NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – A noted teacher of astronomy and the history of science and a Newton High School graduate, on his way to Texas to receive a prestigious prize, will stop off first in North Newton to deliver two lectures.
Owen Gingerich, Cambridge, Mass., will speak in Bethel College’s convocation Monday, Dec. 1, at 11 a.m., on “God’s Universe,” also the title of his book published in 2005. That evening at 7:30 p.m., he will deliver his lecture “The Divine Handiwork: Evolution and the Wonder of Life,” the same talk he will give Dec. 4 when he receives the 2008-09 Trotter Prize at Texas A&M University. Both Bethel presentations take place in Krehbiel Auditorium in the Fine Arts Center and are free and open to the public.
Owen Gingerich is professor emeritus of astronomy and of the history of science at Harvard University and a senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. In 1992-93, he chaired Harvard’s history of science department.
Gingerich’s research interests have ranged from the recomputation of an ancient Babylonian mathematical table to the interpretation of stellar spectra. He is co-author of two successive standard models for the solar atmosphere, the first to take into account rocket and satellite observations of the sun. The second of these papers has received more than 500 literature citations.
In the past three decades, Gingerich has become a leading authority on 17th-century German astronomer Johannes Kepler and 16th-century cosmologist Nicholas Copernicus, who proposed the heliocentric system.
He undertook a three-decade-long personal survey of Copernicus’ great book De revolutionibus orbius coelestium, examining more than 580 16th-century copies in libraries scattered throughout Europe and North America as well as China, Japan and Australia. His annotated census of these books was published in 2002 as a 434-page monograph and his account of his work appeared as The Book Nobody Read (Walker & Co., 2004). Before that, in 1981, the Polish government awarded Gingerich the Order of Merit in recognition of his studies of Copernicus. 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.
Gingerich has been vice president of the American Philosophical Society, America’s oldest scientific academy, and has served as chairman of the U.S. National Committee of the International Astronomical Union. He has been a councilor of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and helped organize its Historical Astronomy Division. In 2000, he won the division’s Doggett Prize for his contributions to the history of astronomy. The AAS awarded him their Education Prize for 2004.
For some years, he served as consultant to the eminent designer Charles Eames and was an advisor for “Cosmic Voyage,” an IMAX film at the National Air and Space Museum. He appears regularly on “The Universe,” a History Channel Series. He has given the George Darwin Lecture (the most prestigious lecture of the Royal Astronomical Society) and, in 1999, an Advent sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. A world traveler, he has successfully observed 12 total solar eclipses.
Besides nearly 600 technical or educational articles and reviews, Gingerich has written more popularly on astronomy in several encyclopedias and journals. Two anthologies of his essays have appeared, The Great Copernicus Chase and Other Adventures in Astronomical History (Cambridge University Press) and The Eye of Heaven: Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler (American Institute of Physics). He is the author of more than 20 books, most recently God’s Universe (Belnap), the 2005 William Belden Noble Lectures at Harvard.
At Harvard, he 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 Harvard. 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. His lectures became noted for attention-getting devices such as propelling himself out of the classroom with a fire extinguisher to demonstrate Newton’s third law of motion and dressing up like a 16th-century Latin scholar.
During Gingerich’s association with the Smithsonian Institution, he 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.
In 1984, Gingerich won the Harvard-Radcliffe Phi Beta Kappa prize for excellence in teaching. Asteroid 2658 Gingerich, discovered Feb. 13, 1980, at the Harvard College Observatory, was named in his honor.
Gingerich is 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.
He was born in a Mennonite family in Washington, Iowa, and raised on the prairies of Kansas, where he first became interested in astronomy. His father, Melvin Gingerich, taught at Bethel College from 1941-47, before taking a job at Goshen (Ind.) College. When his family relocated, Owen Gingerich had just completed his junior year at Newton High School but began attending Goshen College without having graduated. He continued his studies at Harvard University. In 2004, NHS awarded him an honorary diploma.
Gingerich and his wife, Miriam, have been married for more than 50 years and have three sons – Mark, Peter and Jonathan – and three grandchildren. They enjoy traveling, photography and collecting both seashells and rare books. Though they do not own a copy of the first edition of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus (they own two second editions), Owen Gingerich’s collection of 16th- and 17th-century ephemerides (books that give day-by-day positions of the planets) is second only to that of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.