Owen Jay Gingerich, well-known historian of astronomy and contributor to Sky & Telescope for more than half a century, died on May 28, 2023.

Owen Gingerich with Copernicus's texts
Owen Gingerich (1930-2023)
Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian

Owen Jay Gingerich, well-known historian of astronomy and contributor to Sky & Telescope for more than a half century, died on May 28, 2023, after some years of gradually declining health. 

Owen held joint appointments at Harvard (Professor of Astronomy and of History of Science) and at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (astrophysicist), and he kept busy in his research, writing, and lecturing well into his retirement years, until shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Owen was a walking astronomy encyclopedia and a prolific writer of books, invited conference papers, and articles for professional journals.

Science and Religion

Owen was born in Iowa in 1930 to Mennonite parents, and his faith remained a big part of his life until the end; indeed, Owen was heavily involved in discussions of the interplay between science and Christianity, believing that one does not contradict the other. One of Owen’s last published books, God’s Planet, is a thought-provoking read of Owen’s exploration of the boundary between religion and science. 

Owen considered himself an anti-Creationism Christian, believing in “intelligent design” by a Creator rather than “Intelligent Design” (capitalized), which he saw as more of an undesirable political anti-evolution movement. This desire to show that one can both embrace mainstream science, with its understandings of geology and evolution of life, as well as embrace Christianity, was a big part of Owen’s life. He gave scores of invited lectures on this topic on college campuses and at conferences.

Owen Gingerich at podium

Owen Gingerich delivers a lecture at a 2011 conference on religion and science.
Goshen College

In an oral history recorded by David DeVorkin in 2005, Owen recounted his childhood introduction to astronomy. It was one that very much mirrored my own: In small-town America, we were exposed to the dark, starry night, which grabbed both of our imaginations as youngsters. This was further fueled by parents who brought home astronomy books from the library for us to devour. We both attended Christian colleges in Indiana during which we both interned at the Harvard/Smithsonian Observatory before being drawn to the Harvard campus for graduate school and ultimately our career work.

Owen became interested in variable stars at a young age and became a life member of the American Association for Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) during high school. He took two years of part-time work to pay the $50 lifetime fee, which the AAVSO staff marveled at.

Owen attended Goshen College in Indiana right after World War II, majoring in chemistry while also active in journalism. While there, he also built an 8-inch telescope, grinding the mirror himself. Owen wrote to Harvard Observatory asking if he could intern over the summer while in college, and Harlow Shapley hired him to, among other things, help develop “lantern slides” for a course that Shapley taught. Owen had been drawn to Harvard Observatory as the hub of astronomical news in North America, as it hosted the Harvard Announcement Cards as well as Sky & Telescope magazine and the AAVSO. He applied only there for graduate school while planning a career in science journalism.

When he arrived in Cambridge in 1950, Owen was set to work part-time for Sky & Telescope at Harvard Observatory, and Harvard accepted him for pursuing a Master’s degree. Owen became a teaching fellow for I. Bernard Cohen, and he credited Cohen with teaching him pedagogy for non-scientists, and for introducing him to a solid foundation in the history of science. 

After Owen finished his Master’s degree, he took his young wife Miriam to Beirut, where he taught physics and astronomy at American University from 1955 to 1958. Their first two children were born in Beirut. Upon returning to Cambridge, Owen taught astronomy for a year at Wellesley College. 

Black and white photo shows group of people surrounding telescope
Owen Gingerich (left) stands with Professor Georgio Contino (in the bowtie at right) and others around a 12-inch refractor in March 1957.
American University Lebanon

At the same time, he endeavored to complete his PhD work in astrophysics at Harvard, modeling stellar atmospheres under advisors Chuck Whitney and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. About the time that he finished his thesis, he began teaching an undergraduate astronomy course for non-science majors at Harvard who needed to fulfill their science requirement, a course he co-taught with Dave Latham for some 35 years.

It became perhaps the most popular course ever taught at the university. Thousands of students eagerly signed up over the years, learning from Gingerich, Latham, and from a hundred different course-teaching fellows including two Nobel laureates (David Politzer and Brian Schmidt), astronomy textbook writer Michael Zeilik, comet discoverer Jennifer Wiseman, astrophysicist Joseph Silk, former Sky & Telescope editor Rick Fienberg, and former U.S. diplomat Keith Anderton.

In addition to his teaching and research, Owen took over editing the Harvard Announcement Cards from Harvard Astronomy chair Bill Liller and his wife, Martha, leading to his becoming the director of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT) from 1965 until 1968, as it moved to Harvard/Smithsonian  after a half-century at Copenhagen. Barbara Welther joined Owen in editing both the HACs and the IAU Circulars, and she worked with Owen’s history team for a half century. Brian Marsden succeeded Owen as CBAT Director in 1968, and I succeeded him in 2000, as my parallel life’s astronomy path continued to follow Owen’s.

Gingerich holds up two black and white photos showing sunspots
Owen Gingerich presents to the American Astronomical Society in Albany, New York, in November 1969.

The History of Astronomy

Owen became interested in the history of astronomy early in his career. He was particularly intrigued by the early-modern work of Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo, and Johannes Kepler, and on how their important publications helped astronomers to move from ancient astronomy into a new astronomy based on celestial mechanics and math. Owen was intrigued with how the relatively crude astronomical observations prior to and just after the invention of the telescope enabled contemporary early-modern astronomers to develop the beginnings of modern understanding of the orbits of solar-system bodies. He collected scores of early-modern printed tracts containing observations, methods of analysis, and ephemeris predictions from the early-modern era. But he didn’t just collect them; he read these tracts carefully and published his analytical findings in many publications of his own.

Owen focused on looking at every copy of Copernicus’ landmark 1543 Latin treatise De Revolutionibus, to understand how contemporary astronomers had embraced the book via the handwritten annotations they left in the margins. Copernicus, of course, argued that the planets revolved about the Sun and not about Earth, as many ancient and medieval philosophers had continued to maintain. It was even considered heresy in some Roman Catholic enclaves in Europe to believe otherwise. 

Owen spent decades tracking down copies of De Revolutionibus around the globe. His magnum opus, published as a 400-page book in 2002, An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, details every known copy of the famed treatise in both libraries and private collections

Owen recounted the escapades that he encountered along the way in his 2004 semi-autobiography, The Book Nobody Read. That book, which has gone into translation in more than a dozen languages, covers his involvement with law-enforcement officials regarding the theft and counterfeit printing of rare books selling for as much as millions of dollars. 

Among his other works, a large collection of Owen’s published essays appears in his 1993 book, The Eye of Heaven:  Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler. Owen also helped to shepherd new translations and new printings of old astronomical publications and histories into print, with his always-perceptive introductions and prefaces, including Toomer’s English translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest, Hellman’s translation of Max Caspar’s Kepler biography, and Oppolzer’s Canon of Eclipses (which Owen himself translated).

Owen wrote a hundred articles for Sky & Telescope, getting them published almost every year from 1950 to 1993, including numerous contributions to the Laboratory Exercises in Astronomy series, many book reviews, conference reviews, observing reports, and especially historical pieces — including a five-year stint writing the Astronomical Scrapbook column, begun by Joe Ashbrook and starting with Joe’s sudden death in 1980 — as well as nearly two dozen Letters to the Editor over the decades.

Pluto’s Planetary Status

One very frustrating job that Owen accepted came from a request of the Executive Committee of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to chair a committee tasked in 2006 with presenting a definition for “planet.” The issue had come up because astronomers were finding many trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) similar to or larger than Pluto in size, which were all getting minor-planet designations while being handled officially by the IAU’s Minor Planet Center (MPC). Owen’s committee  included some of the larger recently found TNOs with Pluto, keeping them under the classification “planet”. But that resulted in the untidy inclusion of the large, main-belt asteroid 1 Ceres. 

The planet-definition committee’s proposal was rejected at the IAU General Assembly in Prague in August 2006, with the unwieldy adoption of Pluto, Ceres, and other large TNOs as “dwarf planets.” The other eight major planets were called simply “planets,” despite Owen urging that some adjective was needed before the word “planet.” (Owen proposed “classical,” while I preferred “major” to go with “dwarf” and “minor.”) Owen documented the whole fiasco in the November 2006 issue of Sky & Telescope.  In the end, Pluto received the minor-planet number 134340, and its astrometry became officially archived by the MPC.

Minor planet 2658 Gingerich, discovered at Harvard’s Oak Ridge Observatory, was named for Owen in 1985, recognizing his accomplishments “for effectively setting the standards of scholarship for modern studies of the history of astronomy and astrophysics.” Those of us fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with Owen were very impressed with his encyclopedic knowledge and his huge collection of astronomy books, which spanned from incunabula tracts from the early days of printing up to many books that he received as the book-review editor for the Journal for the History of Astronomy. It’s impossible to replace the astronomical knowledge and insight of Owen Gingerich, but we are fortunate to have much of it in his many publications.

Daniel Green is a research scientist at the Earth & Planetary Sciences Department of Harvard University.


Image of David-Wickholm


June 9, 2023 at 4:39 pm

Daniel, thank you for a respectful treatment of Owen Gingerich's views on religion and science. I have read "God's Universe" and was especially impressed with his treatment of the "Copernican Principle". Along another vein, much difficulty can be avoided by recognizing that Genesis deals primarily with the Who and Why of Creation, topics beyond the domain of science. Science deals primarily with the How and When questions, topics that the Bible deals with broad brush strokes that can encompass a fairly wide collection of views.

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