The Copernican Myths

Copernicus never proved the earth revolves around the sun and he was never a priest. These are just two of many Copernican myths. The myths have even trapped famous scientists such as Carl Sagan. The list below details 8 of the most common Copernican myths. Some of the text on this page has been modified from The Galileo Myths. To show or hide the explanation of a myth you can click/tap the Myth's title.

1. Copernicus proved the earth revolves around the sun.

Since Copernicus proved the Earth revolves around the sun, scientists have toiled to discover the mysteries of the universe.
Seattle Times Editorial, 2006.

Copernicus never proved that the Earth revolves around the sun, and neither did Galileo. If the earth moved, it would mean that the relative positions of the sun and more distant stars must change over the course of a year. This is known as stellar parallax. Stellar Parallax was not discovered until 1838 by Friedrich Bessel . James Bradley is usually given credit for proof of the earth's movement. In 1727, while searching for stellar parallax, he discovered stellar abberation. Stellar abberation also proves the movement of earth. This was almost a two centuries after Copernicus' death and almost a century after Galileo's.

2. The Copernican Model was more accurate.

The Copernican model was superior to the Ptolemaic model. It was simpler, and it predicted future positions of the planets much more accurately
Earth Science Text.

The Copernican Model did not fit with observations any better than the ancient Ptolemaic Model. This has been confirmed by modern computer-based statistical analysis [_1_] .

3. The Copernican Model was more simple.

The Copernican model was superior to the Ptolemaic model. It was simpler, and it predicted future positions of the planets much more accurately
Earth Science Text.

Simplicity is a judgement call. It is true that Copernicus did remove the need for equants, but only at the cost of requiring more 'circles'. The Copernican Model actually used more epicycles (circles on circles) than the Ptolemaic. Some estimate that it used twice as many circles [_2_] . The Copernican Model may have been more simply calculated, but this wasn't as important as it may seem. Users of the models would be working from pre-calculated tables not the models themselves.

4. Copernicus demoted Man's place in the universe.

...if Copernicus were right, the Earth would be demoted, no longer the Earth, the World, but a world, an earth, one of many.
Carl Sagan, Varieties of Scientific Experience

In Copernicus's and Galileo's time, moving the center of the universe from the earth to the sun was promoting the earth, not demoting it. This myth is an example of presentism, which assumes that the attitudes of times past were the same as the present. Being at the center of the universe wasn't a great place to be in medieval or early modern Europe. In Inferno, the great medieval poet, Dante, placed the lowest pit of hell at the earth's center. Thomas Aquinas described a medieval cosmology where the earth was at the centre, being the most material and coarse. Even Galileo, almost 100 years later, thought Copernicus's model was promoting the earth.

“I will prove that the Earth does have motion . . . and that it is not the sump where the universe's filth and ephemera collect.

5. Copernicus Was a Priest

Nicolaus Copernicus was a Canon in the Catholic Church but it is doubtful that he ever became a priest. Unlike priests, canons do not need to take Holy Orders and cannot say Mass. There were no references to Copernicus as a priest during his lifetime or of him celebrating Mass. The reason some believe he may have been a priest is that the King of Poland recommended him for the role of bishop. At the time, however, it was possible to become a bishop without taking Holy Orders.

6. Copernicus was little-known.

Copernicus, who lived from 1473 to 1543, died as a little-known astronomer working in what is now Poland, far from Europe's centers of learning.
Associated Press, 2010

Copernicus was widely known in Europe for his knowledge of astronomy, medicine, finance and administration. Admirers included high church officials in the Vatican and Prussia, royalty in Poland and Prussia, and the poor of Warmia.

Copernicus' reputation as a 'renaissance man' is well-documented. The senior advisor to the pope (Cardinal Schonberg) asked Copernicus to publish his astronomical ideas, and promised to pay for its publication. A multinational church commission to reform the Julian calendar approached Copernicus for astronomical advice. The King of Poland asked for Copernicus' help in reforming the country's currency. Copernicus' fame as a physician meant that his advice was sought by physicians to the Royal Family of Poland, and doctors in the cities of Gdańsk, Königsberg, Lubawa, Elblag and Olsztyn. When one of his senior advisors became gravely ill, Prince Albert of Prussia begged the canonry of Warmia to lend him Copernicus' services. Copernicus also wrote and presented a report for the Prussian Assembly (Diet) at Graudenz. In the report he outlined Gresham's Law, an important economic concept, decades before Gresham did. Copernicus was well-known to the poor of his diocese since he provided them medical care for free.

7. Copernicus's Unmarked Grave

After his death, his remains rested in an unmarked grave beneath the floor of the cathedral in Frombork, northern Poland, the exact location unknown.
Associated Press, 2010

Russian Troops in Frauenburg

This myth is misleading since it gives the impression that Copernicus didn't receive an honoured or respectful burial. Marked graves can become unmarked because of war, neglect or even poorly executed renovations. The picture above (taken in 1945) shows the main square of what was the lovely medieval town of Frauenberg. 70-80% of the city was damaged and the cathedral which held Copernicus' grave was badly damaged as well. It is naive to assume that just because Copernicus' grave was unmarked when it was rediscovered in 2008, that it always had been unmarked. In fact, it had been marked for 280 years.

Most cultures around the world have very strict rules on how, where, and when a body is laid to rest. This was especially true of the burial of clergy and canons in early modern Prussia. We can determine if Copernicus' diocese followed tradition because the tradition was well-documented. As a canon of the Frauenburg Cathedral, Copernicus was entitled to a burial inside the cathedral, near the altar which he tended through most of his life. In the Catholic tradition, it is considered an honour to be buried in a Cathedral, since most are buried in cemeteries. It would have been Copernicus's choice whether he wanted a plaque near his burial location or not. The executors of Copernicus' estate were not left any instructions to request a plaque. Many of those buried in the cathedral, including bishops, chose not to have a plaque. At the time, there was greater respect for humility and greater disdain for pride. This may have been influenced by the Devotio Moderna movement, which was then popular in northern Europe. The crypts would have "lists" associated with them so it would still be possible to determine who was buried where. Following tradition, Copernicus was buried near his altar, and following Copernicus's will, he was not given a plaque.

Copernicus's (desired?) anonymity in the cathedral would only last 38 years. In 1581 Marcin Kromer, the Bishop of Warmia, insisted that a commemorative plaque be placed near Copernicus's burial location. Kromer wrote the text for the plaque, himself. For whatever reason, those commissioned with placing the plaque put it in the wrong location. This explains much about the mystery of the location of Copernicus's grave [_3_] . In 1861, during a renovation in the cathedral, many plaques were moved or lost altogether. It seems that Copernicus's plaque was one of these. Had this not happened, there is no guarantee that his plaque would have survived the Russian siege of 1945.

8. Copernicus's Deathbed Publication

Copernicus, by the way, felt his idea to be so dangerous that it was not published until he was on his deathbed...
Carl Sagan, Varieties of Scientific Experience

Carl Sagan, like others who repeat this myth, haven't done their homework. de Revolutionibus was published around the time of his death, but his idea had been published in Narratio Prima three years earlier. Copernicus' early work on his cosmology had been circulating around Europe for decades in the form of the Commentariolus. Word of Copernicus's cosmology had reached the Vatican 10 years before his death. Johann Widmanstetter gave a seminar on the Copernican model to the pope and senior Vatican officials in 1533. The Vatican was so impressed that a letter was sent to Copernicus asking him to properly publish his work with a promise to pay for the publication.

Modern commentators, including Carl Sagan, suggest that a possible reason for Copernicus's procrastination was fear of the reaction of the church. This ignores Copernicus' own statements on the reasons for his reticence to publish. He didn't want to get embroiled in disputes with critics who didn't even understand his work. Copernicus didn't need to guess what reaction the local bishops would have. The de Revolutionibus project was hatched in the residence of Bishop Giese of Culm. The bishop had invited Copernicus and his collaborator Rheticus to his residence in Lubawa, in an attempt to convince Copernicus to publish his work. Rheticus credits Giese with convincing Copernicus to publish an explanation of his model. Copernicus wanted to publish only his tables, without discussing the model. Giese, being a good friend, warned Copernicus that there would likely be negative reactions from astronomers but that he should publish anyway [_4_] .

The facts contradict this myth but so does simple logic. Any attempt to link the timing of the publication of his work with the timing of his death is silly. de Revolutionibus was a three-year project. Copernicus could not foretell the timing of his death. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Copernicus MythsCopernican MythsCopernican ModelUnmarked GraveAccuracyEpicyclePriesthoodDeathbedFromborkBishop GieseChurch Model Accuracy
Copyright Joseph Sant (2019).
Cite this page.

1. Babb, Stanley E.,, Isis, Sept. 1977, Accuracy of Planetary Theories, Particularly for Mars,, , pp. 426-34
In this article Stanley Babb compares the predictions of the Copernican and Ptolemaic models against the actual planetary positions using computer-based statistical analysis. The results did not show a dramatic difference between the two systems, but the earth-centred system (the Ptolemaic) did perform better for planets such as Mars.

2. Neugebauer, Otto, Dover Publications, The Exact Sciences in Antiquity (2 ed.), , p. 204
"Copernican models themselves require about twice as many circles as the Ptolemaic models and are far less elegant and adaptable." Neugebauers was one of the highest estimates. Other estimates were lower but more than the Ptolemaic. (e.g. 48 Copernican / 40 Ptolemaic ).

3. Jerry Sikorski, Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Mystery of Nicolaus Copernicus Grave in The Nicolaus Copernicus Grave Mystery, , 19-29
This discusses some of the historical background leading to the rediscovery of Copernicus's grave.

4. Repcheck, Jack, Simon and Schuster,, Copernicus' Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began, , p.147-148
Repcheck quotes Rheticus's own words in crediting Giese in convincing Copernicus to publish. The book also discusses Copernicus's own argument for NOT publishing his theory and Bishop Giese inviting Copernicus and Rheticus to Lubawa to discuss publishing Copernicus's work..