The Neptune File: A Story of Astronomical Rivalry and the Pioneers of Planet Hunting

Standage, Tom

Published by Walker Books, 2000
ISBN 10: 0802713637 / ISBN 13: 9780802713636
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The Neptune File is the first full account of the dramatic events surrounding the eighth planet's discovery, and the story of two remarkable men who were able to "see" on paper what astronomers looking through telescopes for more than 200 years had overlooked.

On June 26, 1841, John Couch Adams, a brilliant young mathematician at Cambridge University, chanced upon a report by England's Astronomer Royal, George Airy, describing unsuccessful attempts to explain the mystifying orbital behavior of the planet Uranus, discovered 65 years earlier. Adams theorized that Uranus's orbit was being affected by the gravitational pull of another, as-yet-unseen planet. Furthermore, he believed that he did not need to see the planet to know where it was. Four years later, his daring mathematical calculations pinpointed the planet's location, but Airy failed to act on them―a controversial lapse that would have international repercussions.

Soon after Adams's "proof," a rival French astronomer, Urbain Le Verrier, also calculated the planet's position, and the race was on to actually view it. Found just where Adams and Le Verrier had predicted, the planet was named Neptune―and as the first celestial object located through calculation rather than observation, its discovery pioneered a new method for planet hunting.

Drawing on long-lost documents in George Airy's Neptune scrapbook, which resurfaced mysteriously at an observatory in Chile in 1999, The Neptune File is a crackling good human drama and a fascinating exploration of the science that underpins planetary astronomy. And the tale continues to unfold, as Tom Standage relates: Since 1995, astronomers have discovered more than 40 planets outside our solar system, opening an intriguing window on the universe. Yet none of these planets have ever been seen. Their discovery―and the history of science―owes much to the two men who unlocked the secret to locating unseen new worlds.

Review: In 1841, while browsing in a Cambridge bookshop, a young English student named John Couch Adams happened upon a perplexed remark in an astronomical report on the erratic behavior of the planet Uranus. A gifted mathematician, Adams set about arriving at an explanation, commenting to a fellow student, "You see, Uranus is a long way out of his course. I mean to find out why." Eventually, he did, using not direct observation but, controversially, mathematical modeling of a sort that has become commonplace today. Adams's work, built in a close race against rival French scientist Urbain Le Verrier, eventually established that Uranus's path was influenced by the gravitational pull of the then unseen planet of Neptune; Standage credits both Adams and Le Verrier with its discovery.

Drawing on long-forgotten archives, including a scrapbook by the author of the remark that fired Adams's imagination, science correspondent Tom Standage serves up a fine tale of discovery. His story begins with the earliest scientific descriptions of Uranus, an annoyingly wayward planet whose "position in the sky obstinately refused to match up with the position predicted by theory"--the classical theory, that is, of a regular, clockwork universe, which obtained in Adams's day and would not quite be laid to rest until Einstein's time. Standage's story continues to the present, an era when astronomers are, it seems, discovering new planets at every turn. Thanks to Adams and Le Verrier, Standage writes at the end of this graceful book, "Uranus lit the way to Neptune--and Neptune now points the way to the stars." --Gregory McNamee

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Title: The Neptune File: A Story of Astronomical ...
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication Date: 2000
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Used: Good

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