Owen Gingerich

Perhaps not many young social network users of today are interested in the stars, but when astronomer and history of science Professor Owen Gingerich taught “Astronomical Perspectives,” a general studies course for non-science majors at Harvard, students flocked to hear the distinguished scientist. When he retired in 2000, the course was described as “the longest-running course under the same management” currently given at Harvard University.

A gifted and original lecturer, Gingerich, who won the Harvard-Radcliffe Phi Beta Kappa Prize for excellence in teaching in 1984 and the Education Prize of the American Astronomical Society in 2004, is said to have riveted his students with attention-drawing teaching schemes. He dressed up as a sixteenth-century Latin scholar and several times blew himself out of his classroom with a fire extinguisher to illustrate Newton’s third law of motion. One year when attendance in “Astronomical Perspectives” seemed to be declining, he  hired a plane to fly over campus advertizing the course. He said, “Alas, Harvard students were not accustomed to looking up, but the stunt made it into the Wall Street Journal under ‘marketing.’”

Born in Iowa in 1930 into a modest Mennonite family, Gingerich developed his “lifelong love affair with the stars” growing up on the prairies of Kansas. His father taught at Bethel College in Kansas  and later at Goshen College in Indiana. Young Gingerich later received his BA there before moving on to Harvard University, where he completed his MA in 1953.

Two years later he and his wife moved to Beirut where he was director of the Lee Observatory at the American University of Beirut from 1955 to 1958 while reintroducing astronomy courses, which had been discontinued in 1947. He instituted "Open Nights" for star gazers and set up an astronomical library. When he returned to the United States he lectured at Wellesley College and Harvard University before receiving his PhD from Harvard in 1962. He taught at Harvard until his retirement.

Fascinated by astronomy from an early age, according to the Harvard History of Science Department, Gingerich’s interests ranged from the “recomputation of an ancient Babylonian mathematical table to the interpretation of the stellar spectra”; he also coauthored two standard models for solar atmosphere, including for the first time rocket and satellite observations of the sun.

Gingerich was elected vice president of the American Philosophical Society, chaired the US National  Committee of the International Astronomical Union, headed the Union’s Planet Definition Committee, and served as counselor of the American Astronomical Society. He served on the editorial boards of the Journal for the History of Astronomy, the General History of Astronomy, The American Scholar, and the Harvard Magazine.

Over the course of his career, Gingerich has authored almost 600 technical or research articles and reviews, more than 250 educational, encyclopedia, and popular articles; and several books, among which are two anthologies of his essays: The Great Copernicus Chase and Other Adventures in Astronomical History (1992); The Eye of Heaven: Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler (1997); The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus (2004); and God’s Universe (2006).

Gingerich is recognized as an authority on astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and cosmologist Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). His 1959 discovery of Arthur Koestler’s description of Copernicus’s famous work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium as “The Book that Nobody Read” stirred his interest. Koestler wrote, “The Book of the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was and is an all-time worst seller.” Why would no one have read this famous work championing the then-radical heliocentric view of the universe?

Gingerich was moved to check it out, and so began a 30-year pursuit of two
editions of the book published before the mid-nineteenth century, the original in 1543 and the second in 1566. (A third was published in1617.) He and his wife toured the world, searching for the almost 600sixteenth-century samples located around the globe. Exploring the early reception of thebook, Gingerich not only scrupulously studied the various reactions revealed in marginal annotations, but also chronicled the censorship of the controversial work. It has been said that Gingerich’s researching and cataloguing of De revolutionibus was better than that given “any first-edition historical text except for the original Gutenberg Bible.” The book has been recommended as “a fascinating story of a scholar as sleuth” and compelling for “anyone with a taste for arcane detective adventures and a curiosity about the motivations of scholarly perseverance.” The story of the search is told in Gingerich’s ironically entitled work, The Book Nobody Read.

A firm believer in the compatibility of religion and science, Gingerich, according to reviewer Stephen C. Meyer, believes “his knowledge affords him a special appreciation of the intricacy of God’s design.” Gingerich said, “Once you have made this leap of faith . . . there are lots of things in science that fall together in a beautiful kind of way and seem quite convincing.” Bloggers have been known to exclaim, “But he’s a scientist. I didn’t know scientists believe in God.”

The William Belden Noble Lectures, three lectures delivered at Harvard’s Memorial Church, were published by Harvard University Press in 2006 as God’s Universe. These lectures focus on Gingerich’s efforts to “reconcile modern astronomy with a Divine Creator.” In a review of the book, Dan Clendenin said that for Gingerich, "a religious view of the universe makes more sense, explains more, and is more satisfying than a non-theistic view.” Gingerich wrote later, “Science will not collapse if some practitioners are convinced that occasionally there has been creative input in the long chain of being.” Gingerich’s work has been recognized by many prizes and awards throughout his career. For his pursuit of editions of De revolutionibus he was awarded the Polish Government’s Order of Merit in 1981. In 2000 he won the Doggett Prize for contributions to the history of astronomy, and in 2006 he was awarded the prestigious Janssen Prize by the French Astronomical Society. An asteroid, “2658 Gingerich,” discovered in February1980 at the Harvard College Observatory, was named in his honor.

Gingerich and his wife of more than 50 years, Miriam, have three sons (two of whom were born in Beirut) and three grandchildren. The couple are ardent photographers, shell enthusiasts, rare book collectors, and travelers—in 1971 they returned to AUB when on sabbatical from Harvard. “Being at AUB was such an important era in our lives,” he said. Owen Gingerich is still in much demand as a lecturer, and has already made several appearances this year, including a March talk at his alma mater, Goshen College, where he spoke at the annual Religion and Science Conference.