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Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/29830

Title: Just a Beginning: Computers and Celestial Mechanics in the Work of Wallace J. Eckert
Authors: Olley, Allan
Advisor: Fraser, Craig
Department: History and Philosophy of Science and Technology
Keywords: history of computing
history of astronomy
Issue Date: 31-Aug-2011
Abstract: This thesis details and analyzes the interaction between computers and science in a particular case. The case is the career of Wallace J. Eckert (1902-1971). Eckert was a professor of astronomy at Columbia University and scientific researcher for IBM. He has received some attention in the history of computing for his significant work in machine computation in the 1930s and 1940s and was the foremost expert on lunar theory for much of his life. First the existing secondary literature on the subject is discussed. Eckert's work has rarely been the focus of sustained historical scrutiny, but the question of the relation of science and the computer has received more scholarship in the history, philosophy and sociology of science. The main narrative of the thesis begins with the history of the various mathematical techniques and external aids to computation used over the course of the history of celestial mechanics. Having set the context, Eckert's early life and career is detailed up until 1945. Here, before the modern computer as such was developed, Eckert innovated by adapting IBM punched card machines to astronomical applications. Next Eckert's time as a scientific researcher employed by IBM after 1945 is detailed. Here he helped establish a culture of scientific research at IBM, demonstrated the value of IBM's products for science, aided in the development of new more complex machine designs including electronic systems and continued his own astronomical research. Eckert's major projects on electronic machines are described, especially those in lunar theory, with explanation of how his astronomical methods remained the same or were modified and expanded by later electronic machines and how he innovated with the machines at his disposal. In the conclusion, after summarizing later developments in celestial mechanics, broader questions about the modern computer's role in science are engaged. Continuity between pre and post computer methods is well illustrated by Eckert's work. His work also shows that while the computer was a force for change in celestial mechanics, the form of that change depended on the choices, resources and practices of the people using it.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/29830
Appears in Collections:Doctoral

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