Owen Gingerich, Astronomer Who Saw God in the Cosmos, Dies at 93

Owen Gingerich, a noted astronomer who was particularly interested in the history of his field — so much so that he spent years trying to track down every first- and second-edition copy of Nicolaus Copernicus’s revolutionary treatise — and who was not shy about giving God credit for a role in creating the cosmos he loved to study, died on May 28 in Belmont, Mass. He was 93.

His son Jonathan confirmed the death.

Professor Gingerich, who lived in Cambridge, Mass., and taught at Harvard for many years, was a lively lecturer and writer. During his decades of teaching astronomy and the history of science, he would sometimes dress as a 16th-century Latin-speaking scholar for his classroom presentations, or convey a point of physics with a memorable demonstration; for instance, The Boston Globe related in 2004, he “routinely shot himself out of the room on the power of a fire extinguisher to prove one of Newton’s laws.”

He was nothing if not enthusiastic about the sciences, especially astronomy. One year at Harvard, when his signature course, “The Astronomical Perspective,” wasn’t filling up as fast as he would have liked, he hired a plane to fly a banner over the campus that read: “Sci A-17. M, W, F. Try it!”

Professor Gingerich’s doggedness was on full display in his long pursuit of copies of Copernicus’s “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium Libri Sex” (“Six Books on the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”), first published in 1543, the year Copernicus died.

That book laid out the thesis that Earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around, a profound challenge to scientific knowledge and religious belief in that era. The writer Arthur Koestler had contended in 1959 that the Copernicus book was not read in its time, and Professor Gingerich set out to determine whether that was true.

In 1970 he happened on a copy of “De Revolutionibus” that was heavily annotated in the library of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, suggesting that at least one person had read it closely. A quest was born.

Thirty years and hundreds of thousands of miles later, Professor Gingerich had examined some 600 Renaissance-era copies of “De Revolutionibus” all over the world and had developed a detailed picture not only of how thoroughly the work was read in its time, but also of how word of its theories spread and evolved. He documented all this in “The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus” (2004).

John Noble Wilford, reviewing it in The New York Times, called “The Book Nobody Read” “a fascinating story of a scholar as sleuth.”

“His enthusiasm for what might be judged a rather fine point of history is infectious,” Mr. Wilford added. “His book deserves to be read not only by historians and bibliophiles, but by anyone with a taste for arcane detective adventures and a curiosity about the motivations of scholarly perseverance.”

In 2006 Professor Gingerich found himself at the center of a Plutonian storm when he was chosen to lead a committee of the International Astronomical Union charged with recommending whether Pluto should remain a planet, a perennial issue in astronomy that continues to fester. His panel recommended that it should, but the full membership rejected that idea and instead made Pluto a “dwarf planet.” That decision left Professor Gingerich somewhat dismayed.

“I consider this a linguistic catastrophe,” he told The Guardian at the time.

Professor Gingerich was raised a Mennonite and was a student at Goshen College, a Mennonite institution in Indiana, studying chemistry but thinking of astronomy, when, he later recalled, a professor there gave him pivotal advice: “If you feel a calling to pursue astronomy, you should go for it. We can’t let the atheists take over any field.”

He took the counsel, and throughout his career he often wrote or spoke about his belief that religion and science need not be at odds. He explored that theme in the books “God’s Universe” (2006) and “God’s Planet” (2014).

He was not a biblical literalist; he had no use for those who ignored science and proclaimed the Bible’s creation story historical fact. Yet, as he put it in “God’s Universe,” he was “personally persuaded that a superintelligent Creator exists beyond and within the cosmos.”

Margaret Wertheim, reviewing that book in The Los Angeles Times, called it “lucid and poetic.”

“In this time of sectarian wars, when theists and atheists are engaged in increasingly hostile incivilities,” she wrote, “Gingerich lays out an elegant case for why he finds the universe a source of encouragement for his life both as a scientist and as a Christian. We do not have to agree with his conclusions to be buoyed and enchanted by the journey on which he takes us.”

Owen Jay Gingerich was born on March 24, 1930, in the southeast Iowa town of Washington. His father, Melvin, was a high school history teacher who later became a college professor, and his mother, Verna (Roth) Gingerich, was a homemaker. Both were active in the Mennonite Church.

In an oral history for the American Institute of Physics recorded in 2005, Dr. Gingerich recalled that when he was about 9, his father brought home a book that had instructions for making a telescope, which they proceeded to do, using a mailing tube and lenses his father got from the local optometrist. The eyepiece was a dime-store magnifying glass.

That gizmo, Professor Gingerich said, worked well enough that “I could easily see the rings of Saturn, and so it was probably slightly better than Galileo’s telescope.”

At Goshen College, where he graduated in 1951, he became interested in journalism and was editor of both the college yearbook and the college newspaper. He also got a summer job working at the Harvard College Observatory and applied to Harvard for graduate studies, initially hoping to become a science journalist.

He earned his master’s degree at Harvard in 1953 and his Ph.D. there in 1962. He began teaching there soon after, and he retired in 2000.

Professor Gingerich married Miriam Sensenig in 1954. She survives him, along with his son Jonathan and two other sons, Peter and Mark; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Professor Gingerich, who was senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, wrote countless articles over his career in addition to his books. In one for Science and Technology News in 2005, he talked about the divide between theories of atheistic evolution and theistic evolution.

“Frankly it lies beyond science to prove the matter one way or the other,” he wrote. “Science will not collapse if some practitioners are convinced that occasionally there has been creative input in the long chain of being.”

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic. @genznyt Facebook

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