Today is the birthday of one of the most important figures in the history of science: the great Polish astronomer and polymath Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543). (“Oh, polymath is a beautiful word. Let’s look it up on our big dictionary.”) In Copernicus’ honor, why not take a few homeschool minutes today to introduce your students to his great work, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium), first published in 1543.
Copernicus was an extraordinary scholar whose work extended far beyond the astronomical research for which he is best known. He spoke five languages, translated Greek poetry, studied medicine, mathematics, economic theory, and more. And he did this while serving for much of his adult life as a canon — a senior church administrative officer — in Poland’s Frombork Cathedral. (Frombork today is home to a Copernicus Museum and research center.)
De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, or “De Rev” as history of science geeks call it, is one of the most important books ever published because it laid out a comprehensive sun-centered or heliocentric picture of the solar system, replacing the earlier earth-centered or geocentric picture.
Fewer than 300 copies of the original 1543 edition of De Revolutionibus survive today. But we live in a truly fortunate age, when a young student can sit at home and examine up close some of the rarest and most important books in history — books that just a few years ago would have been accessible only to professional scholars in the world’s largest libraries.
Here is a copy of the “De Rev” that has been scanned and made available by RareBookRoom.org, a wonderful site that provides online access to some of the most important books ever written. The scans are very high resolution so all the pages can be examined one by one in great detail, right down to the handwritten notes in the margins and to the texture of the paper as it was impressed by the metal type. Spend a few homeschool minutes today with your students (at a large screen rather than a phone) exploring this bibliographic treasure:
The text is in Latin — the language of nearly all scientific books at that time — and the printing is exceptionally fine. Zoom in on a few pages using the −/+ scale at the top of the page to get a full appreciation for this great example, not only of science, but of the printer’s art as well.
If you have curious science students in your homeschool, be sure they know the name of Nicolaus Copernicus and how he changed our understanding of the world.
What historico-scientific anniversaries have you been marking in your homeschool this Orion Term? 😊
❡ Explore more: For a quick homeschool review of the Renaissance, the historical period in which Copernicus lived, turn to pages 250–253 in your River Houses history encyclopedia, and for an overview of the Scientific Revolution that he helped to spark see pages 266–267. It’s just the background you need for a wonderful homeschool history lesson. 📚
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