Newcomb, Simon (1835–1909)
Simon Newcomb was a brilliant Canadian-born American mathematical astronomer whose work on the
orbital motion of the planets of the Solar System was the cornerstone of
the nautical and astronomical almanacs of
the United States and Britain until as recently as 1984; his accomplishments
are all the more remarkable because he was almost entirely self-taught.
At age 18, with little money or schooling, Newcomb made his way on foot
from his native Nova Scotia to the United States. Eventually he found employment
as a computer with the Nautical Almanac Office (then in Cambridge, Massachusetts)
and earned a B.S. at Harvard. He rose to become, in 1877, superintendant
of the Nautical Almanac Office, later part of the U.S.
Naval Observatory, and served concurrently as professor of mathematics
and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University. He used carefully analyzed measurements
of stellar and planetary positions to compute motions of the Sun, Moon,
planets, and satellites, and also measured the speed of light and the constant
of precession. His values for the fundamental
constants of astronomy were used by the world's almanac makers for decades.
A profuse writer on mathematics, economics, and other subjects, Newcomb
also provided important guidance on the construction of some the world's
largest telescopes and was a leader in American science. He was the first
president of the American Astronomical Society
and the American Society for Psychical Research, and also served as president
of the American Mathematical Society, the American Association for the Advancement
of Science, the Philosophical Society of Washington, and other organizations.
On the subject of other life and intelligence in the Universe, Newcomb was
non-committal, but he argued against the anthropocentric ideas of Alfred
Russell Wallace and was prepared to accept
the possibility that Earthlike conditions may not be essential for the development
of life. In the debate over the existence of the Martian
canals, Newcomb made a significant contribution with his experiments
involving artificial disks and his conclusion that any linear markings were
probably optical illusions.