Astronomer by Night, Canon by Day

When Nicolaus Copernicus wasn't redrawing the celestial map, he held down a day job as a Catholic canon (ecclesiastical administrator). As the Reformation grew rapidly and extended its influence in Poland, Copernicus and his respected friend Tiedemann Giese, later bishop of Varmia, remained open to some of the new ideas.

Copernicus did not leave a written record of his views, but he authorized Giese to quote him in a book supportive of a mediating position he hoped would avoid disruption in the church. He also consorted openly with at least two Lutherans—his first and only disciple, Georg Joachim Rheticus, and the well-known Lutheran clergyman, Andreas Osiander (also recognized for competence in mathematics and astronomy).

This might have sunk the career of most Catholic functionaries, but friends in high places kept Copernicus's job for him.

When, decades later, Galileo was attacked for promoting Copernicus's heliocentric cosmology, he defended himself by reminding his opponents that the Polish astronomer had been "not only a Catholic, but a priest and a canon." Galileo got two out of three right—although Copernicus did serve his church faithfully for 40 years, like many other canons of his day he never pursued ordination.

"Bodying Up" to Modern Science

We often associate the birth of modern science with Galileo Galilei, who sought to prove Copernicus's cosmology empirically with his telescopes. However, the scientific revolution did not begin at the outer frontier of space, but rather at the inner frontier of the human body. The 1543 publication of De Humani Corporis Fabrica by the Flemish scientist and churchman Andreas Vesalius not only created anatomical science as we know it, but was arguably ...

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