Owen Gingerich grew up in a Mennonite home on the plains of Kansas, and he retains much of the plainspoken and humble demeanor of his upbringing. He has spent nearly his entire academic career at Harvard University, first as a student and then as professor of astronomy and the history of science. Now retired, he recently published God’s Planet, which examines the scientific discoveries of Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, and astronomer Fred Hoyle. The book uses these lives to consider areas of overlap between science, philosophy, and religion that are often overlooked in scientific accounts of the world. CT senior writer Tim Stafford spoke with Gingerich about his view on the relationship of religion and science.
God’s Planet uses storytelling to focus on personalities. Why did you take this approach in a science book?
God’s Planet came out of a series of lectures I gave at Gordon College. I don’t know how the inspiration struck, that I could center it around three quite different people who had transformative ideas that took people a long time to wrap their heads around. My first chapter asks the question, “Was Copernicus right?” that the earth goes around the sun, rather than the sun going around the earth. Today, everybody would say, of course he was right. Yet it took 150 years for a majority of educated people to accept that the earth moves through space. Why? There is a question there about how scientific ideas work with a whole structure of other ideas.
I have been doing a lot of work on Darwin for another book, The Divine Handiwork. Even today you have in America only a fair majority of people who accept his theory of evolution. How is that?
And finally, to bring in a ...1