Farewell to Owen Gingerich, the leading Catholic astronomer and expert on Copernicus

Farewell to Owen Gingerich, the leading Catholic astronomer and expert on Copernicus

Owen Gingerich

American astronomer and historian of science Owen Gingerich, the undisputed authority on astronomers John Kepler and Nicholas Copernicus, has died at the age of 93 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and History of Science at Harvard University, as well as Astronomer Emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. A thousand more than 200 scientific articles and about twenty volumes.

Gingerich has conducted a three-decade investigation into De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, the book of Copernicus, which for the first time refuted the theories of Ptolemy that contradicted the biblical stories in which celestial phenomena were involved, and proposed a heliocentric model, according to which the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa. Gingerich examined more than 580 copies of the sixteenth century in libraries scattered throughout Europe and North America, as well as in China, Japan and Australia. A summary of his research has been published in In search of the lost book. The forgotten history of the treatise that changed the course of science (Rizzoli, 2004). In recognition of these Copernicus studies, Gingerich was awarded the Order of Merit by the Polish government after which an asteroid was named in his honour.

Owen Gingerich was also the researcher who proved that his signature copy of Sidereus Nuncius by Galileo Galilei sold to a New York antiques dealer in 2005 for $500,000 (and believed by scholars to be genuine for years) was actually a fake. And not just any fake, but commissioned by Massimo Di Caro, who had a reputation as a plunderer of Italian libraries, the Girolamini Library in Naples in particular. Gingerich told the story in the book Curious case of Sidereus Nuncius ML (Bublohouse, 2019). He had already argued in 2009 that the “five diagrams of the moons contained” in that copy of Galileo’s book were “necessarily wrong”.

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Professor Gingerich’s academic research interests range from recalculating an ancient Babylonian mathematical table to interpreting stellar spectra. He co-authored two standard models of the heliosphere, the first of which explains observations of the Sun by rockets and satellites. He was vice president of the American Philosophical Society (America’s oldest scientific academy) and served as chair of the US National Committee of the International Astronomical Union. He served as a director of the American Astronomical Society and helped organize the Department of Historical Astronomy. In 2000 he was awarded the Doggett Prize for his contributions to the history of astronomy and the prestigious Prix Janssen of the French Astronomical Society 2006.

Owen Gingerich, a Catholic and believer, gave a personal reflection on the book Find God in the universe. A great astronomer between science and faith (Lindau, 2017), in which he says he “believes in a scientist gifted with a project to which we humans can assume we belong”. The freedom we enjoy, he explains, “will show how conscience and responsibility are in turn involved in the design, and from this perspective even pain and suffering will make sense. The universe can finally be understood.” By choosing Kepler as his guide and model, Gingerich argues for perfect compatibility between the role of the scientist and belief in divine design. He explains that even an atheist scientist “could not fail to notice with a sense of amazement and mystery the amazing harmony between nature and man.”

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