Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/September 1877/Sketch of Professor Simon Newcomb

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PSM V11 D530 Simon Newcomb.jpg


PROF. NEWCOMB was born in the Province of Nova Scotia, March 12, 1835. Both of his parents were of New England descent, their families having emigrated to the Provinces at various times. His father pursued the avocation of village schoolmaster, and from this circumstance the son during his childhood enjoyed educational advantages which were good for the time and place, but exceedingly scanty when measured by any other standard. A taste for arithmetic was developed at a very early age, and before he was twelve years old the embryo astronomer had completed the (restricted) course taught by his father.

From this time he was thrown upon his own resources, reading and studying at random the few books which Providence threw in his way. A traveling peddler sold him Latin and Greek grammars and readers. For a short time he studied the rudiments of French, with a teacher, but acquired a better knowledge of the language from the descendants of the old French settlers, while at the same time an algebra, borrowed from a clergyman, was his constant companion.

At the age of eighteen we find him in the State of Maryland, teaching school—his ancestral calling—but with his active mind constantly engaged in mathematical pursuits. In 1856 Mr. Newcomb was so happy as to make the acquaintance of Prof. Henry, of the Smithsonian Institution, with whom he had corresponded on a scientific subject, and who soon took an active interest in the welfare of his newly-discovered young friend. In conjunction with Mr. Hilgard. Prof. Henry secured for young Newcomb a position as computer for the "American Nautical Almanac," the office of which was then located at Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Here Mr. Newcomb found both the material and the incentive to pursue his mathematical studies of the theories of the celestial motions. He enrolled himself a student of the Lawrence Scientific School, and attended the lectures of Prof. Peirce. After making a study of the works of Laplace and La Grange, he started on the line of original investigation, and has ever since pursued it, with uniform success. In 1861 he was appointed Professor of Mathematics in the Navy, and assigned to duty at the Naval Observatory, Washington, with which he is still connected.

In 1863 he married Miss M. C. Hassler, daughter of the late Surgeon Hassler, United States Navy, and granddaughter of the late Prof. Hassler, the originator and first Superintendent of the United States Coast Survey.

It may seem surprising that, while Prof. Newcomb's name is not associated with any brilliant discovery or achievement in astronomy, he has, nevertheless, secured as great a reputation as was ever gained by an American astronomer, and is quoted abroad as among the highest authorities in mathematical astronomy. Perhaps the secret lies in the unity of purpose which has characterized all his efforts. His special field has been that of "exact" astronomy—the prediction of the motions of the heavenly bodies from their mutual gravitation—the perfection of the tables and other data, from which the "Nautical Almanac" is prepared, in order that the navigator and surveyor may be enabled to find their positions by sea or land. When the late Admiral Davis founded the "American Nautical Almanac," some twenty-five years ago, the tables and other materials for its construction were extremely imperfect, but Prof. Newcomb's studies have all tended to their improvement.

Prof. Newcomb gained a European reputation while still a computer at Cambridge, by his paper "On the Secular Variations and Mutual Relations of the Orbits of the Asteroids." The question of the correctness of Olher's theory, that these bodies resulted from the explosion of a single planet, had never been decided, because no one had ever investigated the changes which their orbits had undergone in past ages. This was done in the paper we have mentioned, and it was shown that the orbits could never have intersected in a single point, unless they had in the mean while been deranged by some unknown cause.

Since his appointment in the navy his most considerable works, outside of his duties at the observatory, have been the "Investigation of the Orbits of the Two Outer Planets, Uranus and Neptune," accompanied by elaborate tables, which were at once adopted in all the nautical almanacs of Europe and America. In the preparation of these "tables," Prof. J. Henry, his kind and firm friend of now more than twenty years, took great interest, and gladly assisted him by supplying him with funds from the Smithsonian.

In 1867 the observatory published his "Investigations of the Distance of the Sun," leading to the value of the Solar Parallax now most generally adopted, namely, 8".848.

In 1870 he visited Europe to observe the total eclipse in the Mediterranean, and was everywhere received with the highest distinction in scientific circles.

He took an active part in procuring the great telescope for the Washington Observatory, and was in charge of it during the first year or two after its erection, investigating with it the satellites of his two favorite planets, Uranus and Neptune.

When Congress authorized the organization of parties to observe the late transit of Venus, Prof. Newcomb was appointed one of the commission to prepare the plans for those parties, and to arrange for the complete execution of those plans, after the return of those parties to the observatory. From the first meeting of this commission Prof. Newcomb has acted as secretary thereof. Prof. Newcomb's most recent labors have been on the motion of the moon, and the possible variability of the sidereal day, on which subject he has published several fragmentary discussions. Hansen's tables of the moon have deviated from observation for several years past in a remarkable manner, and he has accounted for the changes by an acceleration in the rotation of the earth on its axis. It is now considered that he has proved the actual existence of this acceleration beyond reasonable doubt.

In February, 1874, he was the recipient of the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Great Britain. The presentation was preceded by an address by the president, Prof. Cayley, in which, after giving an account of several of Prof. Newcomb's most important contributions to mathematical science, he says: "They exhibit all of them a combination, on the one hand, of mathematical skill and power, and, on the other hand, of good hard work, devoted to the furtherance of astronomical science." Thus, though belonging to the younger generation of astronomers, Prof. Newcomb has received his full share of honors, both at home and abroad. Graduating as B. S. at Harvard University, in 1858, he is now, at home, member of the National Academy of Science, and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in Boston. In 1 876 he was elected President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and presides at its annual meeting, in Nashville, in August of this year. In 1874 he received the honorary degree of LL. D. from the Columbian University, at Washington, and in 1875 the same honor from Yale. Abroad, he was, in 1872, elected associate member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Great Britain; in 1874, corresponding member of the Institut de France; in 1875 he received the honorary degree of Ph. D. from the University of Leyden, at its three-hundredth anniversary. Also in that year he was made a member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg, member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and member of the Royal Bavarian Academy of Sciences.