When it comes to the astronomy hall of fame, Nicolaus Copernicus is, by far, one of the most pivotal astronomers in history and is considered the founder of modern astronomy. Born February 19, 1473, in Poland, Copernicus was a true Renaissance Man. During his lifetime, he was a mathematician, physician, classical scholar, artist, Catholic cleric, governor, diplomat, military leader, translator, and economist. Ironically, Copernicus considered astronomy to be just a hobby, not his profession, but it was in this field where he received his biggest claim to fame.
In Copernicus’ day, scientists generally held a geocentric view of the universe — meaning the earth was the center of the solar system and remained stationary as the sun, stars, and planets revolved around it. Copernicus’ hypothesis challenged this belief, asserting that the sun was the stationary center of the solar system and that the earth revolved around it. While this idea had been theorized by a few ancient scholars, Copernicus was the first to scientifically propose the idea of a heliocentric cosmology.
Decades later in 1543 — the year of Copernicus’ death — Copernicus’ heliocentric theory was published in the book titled On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. Legend says the first printed copy of the book was placed in Copernicus’ hands as he lay dying in a comatose state. Supposedly, he awoke, looked at the book, and then died. Copernicus’ ideas would spark the Copernican Revolution, which helped launch the Scientific Revolution of the 16th Century.
In the beginning, Copernicus’ theory only caused mild controversy, but anger and opposition exploded sixty years later when the Catholic Church took action, alleging that a heliocentric point of view contradicted Holy Scripture. The Catholic Church suspended further publication of Copernicus’ book until offending portions could be edited out. A decree was issued prohibiting any further work defending his heliocentric theory.
Pope Paul V sent notice of the decree to the astronomer Galileo, warning him not to uphold or defend Copernican doctrine. But in 1633, Galileo was convicted of suspicion of heresy for promoting Copernican ideas and was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life.