THE DEATH OF SIMON NEWCOMB
We have not had in America a great period of scientific productivity such as formed part of the Victorian era in Great Britain or followed the renaissance of the universities in Germany. Perhaps only in one science have we been in the position of leaders. In astronomy, thanks it may be to the endowment of observatories where research was not crowded by elementary teaching, we have done our share, or more than our share, for the advancement of science. Our great astronomer, who gave distinction to science in America, is now dead, and we mourn the loss of one whose place can not be filled.
Simon Newcomb was born on March 12, 1835, in a village of Nova Scotia, but was of New England descent from five generations of Simon Newcombs, as well as on the side of his mother. In his "Reminiscences of an Astronomer," published six years ago, there is an interesting account of his early life. His father was a school teacher who moved from village to village in accordance with the custom of the time. The child was apt at figures and had done arithmetic through cube root at the age of six and a half. He read with avidity the few books that came within reach, especially those concerned with science, but had no regular schooling or education in the ordinary sense. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed as a boy of all work to an irregular practitioner in the hope that he might pick up some knowledge of medicine. This result not following, he ran away, worked his passage to Massachusetts in a sailing boat and found himself teaching in a country school in Maryland at the age of eighteen. A couple of years later, he became acquainted with Secretary Henry of the Smithsonian Institution, it may be through borrowing from the institution a copy of Laplace's "Mechanique Celeste," a knowledge of which he regarded as necessary for a computer. Such a position he soon afterwards obtained on the "Nautical Almanac," then conducted at Cambridge. He was at the same time able to enter Harvard University, where he studied under Professor Peirce and read in earnest the works of Laplace and La Grange.
Henceforth Newcomb's scientific career is a long record of sound and brilliant achievement. Beginning with work on the orbits of the asteroids he extended it to Uranus and Neptune and to other planets and to the moon. The mathematical genius required for work of this kind is of the highest type; many would regard Laplace as the greatest intellect that the world has produced, and in America he has had worthy successors in Newcomb and in Hill.
In 1861 Newcomb was appointed professor of mathematics in the navy, and in 1877 superintendent of the Nautical Almanac Office, a position which he held till he was relieved in 1897 at the age limit with the relative rank of rear-admiral. An appropriation to enable him to continue his work was made by the congress and later it was carried forward under the auspices of the Carnegie Institution to be ended only with his death. He declined the directorship of the Harvard Observatory, but accepted a professorship in the Johns Hopkins University in conjunction with his work at Washington. In addition to his great work in celestial mechanics, Newcomb performed important services for astronomy and for science in many directions. One of