Nova Scotia’s Famous Astronomer
ARTHUR E. BOSTWICK
From Review of Reviews
AMONG those in all parts of the world whose good opinion is worth having, Simon Newcomb was one of the best known of America’s great men. Astronomer, mathematician, economist, novelist, he had well-nigh boxed the compass of human knowledge, attaining eminence such as is given to few to reach, at more than one of its points. His fame was of the far-reaching kind,—penetrating to remote regions, while that of some others has only created a noisy disturbance within a narrow radius.
Best and most widely known as an astronomer, his achievements in that science were not suited for sensational exploitation. He discovered no apple-orchards on the moon, neither did he dispute regarding the railways on the planet Venus. His aim was to make more exact our knowledge of the motions of the bodies constituting what we call the solar system, and his labors toward this end, begun more than thirty years ago, he continued almost until the day of his death. Conscious that his span of life was measured by months and in the grip of what he knew to be a fatal disease, he yet exerted himself with all his remaining energy to complete his monumental work on the motion of the moon, and succeeded in bringing it to an end before the final summons came. His last days thus had in them a cast of the heroic, not less than if, as the commander of a torpedoed battleship, he had gone down with her, or than if he had fallen charg108
ing at the head of a forlorn hope. It is pleasant to think that such a man was laid to rest with military honors. The accident that he was a retired professor in the United States Navy may have been the immediate cause of this, but its appropriateness lies deeper.
Newcomb saw the light not under the Stars and Stripes, but in Nova Scotia, where he was born, at the Town of Wallace on March 12, 1835. His father, a teacher, was of American descent, his ancestors having settled in Canada in 1761. After studying with his father and teaching for some little time in his native province he came to the United States while yet a boy of eighteen, and while teaching in Maryland in i854-'5Ó was so fortunate as to attract, by his mathematical ability, the attention of two eminent American scientific men, Joseph Henry and Julius Hilgard, who secured him an appointment as computer on the Nautical Almanac, rite date of this was 1857, and Newcomb had thus, at his death, been in Government employ for fifty-two years. As the work of the almanac was then carried on in Cambridge, Mass., he was enabled to enter the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University, where he graduated in 1858 and where he pursued graduate studies for three years longer. O11 their completion in 1861 he was appointed a professor of mathematics in the l nited States navy, which office he held till his death. This appointment, made when he was twen-
ty-six years old,—scarcely more than a boy,—is a striking testimony to his remarkable ability as a mathematician, for of practical astronomy he still knew little.
One of his first duties at Washington was to supervise the construction of the great 26-inch equatorial just authorized by Congress and to plan for mounting and housing it. In 1877 he became senior professor of mathematics in the navy, and from that time until his retirement as a Rear Admiral in 1897 he had charge of the Nautical Almanac office, with i t s large corps of naval andl civilian assistants, in Washington and elsewhere. I n 1884 he also assumed the chair of mathematics and astronomy in Johns Hopkins University,
Baltimore, and he had much to do, in an adviso r y capacity, with the equipment of the Lick Observatory and with testing and mounting i t s great telescope, at that time the largest in the world.
To enumerate his degrees, scientific honors and medals would tire the reader. Among them were the degree of LL.D. from all the foremost universities, the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society of London in 1874, the great gold Huygen medal of the University of Leyden, awarded only once in twenty years, in 1878, and the Schubert gold medal of the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg. The collection of portraits of famous astronomers at the Observatory of Pulkowa contains his picture, painted
by order of the Russian Government in 1887. Ile was, of course, a member of many scientific societies, at home and abroad, and was elected in i8f>q to our own National Academy of Sciences, becoming its vice-president ¡111883. In 1893 he was chosen one of the eight foreign associates of the Institute of France,—the first native American since Benjamin Franklin to lie so chosen. Newcomb’s most famous work as an astronomer,—that which gained him world-wide fame among his brother astronomers,—was, as has been said, too mathematical and technical to appeal to the general public among his countrymen, who have had to take his greatness, in this regard, on trust. T h e y have k n o w n h i m at first hand chiefly as author or editor of popular works such as his “P opul a r A s t r o 11 o m y, ( 1877) ; of his text - books o n astronomy, algeb r a, geometry, 'trigonom e t r y, and calculus ; of his books o n political economy, which science he was accustomed to call his “recreation”; and of magazine articles on all sorts of subjects, not omitting “psychical research,” which was one of the numerous by-paths into which he strayed. He held at one time the presidency of the American Society for Psychical Research.
The technical nature of his work in mathematical astronomy,—his “profession,” as he called it, in distinction to his “recreations” and minor scientific amusements,—may be seen from the titles of one or two of his papers:
"On the Secular Variations and Mutual Relations of the Orbits of the Asteroids" (i860); "investigation of the Orbit of Neptune, with General Tables of Its Motion" (1867); "Researches on the Motion of the Moon" ( 1876) ; and so on. ( )f this work Professor Newcomb himself says, in his "Reminiscences of an Astronomer" (Boston, 1903), that it all tended toward one result,—the solution of what he calls "the great problem of exact astronomy," the theoretical cxlanation of the observed motions of the heavenly bodies.
If the universe consisted of but two bodies,-—say, the sun and a planet,— the motion would be simplicity itself ; the planet would describe an exact ellip.se about the sun, and this orbit would never change in form, size or position. With the addition of only one more body, the problem at once becomes so much more difficult as to be practically insoluble; indeed, the "problem of the three bodies” has been attacked by astronomers for years without the discovery of any general formula to express the resulting motions. For the actually existing system of many planets with their satellites and countless asteroids, only an approximation is possible. The actual motions as observed and measured from year to year are most complex. Can these be completelv accounted for by the mutual attractions of the bodies, according to the law of gravitation as enunciated by Sir Isaac Newton? In Newcomb's words, "Does any world move otherwise than as it is attracted by other worlds?" Of course, Newcomb has not been the only astronomer at work on this problem, but it has been his life-work, and his contributions to its solution have been very noteworthv.
It is difficult to make the ordinarv reader understand the obstacles in the way of such a determination as this. Its two elements are, of course, the mapping out of the lines in which the bodies concerned actuallv do move and the calculations of the orbits in which they ought to move, if the acuo
cepted laws of planetary motion are true. The first involves the study of thousands of observations made during long years by different men in far distant lands, the discussion of their probable errors, and their reduction to ;i common standard. The latter requires the use of the most refined methods of mathematical analysis; it is, as Newcomb says, of a complexity beyond the powers of ordinary conception." In works on celestial mechanics a single formula may till a whole chapter.
This problem first attracted Newcomb's attention when a young man at Cambridge, when by analvsis of the motions of the asteroids he showed that the orbits of these minor planets had not, for several hundred thousand years past, intersected at a single point, and they could not, therefore, have resulted, during that period, from the explosion of a single large body, as had been supposed.
Later, when Newcomb's investigations along this line had extended to the major planets and their satélites, a curious anomaly in the moon’s motion made it necessary for him to look for possible observations made long before those hitherto recorded. The accepted tables were based on observations extending back as far as 1750. but Newcomb, by searching the archives of European observatories, succeeded in discovering data taken as early in 1660; not, of course, with such au investigation as this in view, but chiefly out of pure scientific curiosity. The reduction of such observations. especially as the old French astronomers used apparent time, which was frequently in error hv quarter of an hour or so, was a matter of great difficulty. Idle ancient observer, having no idea of the use that was made of his work, had supplied no facilities for interpreting it. and "much comparison and examination was necessary to find out what sort of an instrument was used, how the observations were made, and how tliev should be utilized tor the required purpose." The result was a vastlv
more accurate lunar theory than had formerly obtained.
During the period when Newcomb was working among the old papers of the Paris Observatory, the city, then in possession of the Communists, was beset by the national forces, and his studies were made within hearing of the heavy siege guns, whose flash he could even see by glancing through his window.
Newcomb’s appointment as head of the Nautical Almanac office greatly facilitated his work on the various phases of this problem of planetary motions. Their solution was here a legitimate part of the routine work of the office, and he had the aid of able assistants,—such men as G. Mb Hill, who worked out a large part of the theory of Jupiter and Saturn, and Cleveland Keith, who died in 1896, just as the final results of his work were being combined. In connection with this work Professor Newcomb strongly advocated the unification of the world’s time by the adoption of an international meridian, and also international agreement upon a uniform system of data for all computations relating to the fixed stars. The former still hangs fire, owing to mistaken “patriotism”; the latter was adopted at an international conference held in Paris in 1896, but after it had been carried into effect in our own Nautical Almanac, professional jealousies brought about a modification of the plan that relegated the improved and modernized data to an appendix.
Professor Newcomb's retirement from active service made the continuance of his great work on the adequate scale somewhat problematical, and his data on the moon’s motion were laid aside for a time until a grant from the newly organized Carnegie Institution in 1903 enabled him to employ the necessary assistance, and the work has since gone forward to completion.
What is the value of such work, and why should fame be the reward of him who pursues it successfully?
Professor Newcomb himself raises this question in his “Reminiscences,” and without attempting to answer it directly he notes that every civilized nation supports an observatory at great annual expense to carrv on such research, besides which manv others are supported by private or corporate contribution. Evidently the consensus of public opinion must he that the results are worth at least a part of what they cost. The question is included in the broader one of the value of all research in pure science. Speaking generally, the object of this is solely to add to the sum of human knowledge, although not seldom some application to man’s physical needs springs unexpectedly from the resulting discoveries, as in the ease of the dynamo or that of wireless telegraphy. Possibly a more accurate description of the moon's motion is unlikely to bring forth any such application, but those who applaud the achievements of our experts in mathematical astronomy would be quick to deny that their fame rests on any such possibility.
Passing now to Professor Newcomb's “recreation," as he called it,— political economy, we may note that his contributions to it were really voluminous, consisting of papers, popular articles and several books, including “The A R C of Finance" (1877) and “Principles of Political Economy” (1886). Authorities in the science never really took these as seriously as they deserved, possibly because they regarded Professor Newcomb as scarcely orthodox. Some of his distinctions, however, are of undoubted value and will live ; for instance, that between the fund and the flux of wealth, on which he insists in his treatises on finance. As to Professor Newcomb's single excursion into fiction, a romance entitled “His Wisdom the Defender,” it is perhaps sufficient to say that, like everything he attempted, - it is at least worth notice. It is a sort of cross between Jules Verne and Bulwer Lytton’s “Coming Race.”
Professor Newcomb's mind was
comprehensive in its activity. One might have thought that an intellect occupied to the last in carrying out one of the most stupendous tasks ever attempted by a mathematical astronomer would have had little time or little energy left for other things; but Newcomb took his rest and pleasure in popular articles and interviews. ( )nly a short time before his death he published an essay on aeronautics that attracted wide attention, drawing the conclusions that the aeroplane can never be of much use either as a passenger-carrier or in war, but that the dirigible balloon may accomplish something within certain lines, although it will never put the railways and steamships out of business. In particular, he treated with unsparing ridicule the panic fear of an aerial invasion that so lately seized upon our transatlantic cousins.
Personally, Newcomb was an agreeable companion and a faithful friend. 11 is success was due largely to his tenacity of purpose. The writer's onlv personal contact with him came through the “Standard Dictionary”— of whose definitions in physical science Newcomb had general oversight. On one occasion lie came into the office greatly dissatisfied with the definition that we had framed for the word “magnet,”—a conception almost impossible to define in any logical way. We had simply enumerated the properties of the thing,—a course which in the absence of authoritative knowledge of their causes was the onlv rational procedure. But Newcomb's mind demanded a logical treatment, and though he must have seen from the outset that this was a forlorn hope, his tenacity of purpose kept him, pencil in hand, writing and erasing alternately for an hour or more. Finally he confessed that lie could do no better than the following pair of definitions, —-“Magnet, a body capable of exerting magnetic force,” and “Magnetic borce, the force exerted bv a magnet.” With a hearty laugh at this beautiful
circulus in definiendo he threw down his pencil, and the imperfect and illogical definition was accepted.
Logical as he was, however, he was in no sense bound by convention. His economics, as has been said, was often unorthodox, and even in his mathematical text-books he occasionally shocked the hide-bound. I well remember an interesting discussion among members of the Yale mathematical faculty just after the appearance of Newcomb’s textbook of geometry, in which he was unsparingly condemned by some because he assumed in certain elementary demonstrations that geometrical figures could be removed from the paper, turned over and laid down again,— the so-called “method of superposition," now generally regarded as quite allowable. Of course, a figure can be treated in this way only in imagination, and for this reason, probably, the method was not employed by Euclid. Its use, however, leads always to true results, as anyone may see ; and it was quite characteristic of Professor Newcomb that he should have taken it up, not having the fear of the Greek geometers before him.
Such was Newcomb; it will be long before American science sees his equal. Mathematical genius is like an automobile,—it is looked upon in two opposing fashions as one has it or has it not. A noted educator not.long ago announced his belief that the possession of a taste for mathematics is an exact index of the general intellectual powers. Not much later, another eminent teacher asserted that mathematical ability is an exotic,—that one may, and often does, possess it who is in other respects practically an imbecile. This is scarcely a subject in which a single illustration decides, hut surely Newcomb’s career justifies the former opinion rather than the latter; the amount and kind of his mental abilities along all lines seemed to run parallel to his mathematical genius, to resemble it in quantity and in kind.