Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/October 1885/Sketch of Professor H. A. Newton

PSM V27 D742 Hubert Anson Newton.jpg


THE President of the American Association for this year, Professor Hubert Anson Newton, of Yale College, is distinguished not less for his researches in the higher mathematics, which mark a distinct advance in the American study of that science, than by his contributions to the determination of the orbit of the November meteors, in which he was a pioneer.

Professor Newton was born at Sherburne, New York, on the 19th of March, 1830. Having made his preparatory and academical studies in the schools of his native town, he entered Yale College in the second term of his Freshman year, and was graduated from that institution in 1850. He then spent two years and a half in studying mathematics at home and in New Haven, and was appointed tutor in the college in July, 1852. Entering this office in June, 1853, he had the care of the whole department of mathematics from the first; for Professor Stanley was ill, and died in the spring of 1853. He was elected Professor of Mathematics in 1855, and was given permission to spend a year in Europe. Returning, he assumed the chair in 1856, and has ever since been engaged in the active discharge of the duties of the professorship.

His earlier works appear to have been principally directed to those methods in higher geometry, the power and elegance of which, says his biographer in the "History of Yale College," have been so highly shown in the works of Chasles and others. Among the most conspicuous of them is a memoir "On the Construction of Certain Curves by Points," published in 1861 in the "Mathematical Monthly," which is characterized as one of those contributions to abstract science which have been, unfortunately, too rare in this country. A later, no less remarkable paper was one of joint authorship in the Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Sciences on "Certain Transcendental Curves."

His most important service to science, and the one by which he is probably most widely known to the world of students, is the work which he performed in the study of the November meteors. These phenomena, which had been occasionally mentioned at previous periods of their recurrence without apparently any adequate comprehension of their significance, were first carefully observed by Professor Denison Olmsted in 1833, who gave much attention to the question of their nature and origin. But, as Professor C. S. Lyman states in his biography of Professor Olmsted, it was not till thirty years after his and Professor Twining's studies of the subject "that the labors of Professor Newton in this country, and of Professor Adams and others abroad, made it possible to designate the precise orbit of the November stream, and to identify it with that of a comet having a period of thirty-three and one fourth years." The phenomena continued to have diligent observers at New Haven, prominent among whom was Mr. Herrick, the librarian, and afterward, till 1862, the treasurer of the college. At the time of his death, the biographer in the "History of Yale College" records, "Professor Newton was already engaged in organizing combined and methodical observations on shooting-stars, and in collecting and publishing in the 'Journal of Science' the results of independent observers. Under his supervision a map of the heavens was prepared, which was published by the Connecticut Academy, and could be used by observers to mark down the apparent paths of the meteors. A rich harvest of observations was thus obtained by zealous laborers in various parts of the country, many of whom had been interested and trained in the work by Professor Newton. The separation of the precious grains of truth from the chaff—the perception of the constant amid the accidental, of fixed laws disguised by the errors of observations made under circumstances which precluded the use of instruments of precision—is, however, the more difficult part of such investigations. The published results of Professor Newton's studies in this direction are mostly to be found in the 'Journal of Science' and in the 'Memoirs' of the National Academy. The memoir read to this Academy a few years ago is an almost exhaustive discussion of the phenomena exhibited by the sporadic shooting-stars. He has also contributed admirable summaries of what is known in respect to the laws of meteors to the new edition of the "Encyclopædia Britannica" and to "Johnston's Cyclopædia."

"But the investigation which has been followed by the most remarkable results relates to the November meteoroids, and was based upon researches into early records of remarkable star-showers. From such records, Professor Newton showed that the period of revolution of these bodies must have one of five accurately determined values. From the same sources he determined the secular motion of the node of their mean orbit. The five values of the period, with the position of the radiant point, which had also been determined, would give five possible orbits. The real orbit could be distinguished from the others, as Professor Newton remarked, by the calculation of the secular motion of the node due to the disturbing influence of the planets for each of the five orbits. This calculation was subsequently undertaken by Professor Adams, of Cambridge, England, and the real orbit was apparent from the coincidences of the early observations (the observed and calculated values were 29' and 28' respectively). These calculations of Professor Adams, which fix beyond a doubt the position of the mean orbit of the November meteoroids, were made shortly after their appearance in 1866. The publication, about the same time, of the orbit of the first comet of 1866 revealed the fact that that comet and the meteors travel in nearly coincident orbits, and have an intimate relation one with the other. To appreciate the rapid advance of this department of astronomy, we must contrast this certain knowledge with the conflicting views which prevailed at the time of their first appearance, in 1833, with respect to the nature of the phenomenon of which they were the cause. In recognition, presumably on his part in these achievements of science, Professor Newton was elected, in 1872, associate of the Royal Astronomical Society."

Professor Newton has been for more than a dozen years one of the associate editors of the "American Journal of Science," and most of his scientific articles have been written for its pages. He was one of the fifty members appointed by the act of Congress constituting the American Academy of Sciences. In 1860 he was elected a corresponding member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He served in 1875 as Vice-President of Section A of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at its Detroit meeting.

His address on this occasion took the form of a strong plea for more study of mathematics by American men of science; not for the sake of its place in education, but for the advancement of the science itself, and for the assistance that might be derived from it in the pursuit and enlargement of other branches of knowledge. Whatever might be the reasons for it, he said, "the unpleasant fact is that the American contributions to the science of quantity have not been large. Three or four volumes, a dozen memoirs, and here and there a fruitful idea having been selected from them, there is left very little that the world will care much to remember. I refer, of course, to additions to our knowledge, not to the orderly arrangement of it. To make first-rate text-books, or manuals, or treatises, is a work of no mean order, and I would not underestimate it. In good mathematical text-books we need not fear comparison with any nation. But so few additions have been made to our knowledge of quantity that I fear that the idea has been quite general among us that the mathematics is a finished science, or at least a stationary one, and that it has few fertile fields inviting labor and few untrodden regions to be explored. Hence many bright minds, capable of good work, have acted as though the arithmetic, the algebra, and the mechanics which they studied covered all that is known of the science. Instead of going on in some path out to the bounds of knowledge, as they had perhaps the ability to do, they dug in the beaten highways, and with care planted seed there, hoping for fruit. How much such ill-directed thought has been spent on the theory of numbers, on higher equations, on the theory of the tides, etc., which, if rightly expended on some untrodden though humble field of the science, might have really added to human knowledge! And yet hardly any science can show, on the whole, a more steady progress, year by year, for the last fifty years, or a larger and healthier growth, than the science of quantity. Here, too, as in every other science, the larger the field that has been acquired, the larger its boundary-line from which laborers may work out into the region beyond. An individual may wisely neglect one science, in order to work in another. But a nation may not. For the healthy growth of all, each science should be fostered in due proportion. But the mathematics has such relations with other branches that neglect of it must work in time wider injury, I believe, than neglect of any other branch."

The view expressed in the last sentence of this extract was sustained by the citations of instances and ways in which the questions of quantity and proportion have to be dealt with at some stage in almost every branch of scientific investigation.

Of the value of mathematics as an instrument of research in other departments of knowledge, he says: "Again—I argue from a natural law of succession of the steps of discovery in the exact sciences—we first see differences in things apparently alike, or likeness in things apparently diverse, or we find a new mode of action, or some new relation, supposed to be that of cause and effect, or we discover some other new fact or quality. We frame hypotheses, measure the quantities involved, and discuss by mathematics the relations of those quantities. The proof or the disproof of the hypotheses most frequently depends upon the agreement or discordance of the quantities. To discover the new facts and qualities has sometimes been thought to be higher work than to discuss quantities, and perhaps it is. But at least quantitative analysis follows qualitative. It is after we have learned what kind, that we begin to ask how much?"

Professor Newton is a member of several other learned societies in this country; he is a member of the Publication Committee of the Connecticut Academy of Sciences; is a trustee of the Winchester Observatory; and is the author, in Professor Kingsley's "History of Yale College," of the sketch of Professor Alexander Metcalf Fisher, one of his predecessors in the chair of Mathematics, who died by shipwreck at an early age; and of the account of Winchester Observatory.