The Legacy of Copernicus

Ezra J. Rapoport
Essay Topic #3
December 5, 1999

The date is May 24, 1543. I dash madly through the streets of Frauenburg, East Prussia, clutching a new, leather-bound volume close to my chest. My smoothly soled shoes slip on the cobblestones, but I keep running. In my arms is the first copy of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium Libri VI. This is the volume that my master, Nicolaus Copernicus, toiled over for more than thirty years.1 Now, he lies dying. I run through the alleys and past the merchants hawking their wares in hope of delivering the fruits of his labor to my beloved master before his death. In this heavy text are some of the most ingenious theories ever published.

I pause on a street corner to catch my breath. The May air fills my lungs and I stare up at the sun. I smile because I know that while I am enjoying the longer, warmer days now, in just a few weeks the Earth's orbit will bring it closer to the sun. And in approximately one month's time, the days will begin to shorten again, even as the warm weather continues to increase. This thought enraptures me. Not simply because of the pleasant weather that is due, but also because I am one of the very few who possess the knowledge that our universe is centered around the sun. That knowledge is verified by the work I clutch tightly in my hands.

My mind wanders back to the countless nights I spent in the observatory with Master Copernicus tracing the path of Venus across the night sky, trying to decipher the mystery of its retrograde motion. That is, the planet's strange behavior of apparently slowing, reversing its path, and then once again righting its direction and resuming its orbit across the heavens. Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy) had also taken note of retrograde motion in the heavens around the year AD 135.2 Ptolemy used several complicated devices to attempt to explain this phenomenon.3 He theorized that the planets' orbits were actually "epicycles," circles whose centers orbited Earth. This explained retrograde motion to Ptolomy's satisfaction because, in relation to earth, the planets changed their direction mid-orbit and then resumed their counter-clockwise motion.4 This explanation sufficed for several centuries. However, Master Copernicus furrowed his brow time and again when reading Ptolemy's lengthy explanations. Master always believed that there had to be a simpler, more correct way of explaining the mysteries of the heavens.

One night thirty-six years ago, I was a twenty-five-year old apprentice taking notes of the coordinates of Venus, which had been the sole object of our toils for months. The door to the observatory swung wide and my mentor entered. Without uttering a word, he thrust a pile of papers into my arms and sighed in relief as he collapsed into a chair in the corner. I gazed in amazement at the top leaf of paper. It seemed to be a sketch of a solar system with planets orbiting a central star. 'Which universe is this?' I asked myself. 'Surely it is either imaginary or millions of miles away,' I reasoned. I brought the candle closer to the sheets and saw the names of the planets. They were all familiar to me! I sat stunned as I devoured his minute drawings with my eyes. "Impossible!" I shouted. I stared at the great astronomer in disbelief. Had he gone mad? He smiled at me and motioned to me to consider his work. Slowly and thoughtfully, for the next two hours, we sat in silence as I examined the great man's calculations.

Copernicus had used his theories and the research he had guided me through over the past ten years. Over this time, I had painstakingly taken coordinates of the planets every night, tracing their motion, mapping their movement during each retrograde. I had made thousands of calculations based on our data, trying to justify this strange behavior of the planets and analyzed it to no end, looking for some simple explanation for this retrograde motion.

Needless to say, I was thoroughly convinced at the end of two hours' time. With his discovery that night, some say Copernicus turned the world upside down. I, however, say that he started it spinning and sent it into orbit. Retrograde motion could now be explained with ease: Master Copernicus showed that it occurred because of the different speeds with which Earth and Venus orbited the sun. Retrograde motion was only the appearance of Venus' path from earth. Venus did not actually move backwards and forwards, it only seemed to do so because Earth was moving too! It was so simple I wanted to laugh out loud.

A cool breeze hit my cheeks and I was back on the street corner nearing the end of my race to my Master's house. How much time had I wasted remembering? I darted down the street and burst into a tall stone house. I bolted up the stairs two-at-a-time and tore into the enormous room where my beloved master lay dying. The three physicians, my master's nearest relatives, and a number of his pupils and followers turned to face me. To everyone's great satisfaction, I held out my prize, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium Libri VI, fresh from the printer's press. Copernicus struggled to sit up in his bed and waved the doctors away when they attempted to calm him. He motioned me over. The crowd around his four-poster bed parted to make way for me. The room was silent except for the clicking of my heels on the hardwood floor of my master's bedroom. I handed him the volume. "It is good work, eh?" he said. I smiled sadly as he leafed through the thick pages of his life's work. He grinned when he came upon his detailed sketch of the Heliocentric Universe. He coughed forcefully and immediately the physicians surrounded my mentor and forced him to lie back down and cease his examination of the book.

I left his bedroom and mounted the narrow, stone stairs to his observatory. I pushed open the solid wooden door and saw the waning sunlight stream through the tall glass windows. After locking the door and feeling the bolts slide into place with a click, I sat down in my master's chair and felt it yield to my weight. My hand reached into my inner vest and removed something I had hidden beneath my layers of clothing. I pulled out the second copy of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium Libri VI. My eyes filled with warm tears when I flipped to the last page and read the final line of Copernicus' epilogue: "Nothing is impossible." I knew that future astronomers would benefit from my master's genius.

1 Gallant, Roy A. Our Universe. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 1986.
2 "Ptolemy." Encyclopedia Britannica. 1963 ed.
3 Ibid.
4 Hoyle, Fred. Astronomy. Rathbone Books, London. 1963.