Simon Newcomb

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Simon Newcomb, ca. 1907

Simon Newcomb (March 12, 1835 – July 11, 1909) was a Canadian-American astronomer and mathematician, and Professor of Mathematics in the U.S. Navy and at Johns Hopkins. 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.


  • The opinion is widely prevalent that even if the subjects are totally forgotten, a valuable mental discipline is acquired by the efforts made to master them. While the Conference admits that, considered in itself this discipline has a certain value, it feels that such a discipline is greatly inferior to that which may be gained by a different class of exercises, and bears the same relation to a really improving discipline that lifting exercises in an ill-ventilated room bear to games in the open air. The movements of a race horse afford a better model of improving exercise than those of the ox in a tread-mill.
  • Is the Airship Possible? That depends, first of all, on whether we are to make the requisite scientific discoveries... 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.
  • One of the most curious of these cases [geometrical paradoxers] was that of a student, I am not sure but a graduate, of the University of Virginia, who claimed that geometers were in error in assuming that a line had no thickness. He published a school geometry based on his views, which received the endorsement of a well-known New York school official and, on the basis of this, was actually endorsed, or came very near being endorsed, as a text-book hi the public schools of New York.

Quotes about Simon Newcomb[edit]

  • I knew that flying machines were impossible; in engineering school I had studied Professor Simon Newcomb's well-known mathematical proof that the efforts of Professor Langley and others to build an aerodyne capable of carrying a man were doomed, useless, because scale theory proved that no such contraption large enough to carry a man could carry a heat-energy plant large enough to lift it off the ground — much less a passenger.
    That was science's final word on a folly and it put a stop to wasting public monies on a will-o'-the-wisp. Research and development money went into airships, where it belonged, with enormous success.
    However, in the past few days I had gained a new angle on the idea of "impossible". When a veritable flying machine showed up in our sky, I was not greatly surprised.
  • Professor Fisher's The Purchasing Power of Money is dedicated to Simon Newcomb, from whom vid Professor Kemmerer the PT = MV formula ultimately derives. Newcomb was not a professional economist but a mathematician (Professor of Mathematics in the U.S. Navy and at Johns Hopkins). His Principles of Political Economy, published in 1886, is 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.
  • It is a matter of historical record that Newcomb, one of the most eminent American mathematicians of his day, published on the topic of four-dimensional space from 1877, and he spoke about it to the New York Mathematical Society in 1893. Four dimensions (and more) were important research topics in mathematics and physics.
  • There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it., as our mathematicians have it, is spoken of as having three dimensions, which one may call Length, Breadth, and Thickness, and is always definable by reference to these planes, each at right angle to the others. But some philosophical people have been asking why three dimensions particularly—why not another direction at right angles to the other three?—and have even tried to construct a Four Dimensional geometry. Professor Simon Newcomb was expounding this to the New York Mathematical Society only a month or so ago. You know how on a flat surface, which has only two dimensions, we can represent a figure of a Three-Dimensional solid, and similarly they think that by models of three dimensions they could represent one of four—if they could master the perspective of the thing. See?
  • In the late 19th century, Newcomb was one of America’s best known and probably one of its most powerful scientists. He had spent most of his career as a professor at the naval observatory in Washington, D. C. He had served as President of the American Academy of Arts and Science and as President of the Political Economy Club in the 1880s. He eventually received numerous awards for his most important astronomical research more accurately measuring the movements of the moon and the planets in our solar system. In the 1880s, Newcomb joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University and his views regarding the competence of junior faculty were often communicated to President Daniel Gilman. This was especially the case for Peirce and Ely. Newcomb also confronted America’s most prominent theologians on the relationship between theology and science and of course evolution and Christianity. For the nation’s centennial, Newcomb also had offered his harsh appraisals of American science and political economy maintaining that they were way behind European science and British political economy. Newcomb also thwarted Peirce’s career progress on numerous occasions playing a pivotal role in his exclusion from academia after 1885.
  • James R. Wible. "Economics, Christianity, and Creative Evolution: Peirce, Newcomb, and Ely and the Issues Surrounding the Creation of the American Economic Association in the 1880s," 2009.

External links[edit]

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