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Noel Swerdlow, University Of Chicago Professor For More Than 40 Years And Top Expert On History Of Science, Dies At 79

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Noel Swerdlow, who served more than 40 years as a professor at the University of Chicago and was known as one of the foremost experts on the history of science, has died.

Swerdlow died Saturday, July 24 at the age of 79. He was remembered by the U of C this week.

In an article posted by its news office, the U of C noted that Swerdlow was the world's top expert on ancient astronomer Ptolemy and 16th-cenutry astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Swerdlow was renowned for his approach to the studies of ancient scientists – which affirmed that modern scholars ought to be able to understand the mathematics used by the ancients, the U of C said.

Swerdlow's translations of Copernicus and other astronomers from ancient times to the Renaissance, are still read worldwide, the U of C said.

Swerdlow was born Sept. 12, 1941 and grew up in Los Angeles, the U of C noted. He got his bachelor's degree in history in 1964 from UCLA and his Ph.D. in medieval studies in 1968 from Yale University – first planning to focus on medieval music, but later moving to a focus on the history of science, the U of C said.

Swerdlow came to the U of C in 1968 as an assistant professor in the History Department after getting his Ph.D., and moved in 1982 to the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department, where he remained until he retired in 2010, the university said.

The U of C News office quoted Adrian Johns, the Allan Grant Maclear Professor of History and Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science at the U of C: "Swerdlow was fiercely committed to the principle that understanding the history of the exact sciences required an uncompromising commitment to engaging in their detailed technical aspects. His extensive publications attested to the determination and rigor with which he himself pursued those aspects, in subjects ranging from Babylonian astronomy to the harmony of the spheres.

"With his death the history of science loses one of its greatest scholars—his expertise will be hard indeed for future generations in the field to regain—but also a figure of ardent scholarly conviction." Johns was quoted.

Noel Swerdlow
Professor Noel Swerdlow in his office at the University of Chicago in 1988. (Credit: Robert Matthews/Courtesy of University of Chicago Library Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center)

Among Swerdlow's best-known works are a 1973 translation and exploration of Copernicus' early work, "The Commentariolus," and the 1984 work, "Mathematical Astronomy in Copernicus' De Revolutionibus" – which Swerdlow wrote in two volumes with Otto Neugebauer on mathematics in Copernicus' works, the U of C said. The latter work won Swerdlow and Neugebauer the Pfizer Prize, the highest award from the History of Science Society, the U of C said.

Swerdlow also wrote, "The Babylonian Theory of the Planets," published in 1998, and his colleagues are planning to finish and publish his final work, "The Renaissance of Astronomy in the Age of Humanism," the U of C said.

Swerdlow also worked with renowned astrophysicist and Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar – who is known for his work on black holes. The two wrote several articles about ancient astronomers together, the U of C said.

The university also noted Swerdlow's passion in the classroom. Many undergrad alums might remember Swerdlow for the course "Science, Culture, and Society in Western Civilization" – an exploration of the origins and development of science in the Western world.

Noel Swerdlow
Professor Noel Swerdlow with unidentified colleagues at Yerkes Observatory in 1984. (Credit: Richard Dreiser).

Swerdlow was the only historian in the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department, and his colleagues told the university his presence there was a strong influence on their own thinking, the U of C said.

Swerdlow moved to California after retiring and worked as a visiting associate professor in history at Caltech until 2018.

Swerdlow is survived by his wife, Nadia Swerdlow; son, Dorian Swerdlow; daughter-in-law Fiona; granddaughter Julia; and brother Lanny Swerdlow and partner Victor. Details for a memorial will be announced in the fall, the U of C said.

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