Posted by: gcarkner | October 9, 2013

Owen Gingerich Harvard Astronomer-Historian of Science

Owen Gingerich

Owen Jay Gingerich (born 1930) is a former Research Professor of Astronomy and of the History of Science at Harvard University, and a senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. In addition to his research and teaching, he has written many books on the history of astronomy.

Gingerich is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the International Academy of the History of Science. He has been active in the American Scientific Affiliation, a society of evangelical scientists, and is on the Templeton Foundation’s Board of Trustees.

Career and Contributions

Due largely to Gingerich’s work, De revolutionibus (here the cover of the 2nd edition of 1566, Basel) has been researched and cataloged better than any first-edition historical text except for the original Gutenberg Bible.

Gingerich was eventually led to teach astronomy at Harvard where his lectures became noted for attention-getting devices. Amongst these was propelling himself out of the classroom with a fire extinguisher to demonstrate Newton’s third law of motion and dressing up like a sixteenth-century Latin scholar. He also is associated with the Smithsonian and served as chairman of the International Astronomical Union’s Planet Definition Committee, which was charged with updating the astronomical definition of planet to reflect recent discoveries such as Eris.

The seven-member committee drafted a definition which preserved Pluto’s status by only requiring a planet to be (1) large enough to assume hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape) and (2) orbiting a star without itself being a star. This proposal was criticized by many for weakening the meaning of the term. The eventual definition adopted by the IAU added an additional requirement, that a body must have cleared its neighborhood of all other sizable objects, language that Gingerich was “not at all pleased” with.

In addition to astronomical research, he has also studied the history of astronomy. In the 1950s, he researched Charles Messier’s life and the Messier Catalog. Gingerich found notes by Messier on two additional Objects, discovered by Pierre Méchain, which he added to the Messier Catalog: M108 (NGC 3556) and M109 (NGC 3992). He investigated the missing Messier Objects, concluding that M91 was probably a comet and that M102 was probably a duplication of M101. The first conclusion was later dismissed as W. C. Williams brought up evidence that M91 is probably NGC 4548, but the second is still open (M102 may be NGC 5866).

Gingerich is a widely recognized authority on both Johannes Kepler and Nicolaus Copernicus, especially in regard to his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. In 1959, in chapter II of The Sleepwalkers, titled “The System of Copernicus”, Arthur Koestler wrote that: “The book that nobody read – the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres – was and is an all-time worst-seller.” After reading in the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh a thoroughly annotated copy previously owned by Erasmus Reinhold, a prominent sixteenth-century German astronomer who worked in Prussia shortly after Copernicus’ death there, Gingerich was inspired to check Koestler’s claim and to research who had owned and studied the book’s first two editions, the only ones prior to the mid-19th century, published in 1543 and 1566 in Nuremberg and Basel respectively. Gingerich also documented where and how the book was censored. Due largely to Gingerich’s work, De revolutionibus has been researched and catalogued better than any first-edition historical text except for the original Gutenberg Bible. His three-decade-long personal survey of Copernicus’ great book De revolutionibus was recounted in The Book Nobody Read, published in 2004 by Walker & Co. That book and the research behind it earned him the Polish government’s Order of Merit in 1981.

Science and Religion

Since he is a Christian as well as a historian of science and a cosmologist, Gingerich has been asked several times to comment on matters concerning the interplay between science and faith. One of these, Intelligent design, he calls an issue with “immense incomprehension from both the friends and foes.” On the one hand, he says that it is unfortunate that there seems to be a knee-jerk reaction among its critics that I.D. is simply Young Earth creationism in disguise. On the other hand, he says that, while I.D. supporters make a good case for a coherent understanding of the nature of the cosmos,

they fall short in providing any mechanisms for the efficient causes that primarily engage scientists in our age. I.D. does not explain the temporal or geographical distribution of species, or the intricate relationships of the DNA coding. I.D. is interesting as a philosophical idea, but it does not replace the scientific explanations that evolution offers. (Owen Gingerich. “Taking the ID debate out of pundits’ playbooks“. Science & Theology News. Nov. 8, 2005.)

Gingerich believes “there is a God as a designer, who happens to be using the evolutionary process to achieve larger goals – which are, as far as we human beings can see, [the development of] self-consciousness and conscience.” He has written that “I … believe in intelligent design, lowercase ‘i’ and ‘d’. But I have trouble with Intelligent Design – uppercase ‘I’ and ‘D’ – a movement widely seen as anti-evolutionist.” He indicated that teleological arguments, such as the apparent fine tuning of the universe, can count as evidence, but not proof, for the existence of God. He said that “a common-sense and satisfying interpretation of our world suggests the designing hand of a superintelligence.” (Chris Floyd. “Eyes Wide Open: An Interview with Owen GingerichScience and Spirit. Accessed Sept. 23, 2006)

Accepting the common descent of species, Gingerich is a theistic evolutionist. Therefore, he does not accept metaphysical naturalism, writing that

Most mutations are disasters, but perhaps some inspired few are not. Can mutations be inspired? Here is the ideological watershed, the division between atheistic evolution and theistic evolution, and frankly it lies beyond science to prove the matter one way or the other. Science will not collapse if some practitioners are convinced that occasionally there has been creative input in the long chain of being. (Jonathan Witt. “Owen Gingerich Encourages Civil ID Debate“. Nov. 9, 2005)

Gingerich’s beliefs have sometimes resulted in criticism from young earth creationists, who dissent from the view that the universe is billions of years old. Gingerich has responded, in part, by saying that “the great tapestry of science is woven together with the question ‘how?’” while the biblical account and faith “addresses entirely different questions: not the how, but the motivations of the ‘Who’.”

Accomplishments and Awards

At Harvard, Gingerich taught “The Astronomical Perspective”, a core science course for non-scientists, which at the time of his retirement in 2000 was the longest-running course under the same management at the University. One semester, when the number of students signing up for the course lagged, Gingerich hired a plane to fly over Harvard Yard with a banner: “Sci A-17. M, W, F. Try it!” The class was filled by the end of that week. In 1984, he won the Harvard-Radcliffe Phi Beta Kappa prize for excellence in teaching, due in part to his creative use of medieval costumes, fire extinguishers, and at least one aircraft.

In addition to over 20 books, Gingerich has published nearly 600 technical or educational articles and reviews, and he has written many other articles for a popular audience. Two anthologies of his essays have been released, The Great Copernicus Chase and Other Adventures in Astronomical History from Cambridge University Press and The Eye of Heaven: Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler in the American Institute of Physics.

He has been a councilor of the American Astronomical Society, and helped organize its Historical Astronomy Division. In 2000, he won their Doggett Prize for his contributions to the history of astronomy. He was awarded the Prix Jules Janssen of the French astronomical society in 2006.

Gingerich won the Trotter Prize in 2009. He also gave a lecture called “Mystery in Science, Reason in Religion: How the Two Intersect and Overlap”,

Asteroid 2658 Gingerich, discovered on February 13, 1980, at the Harvard College Observatory, was named in his honor.

Personal Life

Though he does not own a copy of the first edition of De revolutionibus (they own two second editions), his collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ephemerides (books that give day-by-day positions of the planets) is second only to that of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. He has been a lecturer in the UBC Graduate & Faculty Forum on two occasions, once on the history of Galileo.

Published Works

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