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The Neptune File: A Story of Astronomical Rivalry and the Pioneers of Planet Hunting Hardcover – October 1, 2000

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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

From Publishers Weekly

At a time when new extra-solar planets are announced monthly, Standage (The Victorian Internet) recounts an extraordinary tale of the confluence of great scientific and mathematical investigation and talent, as well as personal and national rivalries, which produced both a momentous discovery and enough embarrassment to cloud the careers of several distinguished astronomers. The protagonist is mathematical prodigy and Cambridge University astronomy graduate student John Couch Adams, who in 1845 completed a detailed calculation of the orbit of an unseen planet based on its supposed gravitational effects on Uranus. To put the enormous originality of Adams's hypothesis into proper perspective, Standage actually begins his account with the discovery of Uranus in 1781, considered inexplicably unruly in its movements and thus an anomaly among planets. Applying the fresh approach of mathematics to this conundrum, Adams calculated exactly where another planet, soon to be known as Neptune, was in the solar system. England's astronomer royal, George Airy, as well as Adams's own observatory director, James Challis, although intrigued, did not endorse Adams's theory until Airy began corresponding with a French mathematician named Urbain Le Verrier, who shared Adams's belief. This finding ignited Airy's desire not to let England lose out to France in what could be a monumental breakthrough. On August 12, 1846, Challis spotted but did not recognize Neptune and missed earning Adams and himself credit for the discovery, which went ultimately to an astronomer in Berlin. Standage, science correspondent at the Economist, gives a colorful account of the Neptune affair. Both astronomy buffs and armchair explorers will revel in his tale. Illus. Astronomy Book Club alternate. (Oct.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company; First Edition edition (October 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802713637
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802713636
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,205,188 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Tom Standage is digital editor at The Economist, overseeing the magazine's website, Economist.com, and its smartphone, tablet and e-reader editions. Before that he was business affairs editor, running the back half of the magazine, and he previously served as business editor, technology editor and science correspondent. Tom is also the author of five history books, including "An Edible History of Humanity" (2009), "A History of the World in Six Glasses" (2005), a New York Times bestseller, and "The Victorian Internet" (1998), described by the Wall Street Journal as a "dot-com cult classic". He writes the video-game column for Intelligent Life, The Economist's lifestyle magazine, is a regular commentator on BBC radio, and has written for other publications including the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the New York Times and Wired. He holds a degree in engineering and computer science from Oxford University, and is the least musical member of a musical family. He is married and lives in London with his wife and children, and is currently working on his next book, on the prehistory of social media.

Customer Reviews

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I actually picked up this book in a used bookstore and read the back cover.
Standage's book is a good read, particularly for those unfamiliar with the details of the story.
John Rummel
I read this to my son a couple years ago (when he was 10), and we both really enjoyed it.
R. J. McCabe

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By John Rummel on July 28, 2001
Format: Hardcover
The story of the discovery of the planet Neptune is one of the most fascinating in the era of modern astronomy. Kepler's laws of planetary motion and Newton's unprecedented mathematical description of the law of universal gravitation allowed predictions of planetary positions to an accuracy of arcseconds.
In view of this successful mathematical description, Uranus' misbehavior was so bad that it was proving to be a continual embarrassment to astronomers, and the drive to find a solution was strong in the early to mid 19th century. The story of Adams in England, Le Verrier in France, and Galle in Germany has been told many times, and will be familiar to fans of the history of astronomy. Standage's retelling of the story is a good read, but probably adds little to Grosser's 'The Discovery of Neptune' (1962). An interesting facet Standage adds to the picture has to do with the title of his book. The 'file' in question belongs to George Airy (a notoriously fastidious record keeper). It contained correspondence, news clippings, etc., on the issue of the discovery of Neptune. Conspiracy theorists abounded in the years after the discovery, and some made the claim that Airy was in cahoots with Le Verrier in suppressing Adams' work to ensure that the credit would go to the Frenchman. Apparently Airy's file disappeared at some point during the last 20 years or so, renewing the conspiracy theorists' energies. Standage informs us late in his book that the file eventually turned up among the papers of a recently deceased former astronomer of the Greenwich Observatory. Examination of the file proved that there was no collusion.
This incident deserves further mention. Standage does not name the astronomer who had the file, nor the circumstances under which it was 'borrowed.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Fraser Cain on November 30, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Tom Standage's The Neptune File is an account of the simultaneous discovery of the planet Neptune in 1846 by two mathematicians, John Couch Adams and Urbain Jean-Joseph Le Verrier, as well as the subsequent controversy over their rival claims. Adams and LeVerrier used different mathematical methods to predict the position of the planet based upon perturbations in the orbit of Uranus, marking the first time the position of a planet was deduced rather than fortuitously discovered. Unfortunately, when the planet was actually sighted based on the predictions, this led to a situation where both mathematicians had a simultaneous stake in the discovery and a international uproar resulted as France and England pressed their representative's rival claims. While the actual material on Neptune itself is perhaps a little too lean to bear an entire book, Standage sets his story carefully in context, taking us through the entire history of planet hunting, from the chance discovery of Uranus to recent discoveries of extra-solar planets, peppering the story with lively sketches of all the important figures, as well as anecdotes, theories, and predictions. The Neptune File is both accesible, intelligent popular science and an interesting account of the personalities involved in the discoveries that pushed back the frontiers of the universe from the 18th to the 20th centuries.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By "notbiz" on August 12, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I actually picked up this book in a used bookstore and read the back cover. The facts surrounding the discovery of the planet were new to me. (Kind of embarrassing really that I had never heard it before. Remind me to contact the secondary school I attended!!) In any event, I was enamored by the discriptions on the back cover and bought it for around four or five bucks. I read it in less than a day, which for me is an extreme rarity. I usually spend my time in the "shallow end" of the literary pool, reading books that can only be described as "easy" reads. This is one of the most entertaining books I've read in years. Unfortunately, I lent the book to someone who had more of a background in astronomy who must have known the book's true value and I haven't seen the book (or the guy) since. So I'm back here to purchase another copy. This time I am much more certain of my investment.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By John Kosh Jr. on January 29, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This book is not only a very good historical look at the mathematical calculation and theory that went into pinpointing the then unseen planet Neptune, Tom Standage has written an exciting and thought provoking narrative. As fans of Jon Krakauer's Everest and climbing exploits can attest, the storytelling can be as important as the story.
This book weaves intrigue, greed and arrogance into the telling of the history, thus avoiding the publication of a "dry" account of some very historical events. Not only does this bring the reader closer to the emotions and ambience of the times, it opens the subject to a broader audience. Though an astronomy buff myself, this is a book anyone with in interest in science and human drama could enjoy.
In other words, this is a great read and I was somewhat saddened when it ended. I might have to go through several more books before I find another one as well written and enjoyable as the Neptune File.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Wesley L. Janssen VINE VOICE on March 18, 2002
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I devoured this book in three big bites. From the shockingly superior optics of William Herschel to the elegant mathematics of John Couch Adams to the extra-solar planets discovered in the late 1990s to the techniques being now developed to find planets orbiting other stars -- its all fascinating. In the end, most of what you thought watching Star Trek had taught you about distant worlds is sacked. "The idea that planetary systems around other stars will be broadly similar to our own solar system is no longer tenable. Indeed, as more planets are discovered, it is our solar system itself that starts to seem more and more unusual."
If you don't read science books and don't know why anybody would, this book might change your mind. Highly recommended.
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