Sunday, February 17, 2008

The ‘Heretical’ Polish Priest

In Europe, astronomy—as a truly observational science—did not revive until the Middle Ages had given way to the Renaissance. The German mathematician and astronomer Johann Müller (1436–1476) called himself Regiomontanus, after the Latinized form of Königsberg (King’s Mountain), his birthplace. Enrolled at the University of Leipzig by the time he was 11, Regiomontanus assisted the Austrian mathematician Georg von Peuerbach in composing a work on Ptolemaic astronomy.

Regiomontanus took his job seriously and, in 1461, journeyed to Rome to learn Greek and collect Greek manuscripts from refugee astronomers fleeing the Turks, so that he was able to read the most important texts, including the Greek translation of Almagest. In the meantime, his mentor Peuerbach had died and Regiomontanus completed the master’s work in 1463. Three years later, he moved to Nürnberg, where a wealthy patron built him an observatory and gave him a printing press. Beginning in 1474, he used the press to publish ephemerides, celestial almanacs giving the daily positions of the heavenly bodies for periods of several years.

The publications of Regiomontanus, which were issued until his death in 1476, did much to reintroduce to European astronomy the practice of scientific observation.
He was so highly respected that Pope Sixtus IV summoned him to Rome to oversee revision of the notably inaccurate Julian calendar then in use.

Regiomontanus began this work on the calendar, but then died mysteriously—possibly from plague or from poison, perhaps administered by enemies resentful of his probing the cosmos too insistently. At that time, it could be dangerous to question accepted ideas, especially where the heavens were concerned. Nikolaus Krebs (1401–1464), known as Nicholas of Cusa, wrote a book called De Docta Ignorantia suggesting that the earth might not be the center of the universe.

Fortunately for Nicholas (who was a cardinal of the Catholic church), few paid attention to the idea. Another Nicholas (actually spelled Nicolaus)—Copernicus—was born in eastern Poland in 1473, almost a decade after Krebs’s death. A brilliant youth, he studied at the universities of Kraków, Bologna, Padua, and Ferrara, learning just about everything that was then known in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and theology.

Copernicus earned great renown as an astronomer and in 1514 was asked by the church for his opinion on the vexing question of calendar reform. The great Copernicus declared that he could not give an opinion, because the positions of the sun and moon were not understood with sufficient accuracy.

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