Owen Gingerich puzzles out heavenly science, faith

AAAS member Owen Gingerich in his office at Harvard University. The professor emeritus is well known for cataloging every surviving 16th century copy of Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus' seminal work, De Revolutionibus. (Photo: Mark Zastrow)

Professor emeritus Owen Gingerich's office has the ambience of a dragon's lair, if the dragon in question were fond of books. Tucked in a corner of Harvard's astronomy building and filled with the usual accumulation of dusty tomes, the office also hosts a paper replica plane, a perfectly preserved fossil, a model Renaissance telescope, and a large chunk of one of the ten most common elements in the universe.

"Guess what it is," he says.

The lump is gray, shiny, and looks molten.

"I'll give you a hint. There's a valley in California named for it."

"Silicon?"

"Correct!"

Gingerich enjoys a puzzle, both solving them and inflicting them. He approaches research like a detective,carefully combing through each piece of evidence until he believes he has the truth. On his overflowing desk he keeps a reminder of another puzzle — a Zeeman spectrogram of vanadium. The spectrum is not labeled, and many years ago he forgot which obscure chemical it represented. He researched, called his colleagues, and he kept the image close at hand until he found the answer. The spectrum had no particular value to his research, but it was a mystery that had to be solved.

Solving mysteries even extends to the mystery of God. In his book God's Universe, which collects three lectures he gave at Harvard, Gingerich explains his views on science and religion with the same logic and methods he uses to investigate all problems. From a sheltered rural Mennonite, to a world traveler, to a respected scientist, to a passionate historian, Gingerich has maintained the faith that brought his ancestors to America many generations ago.

Owen Gingerich was born in 1930 in Iowa, from a long line of Mennonites. His first introduction to the world outside his safe and sleepy Midwestern home was a mission of mercy he took with his father in the months following the end of World War II. His father, who like his son was an ardent pacifist, took a temporary job as supervisor of the U.S.S. Stephen R. Mallory — a liberty ship bearing 847 horses bound for Poland as part of UN relief efforts. He roped his son into becoming a cowboy, helping to keep as many of the horses alive as possible over the long and accident-prone voyage.

After this dramatic introduction to the larger world, Gingerich has frequently traveled to Europe and Asia and back in the name of research. His most famous contribution to the history of science involved cataloging every surviving 16th century copy of Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus' seminal work, De Revolutionibus. Thirty years, over 600 archived books, and thousands of miles of travel, gave Gingerich the knowledge he needed to publish The Book Nobody Read, along with the census of his findings. His reward for decades of work was to prove that 16th century astronomers had indeed read the blacklisted book many of the copies he found included marginalia from their original owners.

It would be natural to assume that an astronomer-turned-historian, who thinks like a scientist and studies the most controversial astronomers in history, might begin to doubt the worth of religion. (Renaissance Italy in particular was notorious for persecuting astronomers — Galileo died under house arrest and Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake.) But the line of faithful Gingerich Mennonites remains unbroken. He sees the universe through the lens of science, but with the awe of devotion. For him, there is no conflict between science and God, only between man and ignorance.

For Gingerich, as for many scientists, the only contemptible people are those who refuse even to look. Those who may fear that their faith cannot stand up to the cold logic of science. People like Galileo's contemporaries, who decried his work but would not look though a telescope to see for themselves the moons of Jupiter or the phases of Venus.

To inspire better relations between faith and science, Gingerich has begun research for a new book on some exciting advances in the theory of evolution, interspersed with ruminations on the supposed conflict between science and religion. For Gingerich, science explains everything within its framework, but God can be seen in the details. Every random chance that led to the evolution of intelligent life, he says, could be seen as stemming from a guiding force. But Gingerich believes it is a force that uses science, and does not need to circumvent or overrule it. Science and logic were built into the design.