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De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium

De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium

Title page of 2nd edition, Basel, Officina Henricpetrina, 1566.

Short Description

De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, or On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, is considered a masterpiece presented by Copernicus. The book offers an alternative model of the universe that no longer placed Earth at the center—a belief that had been widely accepted since ancient times.

Remnant Trust Description

First edition to contain explanatory notes and the first with source notes to the Greek used by Copernicus. That Nicolas Copernicus delayed until near death to publish De revolutionibus has been taken as a sign that he was well aware of the possible furor his work might incite; certainly his preface to Pope Paul III anticipates many of the objections it raised. But he could hardly have anticipated that he would eventually become one of the most famous people of all time on the basis of a book that comparatively few have actually read (and fewer still understand) in the 450 years since it was first printed.

Copernicus was born into a well-to-do mercantile family in 1473, at Torun, Poland. After the death of his father, he was sponsored by his uncle, Bishop Watzenrode, who sent him first to the University of Krakow, and then to study in Italy at the universities of Bologna, Padua and Ferrara. His concentrations there were law and medicine, but his lectures on the subject at the University of Rome in 1501 already evidenced his interest in astronomy. Returning to Poland, he spent the rest of his life as a church canon under his uncle, though he also found time to practice medicine and to write on monetary reform, not to mention his work as an astonomer.

In 1514, Copernicus privately circulated an outline of his thesis on planetary motion, but actual publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) containing his mathematical proofs did not occur until 1543, after a supporter named Rheticus had impatiently taken it upon himself to publish a brief description of the Copernican system (Narration prima) in 1541. Most of De revolutionibus requires a great deal of the modern reader, since sixteenth century method of mathematical proofs are quite foreign to us; this is evident in the section of Book VI that is included. However, Book I and Copernicus’ preface are more readily accessible. It must be noted that the foreword by Andreas Oslander was not authorized by Copernicus, and that Oslander, who oversaw the books printing, included it without the author’s knowledge and without identifying Oslander as its author.