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The NOAA Corps Bulletin will be including articles on the origin of NOAA ship names over the next year. As the NOAA Ship PEIRCE has been recently decommissioned and is scheduled to be turned over to the Philippine Government's Bureau of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, it is appropriate that the first article in this series will concern Charles Sanders Peirce, the American scientist, philosopher, and logician for whom the ship was named.


Charles Sanders Peirce is considered to be among the greatest intellects that the United States has produced. The originality and versatility of his thought have generated over one hundred Ph.D. theses, thirty books, and over a thousand articles and chapters. There is a philosophical society dedicated to his memory that publishes a quarterly journal entitled the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society.

The bulk of Peirce's scientific work was accomplished during his years with the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey between the years 1859 and 1891 although he remained active in the philosophical and scientific realm right up until his death in 1914. To give an idea of Peirce's scope of inquiry during his lifetime, he listed the following as his principal areas of research for Cattell's American Men of Science for 1906: "Logic, especially logic of relations, probabilities, theory of inductive and abductive validity; epistemology; metrology; history of science; multiple algebra; doctrine of multitudes; gravity; wavelengths; phonetics of Elizabethan English; great men; ethics; phaneroscopy; cosmology; experimental psychology; physical geometry. -- Foundations of mathematics; classification of science; code of terminology; topical geometry."

Reading the above mind-numbing list doesn't begin to do justice to Peirce's intellectual accomplishments. He was the first to attempt to determine the shape of the Milky Way Galaxy from his studies of the brightness of stars by what he termed `photometric researches' during years of cooperative work with the Harvard Observatory; he was the first to relate the length of the meter to the wavelength of light thereby establishing a standard that could never be lost; when he attended meetings of the International Geodetical Association at Paris in 1875 he became the first American citizen to represent the United States at an international meeting of the physical sciences; and, at that same meeting, Peirce established for himself and the Coast and Geodetic Survey international respect and renown as he correctly pointed out an error in the European method of gravity observations. He was the founder of the branch of philosophy termed pragmatism; the first modern experimental psychologist in the Americas; the first to conceive the design and theory of an electric switching computer; and the first to consider the branch of economics dealing with the "economy of research."

Peirce was born into an environment that encouraged intellectual attainment. His father was Benjamin Peirce, a Harvard professor of Natural History and Mathematics. Benjamin was a leading mathematician of the Nineteenth Century and became the Superintendent of the Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1867. When Charles was growing up, his home was filled with the likes of Longfellow, Emerson, and Agassiz discussing their work and the scientific and philosophical issues of the day. His father imbued Charles with a love of philosophy, logic, and mathematics. Charles went to Harvard and graduated in 1859. He then entered on duty with the Coast Survey as an aid.

Over the next few years he saw varied duty and also lectured at the Lowell Institute and Harvard on the `Logic of Science'. He also studied under Louis Agassiz at the Lawrence Scientific School and graduated summa cum laude in 1863, the first individual to graduate with honors. From 1867 to 1869 he was on assignment to the Harvard Observatory and then in 1870 he was sent on an expedition to the Mediterannean Sea to observe a solar eclipse. For several months during 1872, he was designated Assistant-in-Charge of the Coast Survey Office. Then in late 1872 he was directed "to take charge of the Pendulum Experiments of the Coast Survey" and to "investigate the law of deviations of the plumb line and of the azimuth from the spheroidal theory of the earth's figure." The next eight years were the zenith of Peirce's scientific work in the Coast Survey. It was during this period that he attained international renown as a geodesist, made pioneering studies of the shape of the Milky Way, and used the wavelength of light to define the length of the meter.

The following decade was much less stellar. His father died in 1880, he was divorced from his first wife in the early 1880's, the administration of Julius Hilgard as Superintendent of the Coast Survey was scandal-wracked, and following Hilgard, Frank Thorn, a political appointee with no scientific background, was appointed as head of the Survey. It is probable that all of these factors contributed to a lackadaisical attitude towards his work and outright antagonism towards the administration of the Survey.

The inevitable occurred when Peirce tendered his resignation dated December 31, 1891. Although he had spent over 30 years in the Survey, there was no retirement in those days and he spent the remainder of his life in near poverty. He wrote many scholarly articles on a freelance basis, translated rare mathematical and scientific manuscripts from Latin, French, and German, and wrote mathematics textbooks.

Charles Peirce died April 19, 1914. He had spent his life immersed in questions of truth and reality. He believed that truth or reality in science "is a limit approximated ever more closely by an infinite community of investigators working indefinitely into the future." This concept is pertinent in NOAA Corps today as we are part of that infinite community helping to search for the reality of global climate change, the nature of tides and currents, the truth concerning the optimal management of our fisheries stocks, and ever more accurate views of the seafloor.

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