Wlliam Safire of The New York Times recently wrote a humorous column recounting how he had once mistakenly mentioned Harvard astronomer and historian-of-science Owen Gingerich as a world renowned authority on the works of Newton. Gingerich, after receiving numerous questions and unsolicited papers concerning Newton, finally entreated Safire to print a correction: Gingerich is an authority on Copernicus, not Newton.
Though requests for his considered Principia have ceased, other demands on this evangelical professor’s time continue. Gingerich, who divides his services between Harvard the Smithsonian Institution Astrophysical Observatory, has written some 250 technical papers, notably “The Galileo Affair” published in Scientific American. He also serves as an officer or journal editor for several prestigious science organizations, including The American Philosophical Society, America’s oldest scientific body.
Active in the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), a society of evangelical scientists, Gingerich will narrate a television series the ASA is planning for release in 1987. The series will address “five hard questions on the nature of the universe,” stressing Christianity’s influence on many of the founders of the scientific revolution. Gingerich and his colleagues at ASA hope the series will articulate a reasonable position between the secular materialism that masquerades as science in programs like Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” and the polemical creationism that has so often received media attention. Professor Gingerich has often expressed criticism of other Christians in the sciences who invoke a “God of the gaps” to explain scientific mysteries awaiting resolution. While Gingerich doesn’t think much of attempts to prove the existence of God using science, he does believe his knowledge affords him a special appreciation of the intricacy of God’s design. Says Gingerich. “Once you have made this leap of faith … then there are lots of things in science that fall together in a beautiful kind of way and seem quite convincing.”
One area of scientific research that has confirmed the reasonableness of Gingerich’s faith is his own field of astronomy and cosmology. Gingerich now sees a “strange covergence” between the biblical and the modern scientific explanations of the universe’s origin. The professor has traveled often, delivering a lecture entitled “Biblical Creation and Scientific Cosmogony.” His lecture relates the scientific evidence for the so-called “big bang” event to the biblical affirmation that the universe flashed instantly into existence amid a great showering of light.
Nevertheless, Gingerich sees a great difference in the perspectives offered by Genesis and the scientific accounts of the creation event. Though both speak of planetary bodies and man, Gingerich feels that “the great tapestry of science is woven together with the question ‘how’.” Meanwhile the biblical account, in his view, “addresses entirely different questions: not the how, but the motivations of the ‘Who’.”
Curiously, Gingerich’s lectures have sometimes evoked more criticism from fellow Christians than from his secular colleagues. His scientific perspective often elicits criticism from “young earth” creationists uncomfortable with the 20 billion years of cosmic history the scientific account of creation now implies.
Yet Gingerich avoids the temptation to respond dogmatically to his critics. He says, “I think that it might be possible, the ultimate truth is, that the universe was created only 6,000 years ago. But since, in my view, the Creator has filled it with marvelous clues pointing back to something like 10 or 20 billion years. I would be content to do my science by building up this coherent view of a multibillion-year-old creation.”
“Because,” he concludes “it is this coherency of the picture that science is all about.”
Stephen C. Meyer is professor of philosophy of science at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. He received his Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science from Cambridge University for a thesis on the methods of origin-of-life biology and the historical sciences.