Copernicus is said to be the founder of modern astronomy. He was born in Poland,1 and eventually was sent off to Cracow University, there to study mathematics and optics; at Bologna, canon law. Returning from his studies in Italy, Copernicus, through the influence of his uncle, was appointed as a canon in the cathedral of Frauenburg where he spent a sheltered and academic life for the rest of his days. Because of his clerical position, Copernicus moved in the highest circles of power; but a student he remained. For relaxation Copernicus painted and translated Greek poetry into Latin. His interest in astronomy gradually grew to be one in which he had a primary interest. His investigations were carried on quietly and alone, without help or consultation. He made his celestial observations from a turret situated on the protective wall around the cathedral, observations were made "bare eyeball," so to speak, as a hundred more years were to pass before the invention of the telescope. In 1530, Copernicus completed and gave to the world his great work De Revolutionibus, which asserted that the earth rotated on its axis once daily and traveled around the sun once yearly: a fantastic concept for the times. Up to the time of Copernicus the thinkers of the western world believed in the Ptolemiac theory that the universe was a closed space bounded by a spherical envelope beyond which there was nothing. Claudius Ptolemy, an Egyptian living in Alexandria, at about 150 A.D., gathered and organized the thoughts of the earlier thinkers. (It is to be noted that one of the ancient Greek astronomers, Aristarchus, did have ideas similar to those more fully developed by Copernicus but they were rejected in favour of the geocentric or earth-centered scheme as was espoused by Aristotle.) Ptolemy's findings were that the earth was a fixed, inert, immovable mass, located at the center of the universe, and all celestial bodies, including the sun and the fixed stars, revolved around it. It was a theory that appealed to human nature. It fit with the casual observations that a person might want to make in the field; and second, it fed man's ego.
Copernicus was in no hurry to publish his theory, though parts of his work were circulated among a few of the astronomers that were giving the matter some thought; indeed, Copernicus' work might not have ever reached the printing press if it had not been for a young man who sought out the master in 1539. George Rheticus was a 25 year old German mathematics professor who was attracted to the 66 year old cleric, having read one of his papers. Intending to spend a few weeks with Copernicus, Rheticus ended up staying as a house guest for two years, so fascinated was he with Copernicus and his theories. Now, up to this time, Copernicus was reluctant to publish, -- not so much that he was concerned with what the church might say about his novel theory (De Revolutionibus was placed on the Index in 1616 and only removed in 1835), but rather because he was a perfectionist and he never thought, even after working on it for thirty years, that his complete work was ready, -- there were, as far as Copernicus was concerned, observations to be checked and rechecked.
(Interestingly, Copernicus' original manuscript, lost to the world for 300 years, was located in Prague in the middle of the 19th century; it shows Copernicus' pen was, it would appear, continually in motion with revision after revision; all in Latin as was the vogue for scholarly writings in those days.)
Copernicus died in 1543 and was never to know what a stir his work had caused. It went against the philosophical and religious beliefs that had been held during the medieval times. Man, it was believed (and still believed by some) was made by God in His image, man was the next thing to God, and, as such, superior, especially in his best part, his soul, to all creatures, indeed this part was not even part of the natural world (a philosophy which has proved disastrous to the earth's environment as any casual observer of the 20th century might confirm by simply looking about). Copernicus' theories might well lead men to think that they are simply part of nature and not superior to it and that ran counter to the theories of the politically powerful churchmen of the time.
Two other Italian scientists of the time, Galileo and Bruno, embraced the Copernican theory unreservedly and as a result suffered much personal injury at the hands of the powerful church inquisitors. Giordano Bruno had the audacity to even go beyond Copernicus, and, dared to suggest, that space was boundless and that the sun was and its planets were but one of any number of similar systems: Why! -- there even might be other inhabited worlds with rational beings equal or possibly superior to ourselves. For such blasphemy, Bruno was tried before the Inquisition, condemned and burned at the stake in 1600. Galileo was brought forward in 1633, and, there, in front of his "betters," he was, under the threat of torture and death, forced to his knees to renounce all belief in Copernican theories, and was thereafter sentenced to imprisonment for the remainder of his days.
The most important aspect of Copernicus' work is that it forever changed the place of man in the cosmos; no longer could man legitimately think his significance greater than his fellow creatures; with Copernicus' work, man could now take his place among that which exists all about him, and not of necessity take that premier position which had been assigned immodestly to him by the theologians.
"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 - for by this admission so many things vanished in mist and smoke! What became of our Eden, our world of innocence, piety and poetry; the testimony of the senses; the conviction of a poetic - religious faith? No wonder his contemporaries did not wish to let all this go and offered every possible resistance to a doctrine which in its converts authorized and demanded a freedom of view and greatness of thought so far unknown, indeed not even dreamed of." [Goethe.]
1 I quote from Chambers Biographical Dictionary: "Copernicus ... was born at Torun, Poland. His father was a Germanized Slav, his mother a German; and Poland and Germany both claim the honour of producing him."