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.)
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