News your connection to The Boston Globe

Book quest took him around the globe

In the classroom, where he taught the history of astronomy for four decades, Harvard professor Owen Gingerich routinely shot himself out of the room on the power of a fire extinguisher to prove one of Newton's laws, or dressed up like a 16th-century, Latin-speaking scholar for lectures.

When the number of students who'd signed up for his legendary course, "The Astronomical Perspective," appeared unusually low one year, Gingerich hired a plane to buzz above Harvard Yard toting a banner: "Sci A-17. M, W, F. Try it!" By week's end, the seats were filled.

But as enthusiastic as Gingerich was at the podium (he and his longtime co-teacher, David Latham, ended the course in 2000), teaching was not his only passion. There was also the quest.

Gingerich, 74, has spent the last half of his life hunting down every known surviving copy of Nicolaus Copernicus's 1543 opus, "De revolutionibus" ("On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres"), the book that first claimed that the solar system revolves around the sun, not the Earth.

Crisscrossing the globe, the Harvard astrophysicist and history buff elbowed his way into East German libraries during the Cold War, stumbled onto stolen copies of "De Revolutionibus" at auctions, ferreted out "disappeared" copies in private collections, and committed to memory nearly every nick and tear of hundreds of first- and second-edition copies of the ground-breaking book.

Two years ago, Gingerich completed a scholarly census of all 601 copies of "De Revolutionibus" he reviewed. Other than the original Gutenberg Bible, he said, no other first-edition historical text has been as well-researched or cataloged.

Gingerich's memoir of his unique quest, titled "The Book Nobody Read," a facetious poke at a 1960s writer who mistakenly opined (before Gingerich set out to prove him otherwise) that the highly technical "De Revolutionibus" was ignored by 16th-century readers, hit bookstores last fall to wide acclaim.

His quest began some 35 years ago as "a smallish project" to prove whether Copernicus's work was or wasn't read. Gingerich tracked who first owned each book, deciphered notes that studious readers -- including Galileo Galilei -- had penned in the margins, and plotted each book's travels to form a picture of what the scientific network of the day looked like. His exhaustive research proved beyond question that "De Revolutionibus" was, indeed, a hard book to put down.

Gingerich, with his snow-white hair and a well-worn herringbone jacket, hardly looks the part of the international adventurer. But as friends and colleagues attest, beneath his warm and unassuming cover, Gingerich is absolutely dogged when pursuing history.

In his book, he describes how, in 1965, he wrote to the Academy of Arts and Sciences Archive in Leningrad to request a microfilm of the workbook of 16th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler. When he heard nothing, he sent the same letter every six months for five years until, one day, the microfilm arrived in the mail.

"He outlasted the Soviets. He wore them down," joked Latham, a senior astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard who taught alongside Gingerich for about 20 years.

Gingerich's dry wit and encyclopedic knowledge of his subject also shine through in the memoir. In one humorous exchange, the professor haggles with an assistant librarian at a German library over access to a copy of "De Revolutionibus" before realizing that the authoritative staffer is trying to hide that the book is missing.

"Ah, but I know where your missing book is," Gingerich told him. "It's in Moscow and it's bound with `Stadius' Tabulae Bergenses.' "

The astonished librarian snorted and left the office to see whether his card catalog would reveal whether Gingerich knew his library better than he did.

"Presently he returned, completely shaken," Gingerich wrote. "I have often wondered what became of that assistant."

A Mennonite who was raised on the prairies of Kansas, where he fell in love with the stars, the professor and father of three quietly espouses the view that God was behind a "miraculous design of the universe that allows for intelligent, self-contemplative life." His next book, he said, might be about his beliefs.

One of the foremost experts on the history of astronomy, Gingerich's fingerprints are on just about every book published on the subject over the past quarter-century, said former teaching assistant James Voelkel, who also spoke of his former professor's classroom dramatics, his infectious enthusiasm, and his knack for emphasizing the human element in the world of science.

Gingerich, whose wife of 50 years, Miriam, accompanied him on many of his adventures, does not own a first edition of "De revolutionibus." (Popular among collectors, a copy scheduled for auction this summer could fetch $1.5 million). That doesn't seem to bother him much, though. It was more fun, he said, to find them.

"There was lots of serendipity in the discoveries I was able to make. Lots of interesting people we met. [And] there was always the excitement of . . . `What will the next copy show?' " he said. "I've had a good time."

Gingerich will speak at 8 p.m. next Tuesday at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and at 7 p.m. May 11 at the Groton Public Library. His presentations are free and are open to the public.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives