July 11: Newcomb's Restorative Nerve Treatment or, "The Computer Wore Muttonchops"

That's one fine Canadian-American head of hair right there.

As you can see, I was unable to find evidence that Simon Newcomb did, in fact, wear muttonchops. But he was in the great 'chops-wearing era of the late 19th century, where he was one of our leading astronomers, and, according to his biographical note, he did work as a computer -- that is, someone who computes things. Today, of course, we would call such a person a calculator.

And today, straight from Volume 30, the "Miscellaneous Science Stuff" volume of the Harvard Classics (Faraday on electricity, Lord Kelvin on tides, that kind of thing), here he is opining on the extent of the universe. Short answer: he was off a little bit -- he says, "we may state as a general conclusion, indicated by several methods of making the estimate, that nearly all the stars which we can see with our telescopes are contained within a sphere not likely to be much more than 200,000,000 times the distance of the sun." Wikipedia says the universe is actually bigger than that (93 billion light-years), but Newcomb is to be excused since this was written, I believe, in 1906, when so much less was known.

But how he came to the conclusion is in the last, mathy, less interesting part of his paper. The part I want to pull out is where Newcomb is engaged in a phenomenon I always enjoy -- scientists showing how happy they are in their science:
The reader who desires to approach this subject in the most receptive spirit should begin his study by betaking himself on a clear, moonless evening, when he has no earthly concern to disturb the serenity of his thoughts, to some point where he can lie on his back on bench or roof, and scan the whole vault of heaven at one view... The thinking man who does this under circumstances most favorable for calm thought will form a new conception of the wonder of the universe.... When attention is concentrated on the scene the thousands of stars on each side of the Milky Way will fill the mind with the consciousness of a stupendous and all-embracing frame, beside which all human affairs sink into insignificance. ...

Bodily rest may be obtained at any time by ceasing from our labors, and weary systems may find nerve rest at any summer resort; but I know of no way in which complete rest can be obtained for the weary soul—in which the mind can be so entirely relieved of the burden of all human anxiety—as by the contemplation of the spectacle presented by the starry heavens under the conditions just described.
First of all, I like his advice: "You know what would make you feel better? Knowing you're insignificant!" It's just a cosmic version of "this too shall pass," I guess, but the idea that the universe doesn't particularly know or care about you can't be good for the self-esteem. (Unless you've fucked up; then I guess Newcomb's restorative is the ultimate "wanna get away?") However, I shouldn't tease too much because his love of the subject is evident, and that's something a lot of scientists seem to have to a particular degree -- I bet biologists are less likely to get sick of mitochondria than English professors do of Milton.

Secondly, note "weary systems may find nerve rest at any summer resort." Systems -- nerve rest -- summer resort. Like light from Arcturus, these words are sent to us from eras gone by. I think I should try to bring back "nerve rest," though, and the whole idea of nerves and nervous disorders and neurasthenia. Like joining the Masons, I think that would be a good retro thing to do.

Finally, note that, even if you believe in the nerve-soothing effects of Newcomb's restorative it simply isn't possible for most of us, because of all the light pollution. (Even at summer resorts, because of the parking.) Another thing to get on our nerves!

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