3-37. Simon Newcomb

Simon Newcomb (1835–1909) was largely an autodidact in mathematics, although he attended Harvard University’s Lawrence Scientific School in 1857–1858, where he studied under Benjamin Peirce, and obtained a BS degree. From 1877, Newcomb was employed as a calculator in Cambridge at the Nautical Almanac Office, which publication he would be associated with for the next forty years.

In 1861, Newcomb obtained a position with the United States Naval Observatory, benefiting from the displacement of personnel due to the Civil War (Dick 2002, 276). Newcomb taught mathematics at the United States Naval Academy, and mathematics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University. For twenty years, he directed the Nautical Almanac, until his retirement in 1897.

From the 1870s, Newcomb was recognized as the premier astronomer of position the the United States, and he became an influential senior member of the American scientific community, and a key spokesman for science. Awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1874, Newcomb was named a Correspondant of the Paris Academy of Science the same year, and Foreign Associate of the Academy in 1895, succeeding Hermann von Helmholtz (Académie des sciences 1968, 405; CRAS 122, 1896, 15). In 1899, Newcomb became a Correspondent of the French Bureau of Longitude.11See Poincaré’s letter to the Minister of Public Instruction, 28.06.1899 (§ 3-47-14). Newcomb was the first Bruce Medalist in 1897, and he presided the American Mathematical Society in 1897–1898 (Campbell 1924). The organization of the scientific component of the Congress of Arts and Science, held in conjunction with the World’s Fair in Saint Louis in September, 1904, was left to Newcomb. Several letters were exchanged between Poincaré and Newcomb concerning Poincaré’s participation in the Congress, two of which are published here.22Details of Poincaré’s only trip to the United States were disclosed by Paul Langevin in a letter to his wife. Langevin recounted the invitation to the White House, where the French Delegation to the Congress of Arts and Science met with President Theodore Roosevelt (Walter 2007, § 2-33, note 3).

The set of letters exchanged between Newcomb and Poincaré covers two decades, but only one concerns scientific matters directly. As noted by Newcomb’s contemporaries Hill (1909), Stone (1909), and Brown (1910), Newcomb preferred applied to theoretical celestial mechanics, his paper on the general integrals of planetary motion (Newcomb 1876) being the outstanding exception, and one that Poincaré took up in the Méthodes nouvelles de la mécanique céleste (1893, Chap. 9).

Only one letter from the surviving epistolary exchange between Poincaré and Newcomb takes up a mathematical question. In the summer of 1890, Newcomb drafted a letter to Poincaré (§3-37-1) requesting his help in solving a problem arising from Newcomb’s theory of the Moon. No trace of either a related letter to Poincaré, or an eventual response has been located among their papers.

Following his mandatory retirement, Newcomb continued to perform research under the auspices of the new Carnegie Institution in Washington. Newcomb’s bibliography up to 1905 was compiled by R. C. Archibald (1905), extended in Archibald (1924). Biographical sources on Newcomb are several, beginning with Newcomb’s autobiograpy (Newcomb 1903). On Newcomb’s view of science see Moyer (1992), and for an overview of his life and work at the United States Naval Observatory, see Dick (2002, Chap. 8).

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References

  • Académie des sciences de Paris (Ed.) (1968) Index biographique des membres et correspondants de l’Académie des sciences. Gauthier-Villars, Paris. Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • R. C. Archibald (1905) Bibliography of the life and works of Simon Newcomb. Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada 11 (3), pp. 79–110. Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • R. C. Archibald (1924) Simon Newcomb 1835–1909: Bibliography of his life and work. Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 17, pp. 19–69. External Links: Link Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • E. W. Brown (1910) Simon Newcomb. Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society 16 (7), pp. 341–355. External Links: Link Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • W. W. Campbell (1924) Biographical memoir Simon Newcomb 1835–1909. Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 17, pp. 1–18. External Links: Link Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • S. J. Dick (2002) Sky and Ocean Joined: The U.S. Naval Observatory, 1830–2000. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb, 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • G. W. Hill (1909) Professor Simon Newcomb as an astronomer. Science 30 (768), pp. 353–357. Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • A. E. Moyer (1992) A Scientist’s Voice in American Culture: Simon Newcomb and the Rhetoric of Scientific Method. University of California Press, Berkeley. Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • S. Newcomb (1876) On the general integrals of planetary motion. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge 21 (281), pp. 1–31. External Links: Link Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • S. Newcomb (1903) The Reminiscences of an Astronomer. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston/New York. External Links: Link Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • H. Poincaré (1893) Les méthodes nouvelles de la mécanique céleste, Volume 2. Gauthier-Villars, Paris. External Links: Link Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • O. Stone (1909) Simon Newcomb. Astrophysical Journal 30 (3), pp. 171–177. External Links: Link Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • S. A. Walter (Ed.) (2007) La correspondance d’Henri Poincaré, Volume 2: La correspondance entre Henri Poincaré et les physiciens, chimistes et ingénieurs. Birkhäuser, Basel. External Links: Link Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.