Simon Newcomb bigraphy, stories - American astronomer

Simon Newcomb : biography

12 March 1835 - 11 July 1909

Simon Newcomb (March 12, 1835 – July 11, 1909) was a Canadian-American astronomer and mathematician. Though he had little conventional schooling, he made important contributions to timekeeping as well as writing on economics and statistics and authoring a science fiction novel.

Other work

Newcomb was an autodidact and polymath. He wrote on economics and his Principles of political economy (1885) was described by John Maynard Keynes as "one of those original works which a fresh scientific mind, not perverted by having read too much of the orthodox stuff, is able to produce from time to time in a half-formed subject like economics." He was credited by Irving Fisher with the first-known enunciation of the equation of exchange between money and goods used in the quantity theory of money.Fisher (1909). He spoke French, German, Italian and Swedish; was an active mountaineer; widely read; and authored a number of popular science books and a science fiction novel, His Wisdom the Defender (1900).

Career

Astronomy

In the prelude to the American Civil War, many US Navy staff of Confederate sympathies left the service and, in 1861, Newcomb took advantage of one of the ensuing vacancies to become professor of mathematics and astronomer at the United States Naval Observatory, Washington D.C.. Newcomb set to work on the measurement of the position of the planets as an aid to navigation, becoming increasingly interested in theories of planetary motion.

By the time Newcomb visited Paris, France in 1870, he was already aware that the table of lunar positions calculated by Peter Andreas Hansen was in error. While in Paris, he realised that, in addition to the data from 1750 to 1838 that Hansen had used, there was further data stretching as far back as 1672. His visit allowed little serenity for analysis as he witnessed the defeat of French emperor Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War and the coup that ended the Second French Empire. Newcomb managed to escape from the city during the ensuing rioting that led up to the formation of the Paris Commune and which engulfed the Paris Observatory. Newcomb was able to use the "new" data to revise Hansen's tables.

He was offered the post of director of the Harvard College Observatory in 1875 but declined, having by now settled that his interests lay in mathematics rather than observation.

Director of the Nautical Almanac Office

In 1877 he became director of the Nautical Almanac Office where, ably assisted by George William Hill, he embarked on a program of recalculation of all the major astronomical constants. Despite fulfilling a further demanding role as professor of mathematics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University from 1884, he conceived with A. M. W. Downing a plan to resolve much international confusion on the subject. By the time he attended a standardisation conference in Paris, France, in May 1896, the international consensus was that all ephemerides should be based on Newcomb's calculations—Newcomb's Tables of the Sun. A further conference as late as 1950 confirmed Newcomb's constants as the international standard.

Personal life

Newcomb died in Washington, DC of bladder cancer and was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery with President William Howard Taft in attendance.

Newcomb's daughter married Assistant US Attorney General Edward Baldwin Whitney, who was the son of Professor William Dwight Whitney and the grandson of US Senator & Connecticut Governor Roger Sherman Baldwin. He was also the grandfather of mathematician and Professor Hassler Whitney.

Quotations

On the state of astronomy

1888, Simon Newcomb: "We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy."

On the impossibility of a flying machine

Newcomb is famously quoted as having believed it impossible to build a "flying machine". In 1901, Newcomb was skeptical, but was thinking the problem through quite publicly. He begins an article titled "Is the Airship Possible?" with the remark, "That depends, first of all, on whether we are to make the requisite scientific discoveries." He ends with the remark "the construction of an aerial vehicle ... which could carry even a single man from place-to-place at pleasure requires the discovery of some new metal or some new force."

Living octopus

Living octopus

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