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Nicolaus Copernicus

The Associated Press reports today that a team of Polish archaeologists and Swedish geneticists have identified the grave and remains of Nicolaus Copernicus, the astronomer who first posited that the Sun, rather than the Earth, was the center of the universe.  The Copernican system, as it is known, was a major advancement in the understanding of the solar system, and paved the way for the work of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Their identification is based on DNA evidence from the skeletal remains and a hair found in a book known to be owned by Copernicus.

Copernicus began circulating his ideas around 1514 in manuscript form, but he only published his theory after decades of refinement. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the revolutions of the celestial spheres) appeared in 1543, just two months before Copernicus’ death.

De revolutionibus outlines Copernicus’ theory about the universe and provides complex mathematical computations explaining the movement of the planets based on the Sun-centered model. However, Copernicus’ theory was obscured by additions to the book. At the final stage of printing, an unsigned preface by a Lutheran pastor named Andreas Osiander was inserted without Copernicus’ permission. The preface declared that the author was only presenting a hypothesis which could improve astronomical computations, rather than asserting that the Earth truly revolved around the Sun.  During the Counterreformation, Copernicus’ book was actually placed on on the Catholic Church’s index of prohibited books in 1616.

Special Collections owns a third edition of De revolutionibus, published in 1617 in Protestant-controlled  Amsterdam (pictured above).  It can be accessed by researchers in our secured reading room. In addition, Lehigh University has digitized their first edition of De Revolutionibus (Nuremberg: Johannes Petreus, 1543), while Copernicus’ original manuscript of De revolutionibus (c. 1520-41), has been digitized by Jagiellonian University in Poland.

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