Human World

Nicolaus Copernicus born 550 years ago today

Complex engraving of robed man breaking out through the starry sky into a realm of orbits, wheels, and cosmic objects.
This 1888 engraving – Empedocles Breaks through the Crystal Spheres – is reminiscent of the revolution in thought brought about by Nicolaus Copernicus, who was born 550 years ago today. The engraving first appeared in a book by Camille Flammarion with the caption: “A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch.” Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Happy 550th birthday, Nicolaus Copernicus!

Renaissance astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Torun, Poland, 550 years ago today. At a time when deeply entrenched beliefs placed the Earth at the center of the universe – nested within crystal spheres – he proposed the revolutionary idea that Earth revolves around the sun. Can you picture the leap of imagination required for him to conceive of a sun-centered universe?

Copernicus’ famous book – “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) – was published just before his death in 1543. It set the stage for all of modern astronomy.

Today, people speak of his work as the Copernican Revolution.

Nicolaus Copernicus: Man with chin-length dark hair and long angular face.
Nicolaus Copernicus – born on February 19, 1473 – started the scientific revolution with his novel ideas. Image via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Ancient Greek views of the universe

Copernicus wasn’t the first to conceive of a sun-centered universe. Early Greek and Mesopotamian philosophers also spoke of it.

It was the Greek philosopher Aristotle, however, who proposed that the heavens comprised 55 concentric, crystalline spheres. He said that celestial objects attached to these spheres.

In Aristotle’s model, Earth lay at the center of these spheres.

Antique etching of concentric circles for the moon, sun, and planets, with the Earth in the middle.
Aristotle’s Earth-centered model of the universe. In the medieval world, people thought Earth lay enclosed within crystal spheres. Read more about about medieval astronomy here. Image via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Nicolaus Copernicus broke the ‘crystal spheres’

So, Earth lay – fixed and enclosed – until Copernicus published his version of a heliocentric, or sun-centered, universe. Copernicus’s ideas and ground-shaking book moved the Earth and replaced it with the sun.

Read more: Copernicus’ revolution and Galileo’s vision, in pictures.

Concentric circles for each planet with sun in middle and orbit of moon shown around Earth, with Latin text.
This is Copernicus’ version of a heliocentric – or sun-centered – universe. Image via Library of Congress.

Bottom line: Today is the 550th birthday of Nicolaus Copernicus, who removed Earth from the center of the universe and set off a revolution.

February 19, 2023
Human World

Like what you read?
Subscribe and receive daily news delivered to your inbox.

Your email address will only be used for EarthSky content. Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

More from 

Deborah Byrd

View All