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Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers"How a Nineteenth-Century Man of Business, Science, and the Sea Changed American Life"$
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Tamara Plakins Thornton

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781469626932

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469626932.001.0001

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Celestial Events

Celestial Events

(p.109) Chapter Five Celestial Events
Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers

Tamara Plakins Thornton

University of North Carolina Press

This chapter examines Bowditch’s attempts to join the international Republic of Letters through scholarly publication, culminating in 1818 with his honorary membership in London’s Royal Society, the result of his friends’ behind-the-scenes lobbying, and an occasion of nationalist celebration in America. Bowditch turned down a Harvard professorship in favor of combining a business career with mathematical and astronomical labors. Newspaper duels with mathematical inferiors enhanced his American reputation, but European authorities generally deemed his work as outdated though capable. His as-yet unpublished annotated translation of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste required Bowditch to master advanced mathematical techniques unknown to Americans and eventually prompted him to study the latest in German scientific developments. Though Federalists smelled ideological danger in Laplace’s work, Bowditch rejected partisan approaches to scholarship and instead found lifelong inspiration in the Laplacean vision of order and regularity in the solar system.

Keywords:   Bowditch, Nathaniel, Laplace, Pierre-Simon, Mathematics, Astronomy, Science, Royal Society of London, Republic of Letters, Nationalism, Harvard University

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