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Simon Newcomb

March 12, 2010

An old saying reminds us that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In the case of an astronomer born on today's date in 1835, though, it was a journey across the solar system.

Simon Newcomb was 18 years old when he set out on foot for the United States from his native Nova Scotia. He had little education and even less money. Yet by the time his life's journey was over, Newcomb had helped plot the layout of the solar system, and the motions of its major bodies, in great detail.

Newcomb began his career as a "computer" -- a person who carried out the tedious calculations that today are done electronically. In time, he worked his way up to become director of the Nautical Almanac Office, which today is part of the U.S. Naval Observatory. He also was a professor of mathematics at Cambridge.

Newcomb made detailed observations of the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets using a new telescope he'd helped plan. He also used records from other astronomers -- in some cases going back two millennia. These allowed him to compute the orbits of Earth and the other bodies with greater accuracy than anyone before him. His work was so good that astronomers continued to use his calculations for decades.

Newcomb made many other contributions to astronomy, as well as mathematics and other fields. But he's best remembered for helping astronomers journey across the solar system -- without needing to take a single step.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010

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