Despite being more well-known for his astronomical work in lunar theory, Is Ernest William Brown more of a mathematician than an astronomer?
By Ringo Bones
Born in November 29, 1 in Kingston upon Hull, UK, Earnest William Brown FRS was an English mathematician and astronomer, who spent the majority of his career working in the United States and thus became a naturalized American citizen in 1923. In 1907, he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at Yale University.
His life’s work was the study of the Moon’s motion (lunar theory) and the compilation of extremely accurate lunar tables. Brown also studied the motion of the planets and calculated the orbits of Trojan asteroids. During the height of his professorship at Yale, Brown was also an active member of the American Mathematical Society as its president from 1915 to 1916.
Since 1923, the Lunar Tables of Ernest William Brown have reduced the Moon’s complicated motion to a numerical theory that yielded serviceable tables, which only proves that his mathematical skills are way better than his mathematical skills. Brown’s Tables were adopted by nearly all of the national ephemerides in 1923 for their calculations of the Moon’s position and continued to be used with some modification until 1983. With the advent of programmable digital computers, Brown’s original trigonometric expressions, given in the introduction to his 1919 tables (and from which the tables had been compiled), began to be used for direct computation instead of the tables themselves. This also gained some improvement precision, since the tables had embodied some minor approximations, in a trade-off between accuracy and the amount of labor needed for computations in those days of manual calculation.
By the middle of 20th Century, the difference between Universal and Ephemeris Time had been recognized and evaluated and the troublesome empirical terms were removed. Further adjustments to Brown’s theory were made, arising from improved observational values of the fundamental astronomical constants used in the theory and from reworking Brown’s original analytical expansions to gain more precise versions of the coefficients used in the theory. Eventually in 1984, Brown’s work was replaced by results gained from more modern observational data – including data from lunar laser ranging - and altogether new computational methods for calculating the Moon’s ephemeris.
A heavy smoker, Brown suffered from bronchial trouble for much of his life. He was afflicted by ill-health during most of the six years of his retirement and died in New Haven, Connecticut in 1938.