“At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the sun.”
TODAY, IF ONLY for a single revolution, Google’s world revolves around Nicolaus Copernicus.
Fittingly, though, the famed scientist was all about astronomical revolution. How often does one person rock our world by reconfiguring our entire sense of it?
2013 is the Earth’s 540th spin ‘round the sun since the birth of Copernicus on Feb. 19. So the home page of Google — if not indirectly, Google Earth, as well — celebrates his birthday by featuring an early heliocentric model of our solar system, as six planets “heretically” orbit the sun (and our moon orbits the Earth).
“Heretical,” of course, because the astronomer and mathematician delivered a swift kick in the axis to the belief of his time: that the rest of the planetary system, if not the universe, orbited the Earth. (Yes, scientifically, the 16th century was not so different in worldview from a typical toddler.)
Copernicus grew up toddling in a well-to-do family of copper merchants in Torun, in what is now Poland. (Scholars have debated what languages he knew; according to Biography.com, he learned German first; and he learned to translate works in both Latin and Greek.) His father died when he was 10, but a good education continued to revolve around the son. An uncle, the bishop of Varmia Lucas Watzenrode, made sure of that, and Copernicus would go on to attend the University of Cracow/Krakow Academy, the University of Bologna (religious law), the University of Padua (practical medicine) and the University of Ferrara (canon law) — eventually securing a lifelong post as a canon at Frombork’s cathedral, thanks to that same benevolent uncle.
It was at Bologna that Copernicus’s own academic axis was tilted: There he began several years of invaluable intellectual exchange with astronomer and eventual roomie Domenico Maria Novara — who sparked challenging the centuries-old Ptolemaic model of an Earth-centered universe. (More than 1,700 years earlier, Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos devised a rougher heliocentric model, but his Sun-centric ideas were rejected in favor of geocentric theories.)
Sometime between 1510 and 1514, Copernicus first circulated among friends — as if publishing on the ListServ of his day — his written work Commentariolus (”Small Commentary”), which set forth mathematical and astronomic workings and observations to support his heliocentric model. (The astronomer called it his “Sketch of Hypothesis Made by Nicolaus Copernicus on the Heavenly Motions.”)
The “Small Commentary” offered big-idea axioms, including — according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — that “the earth is only the center of gravity and center of the moon’s orbit; that all the spheres encircle the sun, which is close to the center of the universe; that the universe is much larger than previously assumed, and the earth’s distance to the sun is a small fraction of the size of the universe; that the apparent motion of the heavens and the sun is created by the motion of the earth; and that the apparent retrograde motion of the planets is created by the earth’s motion.”
The Church controversially rejected the hypotheses within Commentariolus and Copernicus’s later work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (“On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”), deeming them heretical. The astronomer dedicated the latter to Pope Paul III, writing in his preface: “I can readily imagine, Holy Father, that as soon as some people hear that in this volume, which I have written about the revolutions of the spheres of the universe, I ascribe certain motions to the terrestrial globe, they will shout that I must be immediately repudiated together with this belief.”
Copernicus is said to have been holding a new copy of De revolutionibus upon his Frombork (Frauenburg) deathbed on May 24, 1543.
Martin Luther nailed Copernicus’s ideas with condemnations; a minister under Luther said of Copernicus: “This fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside down”; and the Church opposed De revolutionibus (as detailed here by the Catholic Encyclopedia). In the 17th century, the redemption of his hypotheses finally began.
For centuries, Copernicus stood alone, without followers in his orbit. Today, he is celebrated as a shining star of science — central to our movement toward the Scientic Revolution.
Thanks, Google, for today’s animated Doodle that turns not just planets, but heads.