their teachings, which would be spread around. On the contrary, they wanted the very beautiful thoughts attained by great men of deep devotion not to be ridiculed by those who are reluctant to exert themselves vigorously in any literary pursuit unless it is lucrative. . .When I weighed these considerations, the scorn which I had reason to fear on account of the novelty and unconventionality of my opinion almost induced me to abandon completely the work which I had undertaken.


2     But while I hesitated for a long time and even resisted, my friends drew me back. Foremost among them was the cardinal of Capua, Nicholas Schönberg, renowned in every field of learning. Next to him was a man who loves me dearly, Tiedemann Giese, bishop of Chelmno, a close student of sacred letters as well as of all good literature. For he repeatedly encouraged me and, sometimes adding reproaches, urgently requested me to publish this volume and finally permit it to appear after being buried among my papers and lying concealed not merely until the ninth year but by now the fourth period of nine years. The same conduct was recommended to me by not a few other very eminent scholars. They exhorted me no longer to refuse, on account of the fear which I felt, to make my work available for the general use of students of astronomy. The crazier my doctrine of the earth's motion now appeared to most people, the argument ran, so much the more admiration and thanks would it gain after they saw the publication of my writings dispel the fog of absurdity by most luminous proofs. Influenced therefore by these persuasive men and by this hope, in the end I allowed my friends to bring out an edition of the volume, as they had long besought me to do.


The Reason for a New System


3 . . . I was impelled to consider a different system of deducing the motions of the universe's spheres for no other reason than the realization that astronomers do not agree among themselves in their investigations of this subject. For, in the first place, they are so uncertain about the motion of the sun and moon that they cannot establish and observe a constant length even for the tropical year. Secondly, in determining the motions not only of these bodies but also of the other five planets, they do not use the same principles, assumptions, and explanations of the apparent revolutions and motions.


4     For this reason I undertook the task of rereading the works of all the philosophers which I could obtain to learn whether anyone had ever proposed other motions of the universe's spheres than those expounded by the teachers of astronomy in the schools. And in fact first I found in Cicero that Hicetas supposed the earth to move. Later I also discovered in Plutarch that certain others were of this opinion:


Some think that the earth remains at rest. But Philolaus the Pythagorean believes that, like the sun and moon, it revolves around the fire in an oblique circle. Heraclides of Pontus, and Ecphantus the Pythagorean make the earth move, not in a progressive motion, but like a wheel in a rotation from west to east about its own center.


The Mobility of the Earth


5     Therefore, having obtained the opportunity from these sources, I too began to consider the mobility of the earth. And even though the idea seemed absurd, nevertheless I knew that others before me had been granted the freedom to imagine any circles whatever for the purpose of explaining the heavenly phenomena. Hence I thought that I too would be readily permitted to ascertain whether explanations sounder than those of my predecessors could be found for the revolution of the celestial spheres on the assumption of some motion of the earth.


6     Having thus assumed the motions which I ascribe to the earth later on in the volume, by long and intense study I finally found that if the motions of the other planets are correlated with the orbiting of the earth, and are computed for the revolution of each planet, not only do their phenomena follow from this but also the order and size of all the planets and spheres, and heaven itself is so linked together that in no portion of it can anything be shifted without disrupting the remaining parts and the universe as a whole.


7     Perhaps there will be babblers who claim to be judges of astronomy although completely ignorant of the subject and, badly distorting some passage of Scripture to their purpose, will dare to find fault with my undertaking and censure it. I disregard them even to the extent of despising their criticism as unfounded. For it is not unknown that Lactantius, otherwise an illustrious writer but hardly an astronomer, speaks quite childishly about the earth's shape, when he mocks those who declared that the earth has the form of a globe. Hence scholars need not be surprised if any such persons will likewise ridicule me. Astronomy is written for astronomers.



The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres



The Universe is Spherical


8    First of all, we must note that the universe is spherical. The reason is either that, of all forms, the sphere is the most perfect, needing no joint and being a complete whole which can be neither increased nor diminished; or that it is the most capacious of figures, best suited to enclose and retain all things; or even that all the separate parts of the universe, I mean the sun, moon, planets and stars, are seen to be of this shape; or that wholes strive to be circumscribed by this boundary, as is apparent in drops of water and other fluid bodies when they seek to be self-contained. Hence no one will question the attribution of this form to the divine bodies.



The Earth Is Spherical


9    The earth also is spherical, since it presses upon its center from every direction. Yet it is not immediately recognized as a perfect sphere on account of the great height of the mountains and depth of the valleys. They scarcely alter the general sphericity of the earth, however, as is clear from the following considerations. For a traveler going from any place toward the north, that pole of the daily rotation gradually climbs higher, while the opposite pole drops down an equal amount. More stars in the north are seen not to set, while in the south certain stars are no longer seen to rise. Thus Italy does not see Canopus, which is visible in Egypt; and Italy does see the River's last star, which is unfamiliar to our area in the colder region. Such stars, conversely, move higher in the heavens for a traveler heading southward, while those which are high in our sky sink down. Meanwhile, moreover, the elevations of the poles have the same ratio everywhere to the portions of the earth that have been traversed. This happens on no other figure than the sphere. Hence the earth too is evidently enclosed between poles and is therefore spherical. Furthermore, evening eclipses of the sun and moon are not seen by easterners, nor morning eclipses by westerners, while those occurring in between are seen later by easterners but earlier by westerners.


10    The waters press down into the same figure also, as sailors are aware, since land which is not seen from a ship is visible from the top of its mast. On the other hand, if a light is attached to the top of the mast, as the ship draws away from land, those who remain ashore see the light drop down gradually until it finally disappears, as though setting. Water, furthermore, being fluid by nature, manifestly always seeks the same lower levels as earth and pushes up from the shore no higher than its rise permits. Hence whatever land emerges out of the ocean is admittedly that much higher.



The Motion of the Heavenly Bodies


11    I shall now recall to mind that the motion of the heavenly bodies is circular, since the motion appropriate to a sphere is rotation in a circle. By this very act the sphere expresses its form as the simplest body, wherein neither beginning nor end can be found, nor can the one be distinguished from the other, while the sphere itself traverses the same points to return upon itself.

    In connection with the numerous celestial spheres, however, there are many motions. The most conspicuous of all is the daily rotation, which the Greeks call nychthemeron, that is, the interval of a day and a night. The entire universe, with the exception of the earth, is conceived as whirling from east to west in this rotation. It is recognized as the common measure of all motions, since we even compute time itself chiefly by the number of days.

    Secondly, we see other revolutions as advancing in the opposite direction, that is, from west to east; I refer to those of the sun, moon, and five planets. The sun thus regulates the year for us, and the moon the month, which are also very familiar periods of time.

    In like manner each of the other five planets completes its own orbit.


12   Yet these motions differ in many ways from the daily rotation or first motion. In the first place, they do not swing around the same poles as the first motion, but run obliquely through the zodiac. Secondly, these bodies are not seen moving uniformly in their orbits, since the sun and moon are observed to be sometimes slow, at other times faster in their course. Moreover, we see the other five planets also retrograde at times, and stationary at either end [of the regression]. And whereas the sun always advances along its own direct path, they wander in various ways, straying sometimes to the south and sometimes to the north; that is why they are called "planets" [wanderers]. Furthermore, they are at times nearer to the earth, when they are said to be in perigee; at other times they are farther away, when they are said to be in apogee.


13    We must acknowledge, nevertheless, that their motions are circular or compounded of several circles, because these nonuniformities recur regularly according to a constant law. This could not happen unless the motions were circular, since only the circle can bring back the past. Thus, for example, by a composite motion of circles the sun restores to us the inequality of days and nights as well as the four seasons of the year. Several motions are discerned herein, because a simple heavenly body cannot be moved by a single sphere nonuniformly. For this nonuniformity would have to be caused either by an inconstancy, whether imposed from without or generated from within, in the moving force or by an alteration in the revolving body. From either alternative, however, the intellect shrinks. It is improper to conceive any such defect in objects constituted in the best order.


14    It stands to reason, therefore, that their uniform motions appear nonuniform to us. The cause may be either that their circles have poles different [from the earth's] or that the earth is not at the center of the circles on which they revolve. To us who watch the course of these planets from the earth, it happens that our eye does not keep the same distance from every part of their orbits, but on account of their varying distances these bodies seem larger when nearer than when farther away (as has been proved in optics). Likewise, in equal arcs of their orbits their motions will appear unequal in equal times on account of the observer's varying distance. Hence I deem it above all necessary that we should carefully scrutinize the relation of the earth to the heavens lest, in our desire to examine the loftiest objects, we remain ignorant of things nearest to us, and by the same error attribute to the celestial bodies what belongs to the earth.


Circular Motion of the Earth


15    Now that the earth too has been shown to have the form of a sphere, we must in my opinion see whether also in this case the form entails the motion, and what place in the universe is occupied by the earth. Without the answers to these questions it is impossible to find the correct explanation of what is seen in the heavens.


16    Every observed change of place is caused by a motion of either the observed object or the observer or, of course, by an unequal displacement of each. For when things move with equal speed in the same direction, the motion is not perceived, as between the observed object and the observer, I mean. It is the earth, however, from which the celestial ballet is beheld in its repeated performances before our eyes. Therefore, if any motion is ascribed to the earth, in all things outside it the same motion will appear, but in the opposite direction, as though they were moving past it.


17    Such in particular is the daily rotation, since it seems to involve the entire universe except the earth and what is around it. However, if you grant that the heavens have no part in this motion but that the earth rotates from west to east, upon earnest consideration you will find that this is the actual situation concerning the apparent rising and setting of the sun, moon, stars and planets. Moreover since the heavens, which enclose and provide the setting for everything, constitute the space common to all things, it is not at first blush clear why motion should not be attributed rather to the enclosed than to the enclosing, to the thing located in space rather than to the framework of space.



The Position of the Earth


18    If we assume its daily rotation, another and no less important question follows concerning the earth's position. To be sure, up till now there has been virtually unanimous acceptance of the belief that the middle of the universe is the earth. Anyone who denies that the earth occupies the middle or center of the universe may nevertheless assert that its distance from there is insignificant in comparison with the distance of the sphere of the fixed stars, but perceptible and noteworthy in relation to the spheres of the sun and the other planets. He may deem this to be the reason why their motions appear nonuniform, as conforming to a center other than the center of the earth. Perhaps he can from this produce a not inept explanation of the apparent nonuniform motion. For the fact that the same planets are observed nearer to the earth and farther away necessarily proves that the center of the earth is not the center of their circles. It is less clear whether the approach and withdrawal are executed by the earth or the planets.


19    It will occasion no surprise if, in addition to the daily rotation, some other motion is assigned to the earth. That the earth rotates, that it also travels with several motions, and that it is one of the heavenly bodies are said to have been the opinions of Philolaus the Pythagorean.



The Immensity of the Heavens


20    The massive bulk of the earth does indeed shrink to insignificance in comparison with the size of the heavens. This can be ascertained from the fact that the boundary circles (for that is the translation of the Greek term horizons) bisect the entire sphere of the heavens. This could not happen if the earth's size or distance from the universe's center were noteworthy in comparison with the heavens. For, a circle that bisects a sphere passes through its center, and is the greatest circle that can be described on it.


21    Now a line drawn from the earth's surface to a point in the firmament must be distinct from the line drawn from the earth's center to the same point. Nevertheless, because these lines are immense in relation to the earth, they become like parallel lines. Because their terminus is enormously remote they appear to be a single line. For in comparison with their length the space enclosed by them becomes imperceptible, as is demonstrated in optics. This reasoning certainly makes it quite clear that the heavens are immense by comparison with the earth and present the aspect of an infinite magnitude, while on the testimony of the senses the earth is related to the heavens as a point to a body, and a finite to an infinite magnitude.


22    But no other conclusion seems to have been established. For it does not follow that the earth must be at rest in the middle of the universe. Indeed, a rotation in twenty-four hours of the enormously vast universe should astonish us even more than a rotation of its least part, which is the earth. For, the argument a that the center is motionless, and what is nearest the center moves the least, does not prove that the earth is at rest in the middle of the universe.


23    But things separated by the diversity of their situations are subject to a very different relation: those enclosed in a smaller orbit revolve faster than those traversing a bigger circle. Thus Saturn, the highest of the planets, revolves in thirty years; the moon, undoubtedly the nearest to the earth, completes its course in a month; and to close the series, it will be thought, the earth rotates in the period of a day and a night. Accordingly the same question about the daily rotation emerges again. On the other hand, likewise still undetermined is the earth's position, which has been made even less certain by what was said above. For that proof establishes no conclusion other than the heavens' unlimited size in relation to the earth. Yet how far this immensity extends is not at all clear.


24    At the opposite extreme are the very tiny indivisible bodies called "atoms". Being imperceptible, they do not immediately constitute a visible body when they are taken two or a few at a time. But they can be multiplied to such an extent that in the end there are enough of them to combine in a perceptible magnitude. The same may be said also about the position of the earth. Although it is not in the center of the universe, nevertheless its distance from there is still insignificant, especially in relation to the sphere of the fixed stars.



The Sun as Stationary


25    We regard it as a certainty that the earth, enclosed between poles, is bounded by a spherical surface. Why then do we still hesitate to grant it the motion appropriate by nature to its form rather than attribute a movement to the entire universe, whose limit is unknown and unknowable? Why should we not admit, with regard to the daily rotation, that the appearance is in the heavens and the reality in the earth? This situation closely resembles what Vergil's Aeneas says:


Forth from the harbor we sail, and the land and the cities slip backward [Aeneid, III, 72].

26    For when a ship is floating calmly along, the sailors see its motion mirrored in everything outside, while on the other hand they suppose that they are stationary, together with everything on board. In the same way, the motion of the earth can unquestionably produce the impression that the entire universe is rotating.

        Accordingly, since nothing prevents the earth from moving, I suggest that we should now consider also whether several motions suit it, so that it can be regarded as one of the planets. For, it is not the center of all the revolutions. This is indicated by the planets, apparent nonuniform motion and their varying distances from the earth. These phenomena cannot be explained by circles concentric with the earth. Therefore, since there are many centers, it will not be by accident that the further question arises whether the center of the universe is identical with the center of terrestrial gravity or with some other point. For my part I believe that gravity is nothing but a certain natural desire, which the divine providence of the Creator of all things has implanted in parts, to gather as a unity and a whole by combining in the form of a globe. This impulse is present, we may suppose, also in the sun, the moon, and the other brilliant planets, so that through its operation they remain in that spherical shape which they display. Nevertheless, they swing round their circuits in divers ways. If, then, the earth too moves in other ways, for example, about a center, its additional motions must likewise be reflected in many bodies outside it. Among these motions we find the yearly revolution.


27    For if this is transformed from a solar to a terrestrial movement, with the sun acknowledged to be at rest, the risings and settings which bring the zodiacal signs and fixed stars into view morning and evening will appear in the same way. The stations of the planets, moreover, as well as their retrogradations and [resumptions of] forward motion will be recognized as being, not movements of the planets, but a motion of the earth, which the planets borrow for their own appearances. Lastly, it will be realized that the sun occupies the middle of the universe.


28    All these facts are disclosed to us by the principle governing the order in which the planets follow one another, and by the harmony of the entire universe, if only we look at the matter, as the saying goes, with both eyes.



The Planets Circle the Sun


29    Hence I feel no shame in asserting that this whole region engirdled by the moon, and the center of the earth, traverse this grand circle amid the rest of the planets in an annual revolution around the sun. Near the sun is the center of the universe. Moreover, since the sun remains stationary, whatever appears as a motion of the sun is really due rather to the motion of the earth. In comparison with any other spheres of the planets, the distance from the earth to the sun has a magnitude which is quite appreciable in proportion to those dimensions. But the size of the universe is so great that the distance earth-sun is imperceptible in relation to the sphere of the fixed stars. This should be admitted, I believe, in preference to perplexing the mind with an almost infinite multitude of spheres, as must be done by those who kept the earth in the middle of the universe. On the contrary, we should rather heed the wisdom of nature. Just as it especially avoids producing anything superfluous or useless, so it frequently prefers to endow a single thing with many effects.


30    The first and the highest of all is the sphere of the fixed stars, which contains itself and everything, and is therefore immovable. It is unquestionably the place of the universe, to which the motion and position of all the other heavenly bodies are compared. Some people think that it also shifts in some way. A different explanation of why this appears to be so will be adduced in my discussion of the earth's motion.


31    The sphere of the fixed stars is followed by the first of the planets, Saturn, which completes its circuit in 30 years. After Saturn, Jupiter accomplishes its revolution in 12 years. Then Mars revolves in 2 years. The annual revolution takes the series' fourth place, which contains the earth, as I said, together with the lunar sphere as an epicycle. In the fifth place Venus returns in 9 months. Lastly, the sixth place is held by Mercury, which revolves in a period of 80 days. At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the sun.



The Symmetry of the Universe


32    In this arrangement, therefore, we discover a marvelous symmetry of the universe, and an established harmonious linkage between the motion of the spheres and their size, such as can be found in no other way. For this permits a not inattentive student to perceive why the forward and backward arcs appear greater in Jupiter than in Saturn and smaller than in Mars, and on the other hand greater in Venus than in Mercury. This reversal in direction appears more frequently in Saturn than in Jupiter, and also more rarely in Mars and Venus than in Mercury. Moreover, when Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars rise at sunset, they are nearer to the earth than when they set in the evening or appear at a later hour. But Mars in particular, when it shines all night, seems to equal Jupiter in size, being distinguished only by its reddish color. Yet in the other configurations it is found barely among the stars of the second magnitude, being recognized by those who track it with assiduous observations. All these phenomena proceed from the same cause, which is in the earth's motion.

        Yet none of these phenomena appears in the fixed stars. This proves their immense height, which makes even the sphere of the annual motion, or its reflection, vanish from before our eyes.



Summary—the Earth’s Triple Motion


33    In so many and such important ways, then, do the planets bear witness to the earth's mobility. I shall now give a summary of this motion, insofar as the phenomena are explained by it as a principle. As a whole, it must be admitted to be a threefold motion.

    The first motion, named nychthemeron by the Greeks, as I said, is the rotation which is the characteristic of a day plus a night. This turns around the earth's axis from west to east, just as the universe is deemed to be carried in the opposite direction. It describes the equator, which some people call the "circle of equal days", in imitation of the designation used by the Greeks, whose term for it is isemerinos.


34   The second is the yearly motion of the center, which traces the ecliptic around the sun. Its direction is likewise from west to east, that is, in the order of the zodiacal signs. It travels between Venus and Mars, as I mentioned, together with its associates. Because of it, the sun seems to move through the zodiac in a similar motion. Thus, for example, when the earth's center is passing through the Goat, the sun appears to be traversing the Crab; with the earth in the Water Bearer, the sun seems to be in the Lion, and so on, as I remarked.


35    To this circle, which goes through the middle of the signs, and to its plane, the equator and the earth's axis must be understood to have a variable inclination. For if they stayed at a constant angle, and were affected exclusively by the motion of the center, no inequality of days and nights would be observed. On the contrary, it would always be either the longest or shortest day or the day of equal daylight and darkness, or summer or winter, or whatever the character of the season, it would remain identical and unchanged.

        The third motion in inclination is consequently required. This also is a yearly revolution, but it occurs in the reverse order of the signs, that is, in the direction opposite to that of the motion of the center. These two motions are opposite in direction and nearly equal in period. The result is that the earth's axis and equator, the largest of the parallels of latitude on it, face almost the same portion of the heavens, just as if they remained motionless. Meanwhile the sun seems to move through the obliquity of the ecliptic with the motion of the earth's center, as though this were the center of the universe. Only remember that, in relation to the sphere of the fixed stars, the distance between the sun and the earth vanishes from our sight forthwith.





Nicholas Copernicus On the Revolutions, translation and commentary by Edward Rosen. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London. The full text is at the web sites of Dartmouth University and WebExhibits.Org.