Owen Gingerich interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 31st August 2008

0:09:07 Born in Iowa 1930; the name Gingerich originated in Berne in Switzerland; family came to the United States about 1850; it was a time of upheaval in Europe but I don't think they came directly for religious reasons; ours was an Anabaptist family, partly of the Amish Mennonites; both my parents were Mennonites; my father's family came from the Kassel region in Germany; my mother's family from the Alsace Lorraine region; the families came about the same time; the Mennonites are a pacifist group; believed in adult baptism which meant they were despised both by Catholics and Protestants; many Mennonites did emigrate to avoid persecution although I don't think that my family did; they were farmers and came to a rural part of Iowa; one of my direct ancestors owned a mill in Germany which I would have inherited as the oldest son of the line; it is now a restaurant

3:33:03 My father was born some distance north of Washington, Iowa, and my mother in a small town south; they somehow met at a youth religious gathering and married in church without having made a prior announcement to family or friends; my father was a schoolteacher and so was my mother for a short while; during my youth my father was working on his Ph.D.; this was quite unusual as none of his siblings finished high school; one of his uncles had become Professor of English at Michigan University; my father admired him as a role model; working part-time, he managed to finish his doctorate at the University of Iowa in American social history, writing a thesis on the Mennonites in Iowa; during that time he went to every Mennonite church in Iowa, including the Amish churches; his family had originally been Amish Mennonites but the whole church left and became Mennonites when he was a teenager; we were always just Mennonites and not Amish; interesting that his Michigan uncle's son and another person produced a huge genealogy of the Amish Mennonites which has been of great use to the Johns Hopkins genetics researchers; the inbreeding of the Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has produced many genetic pathologies; father was away a lot when I was young, working in Iowa City on his thesis; sometimes he would take me there and leave me in the Natural History Museum; I was really quite terrified wandering alone among the stuffed lions etc.; one benefit I had was that sometimes he would bring books back and saw that I was rather interested in stars; one that I treasured for quite a while was 'The Beginners Star Book' because it showed where to look and what you would be able to see with binoculars or a small telescope; my father got another book which showed how to build a simple telescope, which he did with a mailing tube, a lens borrowed from the local optometrist, and an eye piece from the dime store; it was good enough to see the rings of Saturn; I remember with pride showing them to my teacher; this was my start in astronomy; however I was not limited to that but was always picking up rocks or fossils; I was a collector and have been all my life; my father was interested in the Mennonite tradition, in the pacifism, and also in that time very much concerned with what was happening in Germany; he spoke out against the persecution of the Jews, which was a little strange in Washington, Iowa, a town which, as far as I know, had no Jews or Blacks, a very solid white Protestant society; not all of his talks went well with the more militaristic school board, and they decided that with his Ph.D. he was over qualified as a high school teacher, and declined to renew his contract; this caused a family crisis as it was during the depression and it was very hard to get an academic job; he had various possibilities that all fell through; at the end of term they didn't know what to do and my mother had a nervous breakdown; she was taken away to a state mental hospital and while there got a life-threatening infection; she was transferred to another hospital; she always said that the high fever drove out the mental illness which I had always thought rather fanciful; later, when I had a chance to talk to a psychiatrist he said it was well known, but a little dangerous to induce a high fever in the hope of healing a mind; I was ten at the  time and my mother was in hospital for a long time; needless to say, the school board very hastily renewed my father's contract; however he realized that his position was uncertain and when another job offer came, within one week we packed and left for Kansas; that summer, as part of my mother's recuperation, we had taken a long car trip to the West coast and in the process had completely circled the State of Kansas; I had a brother who was four years younger

14:38:08 My mother was very artistic and did crafts of different kinds and also some creative writing, but basically a homemaker; she had had a couple of years of college, enough then to teach; when she was pregnant with me she passed her lifeguard swimming exam; she later served as a camp swimming instructor; my parents were interested in a balanced life that included a certain amount of recreation so we often played games together as a family; my first school was a public grade school in Washington, Iowa, and then went to another public school when we moved to Kansas; after going through junior high and high school, when I would have been a senior in high school my father got another job offer; we all packed up and moved to northern Indiana where he headed a Mennonite research foundation; I didn't want to go into a new high school and since I had worked diligently I went directly to Goshen College, a Mennonite school, so I never graduated from high school until just a few years ago when I was working on a book; Harvard magazine interviewed me, and I said that if my book made me famous maybe I would get an honorary degree such as my missing high school diploma; within six weeks I got a call from the Superintendent of Schools in Newton, Kansas, who said the school had voted to give an honorary degree if I would come for commencement; my publisher agreed to pay for my trip; during World War II, my father as a teacher was not in the age limit to be drafted, but many of the young Mennonite men went into civilian public service; these were camps for doing environmental work and as orderlies in mental hospitals; their stories about what was going on in the latter eventually helped catalyze the nation into  giving up these rather horrible institutions; my father went round visiting these camps, giving lectures, and gathering information, because he figured that as a Mennonite social historian he would probably be the one to write the historical account of what happened; the men who went into the church camps were conscript labourers and got no money from the Government; the church had to pay for their food, clothing and maintenance; during the war there were few opportunities to travel but at the end of it my father heard that the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration were sending ship loads full of horses to war torn Eastern Europe; they were going to need supervisors for the cowboys and cowboy crews; he took the supervisor exam and was appointed; meanwhile he was recruiting young men to be cowboys from among his friends; when we had our fiftieth reunion of the cowboys the question was why the parents of all these sixteen and seventeen year olds allowed them to go; it was different then as many young people had been drafted, but everybody agreed that it was confidence in my father as supervisor; there were thirty-two of us; I got a merchant marine card as a cattleman although I had not had any farm experience; we went to Poland with some eight hundred horses in 1946, on a reconditioned liberty ship with the horses in stalls on the upper deck to the holds, on three levels; we sailed past the White Cliffs of Dover and stopped in Plymouth because we had had trouble with the refrigeration and needed fresh food; we went to see the bombed out church in Plymouth which was our first encounter with the war damage we had read about; we went through the Keil Canal; the very patriotic American pilot would not have the German pilot on board when crossing the North Sea; this meant we promptly got lost in the worst mine field of World War II; we saw enough mines to be terrified; the ship just crept through with one sailor with binoculars on the prow; I remember once being aft and suddenly noting that we were making a right angle turn; we saw the mine floating by which had been ahead of us; when we got to Northern Poland we offloaded the horses and at the same time got our first glimpse of the horrors of war; prostitution, black marketeering, on the wharfs, and piles of rubble that constituted Gdansk; on the way back we stopped in Copenhagen for about six days for repairs; with one of my friends found the Copenhagen Observatory; an hospitable woman opened the door; her job was sending out the astronomical telegrams for announcements of comets or novae; never in my wildest imagination could I have thought that eighteen years later I would be taking over her job, and moving the telegram bureau to Cambridge, Massachusetts; this whole episode of going to Poland influenced my life in completely unexpected ways because when I was in Europe to do the transfer of the telegram bureau there was a meeting in Hamburg of the International Astronomical Union; there I met a young Polish scholar who was interested in the history of science; I told him the circumstances under which I had visited Poland and he invited me to come again to see it; the next year the International Union for History and Philosophy of Science was meeting there and he invited me; my wife and I went and it was wonderful to see more of Poland and to realize that the Poles were looking forward to the five-hundredth anniversary of Nicholas Copernicus in 1973; one thing led to another and I became a member of the committee working on the celebrations

27:13:15 When I was at college I was influenced by the chemistry professor; I became a chemistry major as that was the best organized physical science; the mathematics and physics professor did not offer the courses every year because in a small school there were not that many physics majors; the name of the chemistry professor was Glen Miller, a boyhood friend of my father's; they were the first of their community to get PhDs; a first cousin of my mother's became one of the first Mennonite women to get a Ph.D.; when we arrived at Goshen College she was the home economics professor; my father, though not directly employed by the College, would occasionally teach the introduction to civilization course; during this time I built my own 8" reflecting telescope, by grinding the mirror, getting the castings made for the mounting, and putting it together; it was a pretty decent instrument; while I was still in Kansas we were living on the campus of another Mennonite college; there, there was an amateur telescope maker who let me use his 6" telescope whenever I liked, so I had some experience; I started looking at variable stars; another key in my life trajectory was that I saw you could become a life member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, which had their headquarters at Harvard College observatory, for $50; I had a job washing out sewers in this small suburb of Newton, Kansas, which involved filling underground reservoirs with water twice a week and then releasing it into the sewers; for this job I was paid $25 a year; I asked the AAVSO if I could pay my life membership in two instalments which they agreed to; they were impressed that someone so young was prepared to join for life; at Goshen College I got very interested in the Astronomical League which was the American amateurs association; I hitch-hiked to one of their annual meetings which was held in Milwaukee; we took a field trip to the Yerkes Observatory which has the world's largest refractor, 40"; there was an amateur astronomer showing the telescope to our group; I discovered that he had been hired as a summer employee to look after the public; the idea that an amateur could get a job at an observatory was pretty fantastic and since I had the connection with Harvard through the AAVSO I applied there; I got a reply from Harlow Shapley who was probably the most famous astronomer in America at that time; I got the job; once again I hitch-hiked to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and got acquainted with the observatory; met the graduate students, saw what would be involved to became an astronomy graduate student; the next summer I got a job at Sky and Telescope Magazine which also had offices at the Observatory; I was very much interested in journalism and had thought that I might become a science journalist; I was editor of the college newspaper and yearbook so I had some experience which was useful when I worked for Sky and Telescope

35:21:15 Harlow Shapley was by this time very much a public figure who had done a lot for bringing scientific refugees from Europe during the war; he had made his reputation at Mount Wilson Observatory in the teens of the century; he was the person who really found out how large the Milky Way galaxy was and how off centre we were; when he took up the job as Director of Harvard Observatory he realized that if he used the southern station properly they could photograph the Large Magellanic Cloud which is the nearest external galaxy to the Milky Way; that was a good part of his research interest; I did just general hack work of different sorts; I was taught how to make lantern slides; it was the first time that he was going to teach an undergraduate course in the summer school and I made lantern slides for this; I also was the person who fetched the plates for his assistant who was doing variable star work; I learnt how to find the plates because they were filed in an enormous vault, with 500,000 glass plates dating from the late nineteenth century; you had to use a card file system to locate the plates; I sometimes worked late at the Observatory and Shapley was often there; he would tell me how he had made lantern slides when young but when he got to his first Astronomical Society meeting and saw how professional everyone's slides looked he went out to a local photographer and had them remade, spending all his lunch money to get them; as I began to understand more I realized that he was that sort of enthusiast and entrepreneur; he had started life as a journalist so we had other things in common

38:54:23 Goshen College had a motto, "Culture for Service", and I wasn't sure that astronomy would be of much service whereas if I continued as a chemist I could make all sorts of good things; here the physics teacher was helpful as he said that if I felt I had a calling for astronomy I should follow it and that the atheists should not be allowed to take over any particular field of learning; many years later when I became a professor of history of science at Harvard I had a certain number of honours theses written by undergraduates; one of them wanted to write about the science-religion dialogue since World War II; in his research he discovered that many of the more conservative churches were very suspicious of higher education; that would have been true at the time when my father was getting his degree; as a result, just after World War II many of these leaders realized they were going to lose the intellectual battle if they did not send their young people to graduate school and to let them become experts in any number of fields; I went to graduate school at Harvard, the only place I applied to

41:21:15 Eddington was an ardent Quaker, and one of his students, Cecilia Payne, had come to America and done a brilliant Ph.D. thesis with Harlow Shapley who was just beginning the idea of forming a graduate school; she became Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and ultimately became my thesis advisor; she was very sympathetic to the Quakers because of her admiration for Eddington; some of the others, like Shapley, were apt to make wise-cracks about religion which I found somewhat intimidating; I have become more implanted in the science-religion dialogue; in the late 1980's I was asked to inaugurate a lecture series at the University of Pennsylvania on the subject and I wrote out my pro-Christian anti-creationism lecture; subsequently I gave that lecture in forty different venues in colleges and universities across America; I thought that the heavens declare the glory of God and you are looking at a very old earth and universe because it takes such a long time to cook up the elements required for life; I was interested in the general questions of fine tuning, the idea that it is so remarkable the resonance levels in the carbon atom, something predicted by Fred Hoyle, who thought it could not have happened by blind chance; more recently I was invited to give the William Belden Noble Lectures at Harvard's Memorial Church; I gave three lectures which were then published by Harvard University Press as 'God's Universe'; in the book I said that I believe in intelligent design but am suspicious of Intelligent Design which I see as a largely political and anti-evolution movement; I am at present writing a book about evolution for main-stream Christians who are very confused about all the debate; it will be a different kind of book as I shall include a certain amount of historical material, and also go into what the religious issues are

48:40:07 I was in graduate school at a very interesting time when, for example, the whole distance scale of the universe was doubled with the discovery that there is not one but two different kinds of so called Cepheid variable stars; in 1953 I had the opportunity to go to one of the very first summer schools that the National Science Foundation sponsored; I was at Ann Arbor, Michigan, for three weeks and among the other student participants was Allan Sandage who became one of the leading observational cosmologists, Margaret and Geoff Burbidge, who are now eminent cosmologists, and an interesting group of lecturers, including George Gamow and Ed Salpeter who then went to renovate the astronomy department at Cornell; the lead lecturer was Walter Baade, an astronomer from Mount Palomar who had doubled the size of the universe; my problem in graduate school was that I was tremendously interested in spectroscopy but you needed a big telescope to get enough light and Harvard did not have one large enough; we were at the mercy of the West Coast or the McDonald Observatory in Texas or the Dominion Observatory in Canada; using hand me down material is not always the best way to go; meanwhile the Korean War had heated up and I had signed in as a conscientious objector and had a student deferment; however some things went wrong bureaucratically and my draft board was determined to make an example of me; I was drafted out of graduate school as a conscientious objector but not until I had had a full FBI interrogation to guarantee my sincerity; by this time I knew that as a conscientious objector

 most of the opportunities were work in mental hospitals but there were certain other approved jobs and one of them was the possibility of teaching overseas; by chance the American University in Beirut, which had a long tradition of teaching astronomy which it had lost during World War II, were interested in hiring an astronomer and wrote to Harlow Shapley asking him to recommend someone; he knew that I was looking for something and showed me the letter; so I was sent to Beirut