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.

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). He participated in the 1870 eclipse expedition to Gibraltar, led by Benjamin Peirce. In 1875, Newcomb was offered, and declined, the direction of the Harvard Observatory, but in 1877 he became director of the Nautical Almanac Office in Cambridge (Eisele, 1957).

Newcomb taught mathematics at the United States Naval Academy, and mathematics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, where he was appointed professor of mathematics and astronomy in 1884, after Sylvester left for Oxford. Newcomb took over from Sylvester the job of editing the American Journal of Mathematics, with Thomas Craig as associate editor, while remaining the director of the Nautical Almanac until his retirement in 1897. Newcomb oversaw publication of all four of the papers Poincaré communicated to the American Journal of Mathematics, two of which (at least) appear to have been sollicited by Craig, who succeeded Newcomb as editor in April, 1896. Newcomb then continued on as a consulting editor until Craig stepped down due to poor health in 1898, at which time Newcomb resumed his original editorial role.11endnote: 1 In the death notice Newcomb penned for Craig (Newcomb, 1900), he mentions that Poincaré’s papers in Volumes 7 and 8 of the AJM were “believed to have been” sollicited by Craig, which suggests that Newcomb did not sollicit these contributions himself.

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 (Institut de France 1968, 405; CRAS 122, 1896, 15). In 1899, Newcomb became a Correspondent of the French Bureau of Longitude.22endnote: 2 See Poincaré’s letter to the Minister of Public Instruction, 28.06.1899 (§ 3-47-13). 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.33endnote: 3 Details 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 (§ 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 lunar theory. No trace has been found of either a related letter to Poincaré, or an eventual response.

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).

Time-stamp: "22.05.2021 20:22"

Notes

  • 1 In the death notice Newcomb penned for Craig (Newcomb, 1900), he mentions that Poincaré’s papers in Volumes 7 and 8 of the AJM were “believed to have been” sollicited by Craig, which suggests that Newcomb did not sollicit these contributions himself.
  • 2 See Poincaré’s letter to the Minister of Public Instruction, 28.06.1899 (§ 3-47-13).
  • 3 Details 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 (§ 2-33, note 3).

References

  • 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. Link Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • E. W. Brown (1910) Simon Newcomb. Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society 16 (7), pp. 341–355. 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. 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.
  • C. Eisele (1957) The Charles S. Peirce – Simon Newcomb correspondence. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 101 (5), pp. 409–433. Link Cited by: 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.
  • Institut de France (Ed.) (1968) Index biographique des membres et correspondants de l’Académie des sciences. Gauthier-Villars, Paris. 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. Link Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • S. Newcomb (1900) Professor Thomas Craig, Ph.D.. American Journal of Mathematics 22 (1), pp. v. Link Cited by: endnote 1.
  • S. Newcomb (1903) The Reminiscences of an Astronomer. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston/New York. Link Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • H. Poincaré (1893) Les méthodes nouvelles de la mécanique céleste, Volume 2. Gauthier-Villars, Paris. Link Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.
  • O. Stone (1909) Simon Newcomb. Astrophysical Journal 30 (3), pp. 171–177. Link Cited by: 3-37. Simon Newcomb.