Nicolaus Copernicus’s 540th Birthday Through the Eyes of a Modern Astronomer

Jay Pasachoff is the proud 21st-century owner of one of the few hundred copies of Copernicus's 1543 book, "De Revolutionibus." (Photo courtesy Wayne Hammond)
Astronomer Jay Pasachoff is the proud 21st-century owner of one of the few hundred copies of Nicolaus Copernicus’s 1543 book, “De Revolutionibus.” (Photo courtesy Wayne Hammond)

 

With Nicolaus Copernicus being featured in today’s Google doodle, many eyes are looking back at the life and work of this great scientist (Copernicus facts). We thought it’d be nice to look around and ahead as well, so we called up NG explorer Jay Pasachoff for a few questions.

Jay Pasachoff is an astronomer who has received 18 grants from the National Geographic Society since 1973. He continues to lead cutting-edge research and observations of the heavens, in particular regarding eclipses. Here’s what he had to say on the 540th anniversary of Nicolaus Copernicus’s birth.

What does Nicolaus Copernicus mean to you?

This painting of Nicolaus Copernicus by illustrator Jean-Leon Huens (1921-1984) was was commissioned by the National Geographic Society for the May 1974 issue of the Magazine. (Painting by Jean-Leon Huens)
This painting of Nicolaus Copernicus by illustrator Jean-Leon Huens (1921-1984) was commissioned by the National Geographic Society for the May 1974 issue of the Magazine. (Painting by Jean-Leon Huens)

Copernicus’s iconoclastic success in discovering that what had been thought–that the Earth was at the center of the Universe–was wrong led me to think more carefully about every supposed fact. Soon after I started my collection of first-edition books by major figures in astronomy—those whose work I described in my own astronomy-survey textbook (“The Cosmos,” 4th Edition,or 3rd Edition). I thought to myself “now is the time to get a Copernicus.” I am thrilled to have had, for nearly 30 years, one of the few hundred copies of his 1543 book, De Revolutionibus (translation: On the Revolutions). It is at the heart of my rare-book collection.

What’s something you think people don’t realize or appreciate enough about him?
That Copernicus was a great mathematician. He didn’t just wake up one day and say, “Hey, let’s say that the Sun instead of the Earth is at the center of the Universe.” If you look at his book, you can see all kinds of diagrams and tables. He showed us how to calculate the periods of the planets from the perspective of the stars rather than from the moving platform of our Earth.

What lessons does he still have for us five centuries after he lived?
My wife and I made a pilgrimage to Copernicus sites in Poland in 2006, just before the International Astronomical Union held its General Assembly in Prague. We were at his birthplace in Torun and the site in Frombork where he was Canon of the Cathedral and where he did most of his work in a high tower. He was recently reburied there in a prominent place in the Cathedral, when his actual bones were tracked down after almost 470 years of anonymous burial.

Is there anything you wish you could have told him to help his work?
Me tell Copernicus anything? I wish I could have watched him work–something shown fictionally in “A More Perfect Heaven,” Dava Sobel’s new play and book about Copernicus and his interaction with the young Rheticus, who persuaded him to publish his work.

Who is your favorite astronomer from the past?
Copernicus is certainly a candidate, and Johannes Kepler is the other contender.

On that note, I will eagerly await Kepler’s birthday. To learn more about the work of both Jay Pasachoff and Copernicus, see the links below.

NEXT: Jay Pasachoff’s Mini Astronomy Lessons

 

Learn More

Jay Pasachoff Bio

Nicolaus Copernicus Info

 

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Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.