December 2000

A remarkable discovery

By Tom Standage
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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.


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The Neptune File

The Neptune File

By Tom Standage
ISBN 9780802713636

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