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Dr. Owen Jay Gingerich (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,[1] and is on the Templeton Foundation’s Board of Trustees.[2]

Early life

He was born to a Mennonite family in Washington, Iowa, but was raised on the prairies of Kansas where he first became interested in astronomy. His father, Melvin Gingerich, taught at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, from 1941 to 1947, when he took a job at Goshen College in Indiana. When his family relocated, Owen Gingerich began attending Goshen College without having graduated from high school, having just completed his junior year.[3] He continued his studies at Harvard University. In 2004, Newton High School awarded him with an honorary high school diploma.

Career and contributions

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.[4] 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.[5]

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)[6]

Gingerich is a widely recognized authority on both Johannes Kepler and Nicolaus Copernicus, especially in regard to his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.

Arthur Koestler in 1959 wrote in "The Sleepwalkers"'s chapter "II THE SYSTEM OF COPERNICUS" about De revolutionibus orbium coelestium: "The Book that Nobody Read - the Book of the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was and is an all-time worst-seller." After finding in the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh a thoroughly annotated copy previously owned by prominent sixteenth-century Erasmus Reinhold[7], a German astronomer 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 only editions prior to the mid-19th century, the original of 1543 in Nuremberg, and the second in 1566, Basel. Gingerich also documented where and how the book was censored. Due largely to Gingerich’s work, De revolutionibus has been researched and cataloged better than any first-edition historical text except for the original Gutenberg Bible.[4] 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.[8]

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 called an issue with “immense incomprehension from both the friends and foes.” On the one hand, he said that it was unfortunate that there seems to be a knee-jerk reaction among its critics that ID is simply Young Earth creationism in disguise. On the other hand, he says that, while ID 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. ID does not explain the temporal or geographical distribution of species, or the intricate relationships of the DNA coding. ID is interesting as a philosophical idea, but it does not replace the scientific explanations that evolution offers. [9]

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.” [10]

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.[11]

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.’”[1].

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.[4]

In addition to over 20 books, Dr. 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.[8]

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.[12]

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

Personal life

Gingerich and his wife, Miriam, have been married for over 50 years.[4] They have three sons, Mark, Peter, and Jonathan, as well as three grandchildren named Philip, Yasmin, and Dilara. They enjoy traveling, photography, and collecting both sea shells and rare books.[12] Though they do not own a copy of the first edition of De revolutionibus (they own two second editions[13]), 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.[3]

Gingerich appears regularly on the Universe, a History Channel series.


  • Owen Gingerich: An annotated census of Copernicus' De revolutionibus (Nuremberg, 1543 and Basel, 1566). Leiden : Brill, 2002 ISBN 90-04-11466-1 (Studia copernicana. Brill's series; v. 2)[2]
  • Owen Gingerich: The Book Nobody Read : Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus. New York : Walker, 2004 ISBN 0-8027-1415-3 [3]
  • Owen Gingerich, Robert S. Westman: The Wittich Connection: Conflict and Priority in Late Sixteenth-century Cosmology, American Philosophical Society, 1988, [4]
  • Owen Gingerich: The Role of Erasmus Reinhold and the Prutenic Tables in the Dissemination of the Copernican Theory, 1973 [5]


  1. ^ a b Stephen C. Meyer. "Owen Gingerich". Eternity. May 1986.
  2. ^ Templeton Foundation board of trustees. Accessed Nov. 15, 2006
  3. ^ a b "Astrophysicist Owen Gingerich to visit Newton, Bethel College". May 19, 2004
  4. ^ a b c d Peter DeMarco. "Book quest took him around the globe". Boston Globe. April 13, 2004
  5. ^ Robert Roy Britt. "Pluto Demoted: No Longer a Planet in Highly Controversial Definition". Aug. 24, 2006
  6. ^ Owen Gingerich at SEDS. Accessed 22 Sept. 2006
  7. ^ Michael Cohen, The Book Nobody Read, review, 05 February 2005 [1]
  8. ^ a b Owen Gingerich Harvard faculty web page. Accessed Sept. 22, 2006.
  9. ^ Owen Gingerich. "Taking the ID debate out of pundits’ playbooks". Science & Theology News. Nov. 8, 2005.
  10. ^ Chris Floyd. "Eyes Wide Open: An Interview with Owen Gingerich. Science and Spirit. Accessed Sept. 23, 2006
  11. ^ Jonathan Witt. "Owen Gingerich Encourages Civil ID Debate". Nov. 9, 2005
  12. ^ a b Owen Gingerich at Smithsonian Institution Libraries. Accessed Sept. 22, 2006
  13. ^ Gingerich, O.:The Book Nobody Read, Walker & Co., 2004.


Essays by Gingerich

  • Is the Cosmos All There Is?
  • "Is There a Role for Natural Theology Today?" (Abridged reprint from Science and Theology: Questions at the Interface, edited by Murray Rae, Hilary Regan, and John Stenhouse (T & T Clarke, Edinburgh, 1994), pp. 29-48)
  • "Taking the ID debate out of pundits’ playbooks". Science & Theology News. Nov. 8, 2005.
  • "Islamic astronomy". Scientific American, April 1986 v 254. p74
  • "The best of times, the worst of times" A Millennium Advent Sermon, Dec. 5, 1999


Astronomy Encyclopedia

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