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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Edward Singleton Holden (1846–1914)
TT has been the fortune of other men than Copernicus to render immense services to science: but it has never before been given to any philosopher to alter, for every thinking man, his entire view of the world; to face the whole human race in a new direction; to lay the foundations for all subsequent intellectual progress. To comprehend the new universe which he opened to mankind, it is necessary to understand something of the age in which he lived, and its critical relations to the past and future.  1
  The life of Copernicus covered the years 1473 to 1543. The astronomy of the Greeks came to its flower with Ptolemy (circa A.D. 150), who was followed by a host of able commentators. Their works were mostly lost in some one of the several destructions of the Alexandrian library. Many important treatises survived, of course, though Grecian science was then dead. Bagdad became the seat of astronomy under the Abbasside Caliphs. It is said that Al Mamun (circa A.D. 827) stipulated in a treaty with the Emperor for copies of the manuscripts of Greek philosophers in the Constantinople libraries, and that these were translated for the benefit of Arabian scholars. The Arabs carried this learning, improved in many details, to the lands they conquered. Bagdad, Cordova, Seville, Tangier, have been successively the homes of exact science. Under the Moguls the seat of astronomy was transferred to Samarkand (1405). It was not firmly rooted in Europe until Tycho Brahe built Uranienborg in Denmark in 1576.  2
  The Arabs touched Europe in Spain (711–1492) and through the Crusaders (1099). The ancient Ptolemaic system of the world, which counted the earth as the center of the universe, was successively amended by new devices,
  With centric and eccentric scribbled o’er,
Cycle and epicycle, orb in orb—”
until it had reached a complexity past belief. King Alfonso X. of Castile expended an enormous sum for the construction of the Alfonsine Tables (1252), which were designed to give, by a comparatively simple calculation, the positions of the sun and planets for past and future epochs,—employing the theories of Ptolemy as a basis. Alfonso’s critical remark upon these theories is well known, to wit, that if he had been present at the creation, he could have given the Creator much good advice. As the determination of the places of the planets (their latitudes and longitudes) became more exact, it was increasingly difficult to account for their observed movements by the devices introduced by Ptolemy. New contrivances were required, and each successive epicycle made the system more complex and cumbrous. It was on the point of breaking by its own weight.
  There is hardly a glimmer of scientific light in the darkness of the two centuries following. From Roger Bacon (1214–94) to the birth of Leonardo da Vinci (1452) there is scarcely a single date to record except that of 1438, when the art of printing was invented—or re-invented—in Europe.  4
  The writings of Purbach (1460) and of Regiomontanus (1471) brought astronomy in Germany to the same level as the Arabian science of five centuries earlier in Spain, and marked the beginning of a new era for Northern lands. In Italy the impulse was earlier felt, though it manifested itself chiefly in literature. Mathematics was not neglected, however, at the ancient University of Bologna; and it was to Bologna that Copernicus came as a student in 1496.  5
  The voyages of Columbus in 1492 and of Vasco da Gama in 1498 were other signs of the same impulsion which was manifest throughout the Western lands.  6
  Nicolas Copernicus was born in 1473, in the town of Thorn in Poland. His father was originally from Bohemia, and his mother was the sister of the Bishop of Ermeland. The father died when the lad was but ten years old, and left him to the care of his uncle. His studies were prosecuted at the best schools and at the University of Kraców, where he followed the courses in medicine, and became in due time a doctor. Mathematics and astronomy were ardently studied under learned professors, and the young man also became a skillful artist in painting. At the termination of his studies he turned his face towards Italy, entered the universities of Padua and Bologna, and finally received the appointment of Professor of Mathematics at Rome in 1499, at the age of twenty-seven years. Here his duties were to expound the theories of Ptolemy as taught in the ‘Almagest,’ and he became entirely familiar with their merits and with their deficiencies.  7
  Astronomers everywhere were asking themselves if there might not be simpler methods of accounting for the movements of the planets and of predicting their situations in the sky than the Ptolemaic methods, loaded down as they were with new complexities. We know that these questions occupied Copernicus during the seven years of his stay in Italy, 1496 to 1502. He made a few astronomical observations then and subsequently, but he was not a born observer like his successor Tycho Brahe. His observations were directed towards determining the positions of the planets, as a test of the tables by which these positions had been predicted; and they were sufficient to show the shortcomings of the accepted Ptolemaic theory. He was a theoretical astronomer, but his theory was controlled by observation.  8
  In 1502 Copernicus returned to his native land and at once entered holy orders. In 1510 he became canon of Frauenburg, a small town not far from Königsberg. Here he divided his time between his religious duties, the practice of medicine, and the study of astronomy—a peaceful life, one would say, and likely to be free from vexations.  9
  It became necessary for the priest to leave his cloister, however, to defend the interests of the Church in a lawsuit against the Knights of the Teutonic Order. The lawsuit was won at last, but Copernicus had raised up powerful enemies. His conclusions with regard to the motion of the earth were not yet published, but it was known that he entertained such opinions. Here was an opportunity for his enemies to bring him to ridicule and to disgrace, which was not neglected. Troupes of strolling players were employed to turn himself and his conclusions into ridicule; and it requires no imagination to conceive that they were perfectly successful before the audiences of the day. But these annoyances fell away in time. The reputation of the good physician and the good priest conquered his townsfolk, while the scholars of Europe were more and more impressed with his learning.  10
  His authority grew apace. He was consulted on practical affairs, such as the financial conduct of the mint. In 1507 he had begun to write a treatise on the motion of the heavenly bodies—‘De Revolutionibus Orbium Cœlestium’—and he appears to have brought it to completion about 1514. It is replete with interest to astronomers, but there are few passages suitable for quotation in a summary like the present. The manuscript was touched and retouched from time to time; and finally in 1541, when he was nearly seventy years of age, he confided it to a disciple in Nuremberg to be printed. In the month of May, 1543, the impression was completed, and the final sheets were sent to the author. They reached him when he was on his death-bed, a few days before he died.  11
  His epitaph is most humble:—“I do not ask the pardon accorded to Paul; I do not hope for the grace given to Peter. I beg only the favor which You have granted to the thief on the cross.” His legacy to the world was an upright useful life, and a volume containing an immortal truth:—
          The earth is not the centre of the universe; the earth is in motion around the sun.
  The conception that the earth might revolve about the sun was no new thing. The ancients had considered this hypothesis among others. Ptolemy made the earth the center of all the celestial motions. As the motions became more precisely known, Ptolemy’s hypothesis required new additions, and it was finally overloaded. It is the merit of Copernicus that he reversed the ancient process of thought and inquired what hypothesis would fit observed facts, and not what additions must be made to an a priori assumption to represent observations. He showed clearly and beyond a doubt that the facts were represented far better by the theory that the sun was the center of motion of the earth, and not only of the earth, but of all the planets. He says:—
          “By no other combination have I been able to find so admirable a symmetry in the separate parts of the great whole, so harmonious a union between the motions of the celestial bodies, as by placing the torch of the world—that Sun which governs all the family of the planets in their circular revolutions—on his royal throne, in the midst of Nature’s temple.” 1
  He did not demonstrate this arrangement to be the true one. It was left to Galileo to prove that Venus had phases like our moon, and hence that its light was sunlight, and that its motion was heliocentric. The direct service of Copernicus to pure astronomy lay in his method. What theory will best fit the facts? How shall we test the theory by observation? Indirectly he laid the foundations for the reformation of astronomy by Kepler and Galileo; for Newton’s working out of the conception of the sun as a center of force as well as a center of motion; for the modern ideas of the relations between force and matter.  14
  The Church, which regarded all sciences as derivatives of theology, placed the work of Copernicus on the Index Expurgatorius at Rome, 1616. The Reformation maintained an official silence on the mooted questions. Luther condemned the theory of Copernicus. But the service of Copernicus to mankind was immense, revolutionary,—incalculable. For thousands of years the earth, with its inhabitants, was the center of a universe created for its benefit. At one step all this was changed, and man took his modest place. He became a creature painfully living on a small planet—one of many—revolving around one of the smaller stars or suns; and that sun was only one of the millions upon millions shining in the stellar vault. Man’s position in the universe was destroyed. The loss of kingship would seem to be intolerable, were it not that it was by a man, after all, that Man was dethroned. All our modern thought, feeling, action, is profoundly modified by the consequences of the dictum of Copernicus—“The earth is not the centre of the universe?” Mankind was faced in a new direction by that pronouncement. Modern life became possible. Modern views became inevitable. The end is not yet. When in future ages the entire history of the race is written, many names now dear to us will be ignored: they have no vital connection with the progress of the race. But one name is sure of a place of honor: Copernicus will not be forgotten by our remotest descendants.  15
Note 1. Quoted from the French of Flammarion’s ‘Life of Copernicus,’ page 122. [back]

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