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Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus
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Nicolaus Copernicus

Born: 19 Feb 1473 in Torun, Poland

Died: 24 May 1543 in Frombork, Poland

Nicolaus Copernicus is the Latin version of the famous astronomer's name which chose later in his life. The original form of his name was Mikolaj Kopernik or Nicolaus Koppernigk but we shall use Copernicus throughout this article. His father, also called Nicolaus Koppernigk, had lived in Krakow before moving to Torun where he set up a business trading in copper. He was also interested in local politics and became a civic leader in Torun and a magistrate. Nicolaus Koppernigk married Barbara Waczenrode, who came from a well off family from Torun, in about 1463. They moved into a house in St Anne's Street in Torun, but they also had a summer residence with vineyards out of town. Nicolaus and Barbara Koppernigk had four children, two sons and two daughters, of whom Nicolaus Copernicus was the youngest.

You can see a picture of the house in which Copernicus was born.

When young Nicolaus was ten years old his father died. His uncle Lucas Waczenrode, who was a canon at Frauenburg Cathedral, became guardian to Nicolaus and Barbara Koppernigk's four children.

You can see a picture of Lucas Waczenrode.

Nicolaus and his brother Andreas remained in Torun, continuing their elementary education there. In 1488 Nicolaus was sent by his uncle to the cathedral school of Wloclawek where he received a good standard humanist education. After three years of study at Wloclawek he entered the University of Krakow (situated in what was then the capital of Poland). By this time Lucas Waczenrode was Bishop of Ermland and he envisaged a church career for both of his nephews. Andreas, Nicolaus's brother, entered the University of Krakow at the same time, and both their names appear on the matriculation records of 1491-92.

University education at Krakow was, Copernicus later wrote, a vital factor in everything that he went on to achieve. There he studied Latin, mathematics, astronomy, geography and philosophy. He learnt his astronomy from Tractatus de Sphaera by Johannes de Sacrobosco written in 1220. One should not think, however, that the astronomy courses which Copernicus studied were scientific courses in the modern sense. Rather they were mathematics courses which introduced Aristotle and Ptolemy's view of the universe so that students could understand the calendar, calculate the dates of holy days, and also have skills that would enable those who would follow a more practical profession to navigate at sea. Also taught as a major part of astronomy was what today we would call astrology, teaching students to calculate horoscopes of people from the exact time of their birth.

While a student in Kraków, Copernicus purchased a copy of the Latin translation of Euclid's Elements published in Venice in 1482, a copy of the second edition of the Alfonsine Tables (which gives planetary theory and eclipses) printed in Venice in 1492, and Regiomontanus's Tables of Directions (a work on spherical astronomy) published in Augsburg in 1490. Remarkably Copernicus's copies of these works, signed by him, are still preserved.

It was while he was a student at Krakow that Copernicus began to use this Latin version of his name rather than Kopernik or Koppernigk. He returned to Torun after four years of study at Krakow but, as was common at the time, did not formally graduate with a degree. His uncle Lucas Waczenrode was still determined that Copernicus should have a career in the Church and indeed this was a profession which would allow security for someone wanting to pursue leaning. So that he might have the necessary qualifications Copernicus decided to go to the University of Bologna to take a degree in canon law. In the autumn of 1496 he travelled to Italy, entering the University of Bologna on 19 October 1496, to start three years of study. As a native German speaker he joined the "German Nation of Bologna University". Each student contributed to the "German Nation" an amount they could afford and the small contribution that Copernicus made indicates his poor financial position at that time.

While he was there his uncle put his name forward for the position of canon at Frauenburg Cathedral. On 20 October 1497, while in Bologna, Copernicus received official notification of his appointment as a canon and of the comfortable income he would receive without having to return to carry out any duties. At Bologna University Copernicus studied Greek, mathematics and astronomy in addition to his official course of canon law. He rented rooms at the house of the astronomy professor Domenico Maria de Novara and began to undertake research with him, assisting him in making observations. On 9 March 1497 he observed the Moon eclipse the star Aldebaran.

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