Popular Science Monthly/Volume 75/August 1909/The Progress of Science

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THE PROGRESS OF SCIENCE

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
 
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these was in administration, and the national government owes much to his skill and wisdom. Another is in his numerous popular works and textbooks. He was a master of clear thinking and good English—witness, for example, the series of papers on "The Stars," published in this journal in 1900. He was also the author of standard works on political economy and of a great number of articles, addresses and papers dealing with the problems of science over a very wide range.

It is needless to tell here of the honors conferred upon Newcomb. He was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at an early age. Honorary degrees and honorary membership in academies were heaped upon him. To be one of the eight foreign associates of the Paris Academy of Sciences is perhaps the highest recognition that can be given in the scientific world. It had not been awarded to an American since Franklin.

 

THE DARWIN COMMEMORATION AT CAMBRIDGE

The centenary of the birth of Charles Darwin coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of "The Origin of Species," has been adequately celebrated in the United States, as recounted in the April issue of this journal, which was itself a Darwin memorial number. It is, however, fitting that the principal commemoration should be held in Great Britain and at the University of Cambridge. Darwin, it is true, held no academic position and was not greatly influenced by his work as an undergraduate at Cambridge. He said later that his "time was wasted as far as his academic studies were concerned"; but he could also say: "the three years I spent at Cambridge were the most joyful of my happy life." The part often played by a college in the future life of a student through the friends and associations there formed is well illustrated in the case of Darwin. He became interested in collecting beetles through his cousin, W. Darwin Fox, also a student of Christ's College, and through Henslow, the eminent botanist, and it was through the latter that he was led to undertake the voyage on the Beagle. This was Darwin's true university course, and it is difficult to imagine just what he would have done in the world had it not been for the circumstances,

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The Second Court of Christ's College, in which were the rooms of Charles Darwin.

which may be regarded as accidental, leading to this voyage. When we remember that his contemporaries, Huxley, Wallace and Hooker, were also led to their scientific work by a voyage of exploration, we must regard it as more than a mere incident in their lives.

It is truly remarkable that Christ's College, smaller than the average of our six hundred colleges and with no higher standards as far as the requirements of the curriculum go, can celebrate the tercentenary of the birth of Milton as well as the centenary of the birth of Darwin; that Tennyson and Darwin should have been fellow students, and that Newton, perhaps Darwin's only rival for scientific preeminence, should have been a member of the same university. Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, was also a Cambridge student, and three of his sons are intimately connected with the university. Cambridge may well be proud of its great men and England of its great university; and this feeling we may share, remembering the descent of our academic institutions from the new Cambridge in New England.

An English university is certainly the place where a ceremonial such as the Darwin centenary has the most fit setting. To it came delegates from all parts of the world, some 230 in number, leaders in all departments of science and especially in the biological and evolutionary sciences. Lord Rayleigh, formerly professor of physics and now chancellor of the university, welcomed the guests to the Fitzwilliam Museum on the evening of June 22. On the 'following day, there was a presentation of addresses by the delegates in the Senate House. After the address of the chancellor speeches were made by Professor Oscar Hertwig, of Berlin; Professor Elié Metchnikoff, of Paris; Dr. Henry F. Osborn, of New York, and Sir E. Ray Lankester, of London. In concluding his remarks Dr. Osborn said that they, the delegates, naturalists and friends, desired to present to I Christ's College, as a memorial of their j visit, a portrait of Charles Darwin in bronze, the work of their countryman, William Couper, "a portrait which they trusted would convey to this and future generations of Cambridge students, some impression of the rugged simplicity as well as of the intellectual grandeur of the man they revered and honored."

On Wednesday evening the delegates and guests were entertained at a banquet held in the New Examination Hall, which was used for the first time for a public purpose. Among the speakers were the Right Hon. A. J. Balfour, Dr. Svante Arrhenius, Professor E. B. Poulton and Mr. William Erasmus Darwin, eldest son of Charles Darwin. On Thursday, the Rede lecture was given by Sir Archibald Geikie, president of the Royal Society, and honorary degrees were conferred on a number of delegates, including from America Professor Jacques Loeb, of the University of California; Secretary Charles D. Walcott, of the Smithsonian Institution and Professor Edmund B. Wilson, of Columbia University. During the celebration there was an exhibition held in Christ's College of pictures, books, manuscripts and other objects connected with Darwin, ineluding the portraits by Richmand, Collier and Ouless, and the bronze bust by William Couper, of New York, I which the American delegates presented to Christ's College.

 

THE WINNIPEG MEETING OF THE BRITISH ASSOCIATION

The British Association for the AdvanCement of Science takes seriously its imperial functions. Four years ago it migrated to South Africa, and now. for the third time, it is about to hold a Canadian meeting and in the very center of the great dominion. The British Association has maintained its usefulness and prestige along the lines in which it was originally established. It is a great factor in the diffusion as well as in the advancement of science. Its meetings are attended by the leading professional men of science and at the same time by large numbers of amateurs. The local members at each meeting are likely to exceed a thousand, and excellent arrangements are made for their instruction and entertainment. The social features are emphasized, so that there is opportunity for forming personal acquaintances and for those who are only interested in science to meet those most actively engaged in its advancement.

The Winnipeg meeting, which opens on August 25, will be presided over by the eminent Cambridge physicist, Professor J. J. Thomson, who succeeds Mr. Francis Darwin. Addresses of general interest will be given by the president and the presidents of the sections, and by Professor Herdman, Professor Tutton, Professor Dixon, Professor Poynting and others, and the sectional meetings are certain to have attractive programs. There will also be the usual extensive arrangements for garden parties, receptions and excursions. A visit to the Pacific coast, including Alaska and the Seattle Exposition, should be of unusual interest.

The Canadian railways offer a single fare, so the return trip from Montreal or Quebec to Winnipeg costs only thirty-six dollars, the council of the British Association has courteously voted to admit all members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to membership for the meeting, waiving the entrance fee, and the American Association will hold no meeting this summer. A large number of Americans will doubtless take advantage of the generous invitation of their British colleagues and attend the Winnipeg meeting. It is a rare privilege that should be taken advantage of by all who find it possible.

 

SCIENTIFIC ITEMS

We record with regret the death of Professor J. D. Cunningham, the anatomist of the University of Edinburgh, and of Dr. M. A. Brezina, the mineralogist of Vienna.

Among the honors awarded on the birthday of King Edward are knighthoods to Mr. Francis Galton, Professor J. Larmor, Mr. R. H. I. Palgrave and Professor T. E. Thorpe.—Mr. Orville Wright and Mr. Wilbur Wright were presented on June 19 with the gold medal authorized by congress, a medal on behalf of the state of Ohio and a medal on behalf of the city of Dayton.

Dr. William H. Welch, professor of pathology in the Johns Hopkins University, has been elected president of the American Medical Association.—Professor E. W. Morley has been elected honorary president and Dr. W. H. Nichols acting president of the Seventh International Congress of Applied Chemistry, which has accepted the invitation extended by the congress through the president and the secretary of state, to meet in this country in 1912.

Mr. John D. Rockefeller has made a further gift of $10,000,000 to the General Education Board. Its endowment is now $53,000,000. Mr. Rockefeller has authorized the board to distribute the principal as well as the income for educational purposes, should this at any future time appear to be advisable.