Today is Nicolaus Copernicus’ 540th birthday! Copernicus is known as the founder of modern astronomy because of his study of the sky.
Copernicus was born in Thorn Poland on February 19, 1473 to a wealthy merchant. Unfortunately his father died when he was very young and Copernicus was raised by his mother’s brother, a bishop in the Catholic Church. He studied mathematics and astronomy at the University of Krakow and law and medicine at the universities in Bologna Padua and Ferrar in Italy. His uncle helped him become a canon in the Catholic Church and while he performed his church duties he also practiced medicine and studied astronomy.
At this time most astronomers believed Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer, who believed that the Earth was the center of the universe and everything else moved around the Earth. Ptolemy believed the Earth was motionless because no one could feel the Earth moving and the stars seemed to move around the Earth daily. This view was backed by the Roman Catholic Church who accepted Ptolemy’s theory due to the fact that the bible suggested the sun was in constant motion and the Earth stayed in one place. With the Church in control during this time, no one refuted the Ptolemaic theory on fear of punishment.
One thousand years later however Copernicus started to reevaluate the previous theory. Copernicus believed that it was the Sun everything moved around, not the Earth. This theory became known as heliocentric or Sun-centered astronomy. Copernicus determined that the Earth rotated daily on its axis, and while humans could not feel the movement it is what affected what people saw in the skies at night. He made his observations and theory based on what he could see with the naked eye as the tools he would have used had not been invented. Without these tools Copernicus could not prove his theory and he published his book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies on his deathbed without many people reading his work. He died on May 24, 1543. Around the 1600’s however a man by the name of Galileo would read Copernicus’ work and prove his theory correct.
Currently at the High Plains Museum we have an exhibit from the Smithsonian and United States Geological Survey called Earth From Space which looks at land satellite images of Earth. Throughout the exhibit visitors can see the flooding of a river in China, a hurricane, agricultural land and many others. The museum also has an immersive experience for visitors which will show the constellations. Looking up in the ceiling of the museum one can find fourteen different constellations spread throughout as well. We have activities for the whole family, so drop by and celebrate Copernicus’ work by viewing our Earth from Space and the stars we see from out backyards. Also check out the google doodle for more information on Copernicus!