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Snapshots in History: February 19: Remembering Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543)

February 19, 2013 | John P. | Comments (0)

Nicolaus Copernicus was born 540 years ago today on February 19, 1473 and died at 70 years of age on May 24, 1543. Copernicus deserves our attention as he was the astronomer who began to nudge humanity towards its place in the universe, notably postulating that the Earth, other planets and celestial bodies orbited the Sun rather than the Earth being the centre of the universe as was previously believed. The fact that he was able to develop his sun-centered theory (based partly on observation) before the advent of the telescope is nothing short of remarkable.  

Consider the writings of Nicholas Copernicus available for borrowing from Toronto Public Library collections:


Three Copernican Treatises

Three Copernican treatises / Nicolaus Copernicus, 2004.

These writings were unavailable in English until 1939. The Commentariolus by Copernicus outlined his theories on heavenly motions developed around 1530. The Letter against Werner outlined Copernicus’ refutation of the work of astronomer and parish priest Johannes Werner who used trepidations methodology to describe the precession of the equinoxes. The third document, the Narratio prima, was written in 1540 by Georg Joachim Rheticus who explained the new theories developed by Copernicus in a letter to the astronomer Johannes Schöner.


On the revolution of heavenly spheres / Nicolaus Copernicus, 1995.

Copernicus outlined his heliocentric theory in which planets (including Earth) orbited the Sun. This contrasted sharply to the generally accepted geocentric view (developed by Ptolemy) that the Earth was at the centre of all orbiting bodies. This influential work was published around the time of Copernicus’ death in 1543.


Now consider what others had to say about Copernicus and his theories. Here are some examples of titles available for loan from Toronto Public Library collections:


The Book Nobody Read

The book nobody read: chasing the revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus / Owen Gingerich, 2004.

Harvard astrophysicist Gingerich sought out to examine various copies of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium caelestium (On the revolution of heavenly spheres) around the world to determine their provenance and how much each copy of the book might have been read. This was partly to counter the assertion made by Arthur Koestler in The sleepwalkers: a history of man's changing vision of the Universe that nobody had read On the revolution of heavenly spheres .


Copernicus' secret

Copernicus' secret: how the scientific revolution began / Jack Repcheck, 2007.

Repcheck emphasized the role of German mathematician Georg Joachim Rheticus, who as both an ally and a pupil of Copernicus, encouraged and assisted Copernicus in publishing On the revolution of heavenly spheres just before Copernicus died in 1543. Some assert that Copernicus’ work was one sign of the beginning of the Scientific Revolution at the end of the Renaissance period.


A More Perfect Heaven

A more perfect heaven: how Nicolaus Copernicus revolutionized the cosmos [1st U.S. ed.] / Dava Sobel, 2011.

Popular science writer Sobel focused on the context of Copernicus’ life in sociopolitical and religious terms. He was well-educated with a doctorate in canon law, and engaged in astronomy, medicine, and economics. Copernicus worked as a church canon dealing in the buying and selling of land. The author also dealt with the role of Georg Joachim Rheticus in the publication of On the revolution of heavenly spheres (to which Copernicus reluctantly agreed as he was concerned about the Catholic Church’s reaction to his theories) as well as the influence of Copernicus in fostering greater acceptance of the sun-centered solar system and the contributions of astronomers who followed Copernicus including Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei.

Also available in eBook (OverDrive) and eAudiobook (One Click Digital) formats.


Uncentering the Earth

Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and The revolutions of the heavenly spheres [1st ed.] / William T. Vollmann, 2006.

Novelist Vollmann produced an interesting, non-fiction work here about the influence of Nicolaus Copernicus and his heliocentric theory of planets orbiting the sun as expressed in On the revolution of heavenly spheres (rather than the Earth being the centre of the universe as was officially believed by Christian churches at the time). Vollmann worked through some of Copernicus’ inaccuracies but acknowledged that Copernicus produced his theories before the invention of the telescope, leading to the growing importance of observation in scientific research.


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