Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543)
“The father of modern astronomy,” Nicolaus Copernicus was born in the Polish city of Torun in 1473. His father was a wealthy merchant, though he died when Copernicus was just 10 years old. Consequently, young Nicolaus was placed in the care of his maternal uncle, the Bishop of Warmia.
Copernicus began his education at the University of Krakow where he studied an array of subjects including medicine, languages, geometry, mathematics, and astronomy. Before completing a degree, he was sent to Italy to study cannon law at the Bologna University of Jurists.
Despite a lack-luster approach to his legal studies (it took him seven years to obtain his Doctorate of Canon Law), Copernicus passed the required examinations in 1503 and became a cannon lawyer. He returned to Poland and spent the rest of his career working as a clergyman in the Roman Catholic Church.
He’s best known for being the first astronomer to propose a heliocentric (Sun-centered) model of the solar system. For the previous 1400 years, educated Europeans adhered to the Earth-centered model of the solar system postulated by Aristotle and Ptolemy.
Copernicus’ ideas were first printed anonymously in 1514 in a short pamphlet entitled Commentariolus. He spoke with a number of friends and colleagues within the Church and they urged him not to openly espouse his theory. Copernicus took their advice and refrained from publicizing his ideas for nearly 30 years.
It was not until Copernicus was on his deathbed in 1543 that his ideas were finally made public. At the encouragement of Austrian mathematician Rheticus, Copernicus wrote and published De Revolutionibus or “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.” It’s said that a copy of the book’s first edition was placed in Copernicus’ hands just prior to his death, though this story may be apocryphal.
The book was an immediate source of controversy. Martin Luther, one of Copernicus’ contemporaries, referred to him as a “fool who wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy.” And the Roman Catholic Church placed De Revolutionibius on its index of prohibited books in 1611, where it remained until 1835.
Tycho Brahe (1546-1601)
Tycho Brahe, the most accomplished celestial observer of the pre-telescope era, was born into the Danish nobility in the mid 16th century.
At the age of 12, his family sent him to the University of Copenhagen to study law in preparation for a career in government. While at the university, however, he observed the solar eclipse of 1560 and was greatly impressed by the fact that such an event could be predicted years in advance. From that moment on, he neglected his legal studies and devoted himself almost entirely to astronomy.
His first major work, De nova stella, was a report of a supernova he observed in the constellation Cassiopeia. As his fame as an astronomer grew, his government awarded him complete reign of Hven Island in the Baltic Sea where Brahe built his legendary observatory, Uraniborg.
He employed the young German mathematician Johannes Kepler to assist with his observations and calculations.
Brahe was one of the last great astronomers to reject the heliocentric system. Instead, he claimed that the planets obit the Sun but the Sun and the Moon orbit Earth.
Aside from his career as a scientist, Brahe had a colorful and rumpus life. As a young man, his nose was cut off in a drunken sword dual that began over a geometry problem. For the remainder of his life, Brahe wore a nose made of gold held on by glue or paste. He drank heavily throughout his life and died from a ruptured bladder that he suffered at a bouquet. He considered it impolite to take a trip to the bathroom during the event. He wrote his own epitaph which read “Lived like a sage. Died like a fool.”
A legal battle irrupted after Brahe’s death between his estate and Johannes Kepler. At controversy was who had the legal right to Brahe’s astronomical records. Luckily for posterity and science, the court sided with Kepler and Brahe’s observational data passed to him.
Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695)
Huygens is probably the greatest scientist that you’ve never heard of. He invented the pendulum clock, proposed the wave theory of light and the principle of conservation of momentum. He was the first to realize that Saturn was surrounded by a “thin flat ring” and also discovered the planet’s largest moon, Titan.
His major literary works were De Saturni Luna Observatio (1656) and Treatise on Light (1690).
Born into a wealthy Dutch family, Huygens was sent to Leiden University to study law in preparation for a career in diplomacy. He transferred to Orange College in Breda where he lived with a prominent jurist and completed his studies in 1649. Despite his legal training, Huygens had little interest in the law or a career in politics. Additionally, political circumstances in the Netherlands made it nearly impossible for Huygens to hold a diplomatic post. Instead, he devoted himself to science.
Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716)
Gottfried Leibniz was born into a family of German academics in the mid 1600s. His father was a professor of moral philosophy and his maternal grandfather taught law. Leibniz attended the University of Leipzig where he studied philosophy and law, earning multiple degrees.
His first job was as legal advisor to the Elector of Mainz. After the Elector’s death in 1673, Leibniz became the librarian to the Duke of Brunswick, a position that allowed him pursue his interests in science and mathematics.
Today Leibniz is best known for developing the mathematical field of calculus. In England, at nearly the same time, Isaac Newton developed his own version of calculus without any knowledge of Leibniz’s work.
George Hadley (1685-1768)
Hadley was the son of a county sheriff in England. He went to Oxford University and later entered Lincoln’s Inn to study law. He was called to the bar in 1709 and began to practice law, though he was always more interested in physics and natural science. He was particularly interested in meteorology and he became the first person to explain the westerly flow of trade winds.
Hadley realized that Earth’s easterly rotation accounted for the wind patterns around the global. This effect has been dubbed as “Hadley’s cells”—a term still used by today’s meteorologists.
Charles Lyell (1797-1875)
Lyell was born into a wealthy Scottish family and sent to Oxford University at the age of 19. He studied classics and received a B.A. and M.A. from the university before moving to London to study law at Lincoln’s Inn.
The long hours of legal study irritated Lyell’s eyes and he often turned to geological work outdoors for relief. Despite having little interest in the law, Lyell completed his studies and earned admittance to the bar in 1825. That same year he published his first paper on geology.
He soon dropped his original career plans and pursued geology as his profession. His multi-volume treatise Principles of Geology became one of the most influential works of the 19th century. Lyell’s treatise convincingly argued that Earth’s surface was formed by gradual geologic processes over a long period of time, a concept called uniformitarianism.
His ideas greatly influenced Charles Darwin who first read Principles of Geology while on board the Beagle. Years later, Darwin would write
The great merit of the Principles was that it altered the whole tone of one’s mind, and therefore that, when seeing a thing never seen by Lyell, one yet saw it partially through his eyes.
Edwin Hubble (1889-1953)
Hubble was born in Missouri to a well-off businessman who worked in the insurance industry. In 1906, he won a scholarship to attend the University of Chicago. He became a Rhode Scholar and traveled to England to study law at the University of Oxford. Hubble had little interest in the law but pursued a degree in the subject at his father’s request. When his father died, Hubble (aged 25) ended his legal studies and focused on astronomy.
After serving in World War I, Hubble worked at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California where he developed and published his theory on “extragalactic nebulae” in 1924-1925 and his proof of cosmic expansion in 1929.