Copernicus, Nicholas

, an eminent astronomer, was born at Thorn in Prussia, January 19, 1473. His father was a stranger, but from what part of Europe is unknown. He settled here as a merchant, and the archives of the city prove that he obtained the freedom of Thorn in 1462. It seems clear that he must have been in opulent circumstances, and of consideration, not only from the liberal education which he bestowed upon his son, but from the rank of his wife, the sister of Luca Watzelrode, bishop of Ermeland, a prelate descended from one of the most illustrious families of Polish Prussia. Nicholas was instructed in the Latin and Greek languages at home; and afterward sent to Cracow, where he studied philosophy, mathematics, and medicine: though his genius was naturally turned to mathematics, which he chiefly studied, and | pursued through all its various branches. He set out for Italy at twenty-three years of age; stopping at Bologna, that he might converse with the celebrated astronomer of that place, Dominic Maria, whom he assisted for some time in making his observations. From hence he passed to Rome, where he was presently considered as not inferior to the famous Regiomontanus. Here he soon acquired so great a reputation, that he was chosen professor of mathematics, which he taught there for a long time with the greatest applause and here also he made some astronomical observations about the year 1500.

Afterward, returning to his own country, he began to apply his fund of observations and mathematical knowledge, to correcting the system of astronomy which then prevailed. He set about collecting all the books that had been written by philosophers and astronomers, and to examine all the various hypotheses they had invented for the solution of the celestial phenomena; to try if a more symmetrical order and constitution of the parts of the world could not be discovered, and a more just and exquisite harmony in its motions established, than what the astronomers of those times so easily admitted. But of all their hypotheses, none pleased him so well as the Pythagorean, which made the sun to be the centre of the system, and supposed the earth to move both round the sun, and also round its own axis. He thought he discerned much beautiful order and proportion in this; and that all the embarrassment and perplexity, from epicycles and excentrics, which attended the Ptolemaic hypotheses, would here be entirely removed.

This system he began to consider, and to write upon, when he was about thirty- five years of age. He carefully contemplated the phenomena made mathematical calculations examined the observations of the ancients, and made new ones of his own till, after more than twenty years chiefly spent in this manner, he brought his scheme to perfection, establishing that system of the world which goes by his name, and is now universally received by all philosophers. It had, indeed, been maintained by many of the ancients; particularly Ecphantus, Seleucus, Aristarchus, Philolaus, Cleanthes Samius, Nicetas, Heraclides Ponticus, Plato, and Pythagoras; from the last of whom it was anciently called the Pythagoric, or Pythagorean system. It was also held by Archimedes, in his book of the | number of the grains of sand; but after him it became neglected, and even forgotten, for many ages, till Copernicus revived it; from whom it took the new name of the Copernican system.

This system, however, was at first looked upon as a most dangerous heresy, and his work had long been finished and perfected, before he could be prevailed upon to give it to the world, although strongly urged to it by his friends. At length, yielding to their entreaties, it was printed, and he had but just received a perfect copy, when he died the 24th of May 1543, at 70 years of age; by which it is probable he was happily relieved from the violent fanatical persecutions which were but too likely to follow the publication of his astronomical opinions; and which indeed was afterward the fate of Galileo, for adopting and defending them. The system of Copernicus, says a late learned writer, was not received, on its appearance, with any degree of that approbation which it deserved, and which it now universally obtains. Its cold reception, indeed, fully justified the hesitation and tardiness of the author to communicate it to the world. It gave such a violent contradiction both to the philosophical principles of the age, and the immediate evidence of sense, that all its advantages were undervalued, and proved insufficient to procure to it general credit. The conception of Copernicus which represented the distance of the fixed stars from the sun to be so immense, that in comparison with it the whole diameter of the terrestrial orbit shrunk into an imperceptible point, was too great to be adopted suddenly by men accustomed to refer all magnitudes to the earth, and to consider the earth as the principal object in the universe. Instead of being reckoned an answer to the ol/'-xition against the annual revolution of the earth, that her axis was not found directed to different stars, it was rather considered as the subterfuge of one who had invented, and therefore tried to vindicate an absurdity; and when, in answer to another equally powerful objection, that no varieties of phase were seen in the planets, especially in Venus and Mercury, Copernicus could only express his hopes that such varieties would be discovered in future times, his reply, though it now raises admiration, could not in his own times make the least impression on those who opposed his system.

The above work of Copernicus, first printed at Norimberg in folio, 1543, and of which there have been other | editions since, is entitled “De revolutionibus orbium coe lestium,” being a large body of astronomy, in six books. When Rheticus, the disciple of our author, returned out of Prussia, he brought with him a tract of Copernicus on plane and spherical trigonometry, which he had printed at Norimberg, and which contained a table of sines. It was afterward printed at the end of the first book of the Revolutions. An edition of our author’s great work was also published in 4to, at Amsterdam, in 1617, under the title of “Astronomia instaurata,” illustrated with notes by Nicolas Muler of Groningen.

It has not yet been noticed that Copernicus was in the church, and is said to have performed the duties of his function with care, but does not appear to have concerned himself with the disputes occasioned by the reformation. He was indebted to the patronage of his maternal uncle for his ecclesiastical promotions; being made a prebendary of the church of St. John at Thorn, and a canon of the church of Frawenberg in the diocese of Ermeland.

A late traveller observes, as not a little remarkable, that so sublime a discovery as Copernicus produced, should have originated in a part of Europe the most obscure, and hardly civilized, while it escaped the finer genius of Italy and of France. He also informs us, that at Thorn, though a part of the building has been destroyed by fire, the chamber is still religiously preserved in which Copernicus was born. His remains are buried under a flat stone, in one of the side ailes of the most ancient church of Thorn. Above is erected a small monument, on which is painted a half-length portrait of him. The face is that of a man declined in years, pale and thin; but there is, in the expression of the countenance, something which pleases, and conveys the idea of intelligence. His hair and eyes are black, his hands joined in prayer, and he is habited in the dress of a priest: before him is a crucifix, at his foot a skull, and behind appear a globe and compass. When expiring he is said to have confessed himself, as long and uniform tradition reports, in the following Latin verses, which are inscribed on the monument

"Non parem Paulo gratiam require,

Veniam Petri neque posco sed quam

In crucis ligno dederat latroni,

Sedulus oro."

| These demonstrate, that when near his dissolution, all cares or inquiries, except those of a religious nature, had ceased to affect or agitate him. 1

Moreri. Martin’s Biog. Philos. —Hutton’s Dict. Wraxall’s Memoirs of the Courts of Berlin, &c. Small’s Account of Kepler’s Discoveries, 8vo, 1803. Lord Buchan’s Correspondence with Bernouille, and a portrait, in —Gent. Mag. vol. LXVII.- Gassendi Opera, vol. V. where is his life,