Diane Stresing

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When English musician William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, he put the star-gazing community into a spin. Not only was Herschel an amateur astronomer, he claimed to have discovered the planet with a homemade telescope nearly 100 times more powerful than the average scope at the time.

Sixty years after its discovery by a musician, however, Uranus was curiously off course. George Biddell Airy, Greenwich's astronomer royal from 1835-1843, painstakingly logged Uranus' movements. When another astronomer suggested in 1837 that Uranus' odd movements might be caused by a body situated further away, Airy would have none of it. Quite simply, a new planet was not in Airy's sight. In 1845, Cambridge University's brilliant mathematician John Adams Couch again prodded Airy. He had pinpointed the new planet's position, he said. Would Airy please use his powerful telescopes to look for it? Airy responded predictably: with a request for clarification of Couch's calculations. Unbeknownst to the Englishmen, French astronomer (and Airy rival) Urbain LeVerrier was also pursuing the possibility of a new planet. Just a month before Couch's letter reached Airy, LeVerrier presented his third paper on the theory of Uranus, urging an all-out search for the elusive planet. By the end of the year, the planet had been found, exactly where Couch had calculated.

The Neptune File provides a fascinating glimpse of the work, challenges and vast egos that led to the first discovery of a planet by mathematical calculation rather than observation. Standage writes of the heavenly bodies with a mixture of reverence and understanding. His careful inclusion of colorful anecdotes of the scientists involved results in portraits of the men as three-dimensional players no matter how quirky their characters or their universe.

Diane Stresing is a writer in Kent, Ohio.

 

When English musician William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, he put the star-gazing community into a spin. Not only was Herschel an amateur astronomer, he claimed to have discovered the planet with a homemade telescope nearly 100 times more powerful than the average scope at the time. Sixty years after its discovery by […]
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In the days after his death in 1827, many of Beethoven's friends and admirers snipped off locks of his mane. It was the custom of the time, before the popularity of photography. Nearly two centuries later, the hairs collected by a young musician, Ferdinand Hiller, gave Russell Martin fodder for Beethoven's Hair. The book, a mystery of sorts, is best described as chemical thriller meets historical "how-dunit." The 500 or so hairs, snipped (and, more importantly, pulled) from the head of the master composer, traveled in a tightly sealed locket from Germany, to Denmark, and into the U.S., arriving at a Sotheby's auction.

After the auction, the delighted new owners ushered the hairs into the hands of scientists known for their expertise in hair analysis.

Because some of the pulled hairs contained follicles, DNA testing was also possible. And so it fell to William Walsh, a chemical engineer working at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, to oversee the analysis of Beethoven's hair. Walsh orchestrated the testing process in such a thorough and controlled manner that the results of the testing simply could not be doubted. In doing so, he solved the riddle of the musician's deafness and other ailments. Beethoven's Hair is a tale of science and humanity, and those who love classical music, as well as those who love a good tale, will enjoy untangling it.

Diane Stresing is a writer in Kent, Ohio.

 

In the days after his death in 1827, many of Beethoven's friends and admirers snipped off locks of his mane. It was the custom of the time, before the popularity of photography. Nearly two centuries later, the hairs collected by a young musician, Ferdinand Hiller, gave Russell Martin fodder for Beethoven's Hair. The book, a […]

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