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Great story but not much new info...
on July 28, 2001
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.' Nor does he elaborate on what was found there, other than exonerating Airy of the charge of conspiracy to suppress Adams' findings. Just who did have the file, and for how long? My own brief research revealed that an historian of science named Dennis Rawlins has written several articles about this situation, claiming a cover-up on the part of English astronomers, and alleging that the Neptune file contains a copy of Adams' original paper in which his position prediction is off by more than 12 degrees, and that a faction of 'Cambridge' astronomers is conspiring to keep the contents of the file suppressed.
I contacted two historians of science, one at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and one at Harvard. Neither knows of any evidence as to the truth of these allegations, and both attest that Rawlins tends to gravitate toward farfetched notions that mainstream science regards with suspicion. In fact, Rawlins doesn't publish his papers in mainstream journals, but in his own self-published journal 'Dio.'
At any rate, Standage's treatment of the issues was disappointingly brief and left me wondering if he was unable to dredge up any additional info himself.
Standage doesn't end the story with the discovery of Neptune and the international fallout over credit that ensued. He goes on to add the modern planet seekers, those who look for - and find - planets around other stars. Their challenge may be technically greater - to discern the minute wobbles of distant stars and infer the existence of planets, but they also have superior tools. Standage draws the parallel between their task, and the way Adams and Le Verrier inferred the existence of Neptune mathematically long before it was seen by astronomers. The comparison is perhaps valid, but the modern search for extrasolar planets certainly carries none of the intrigue of the Neptune story, where the search was carried out with paper and pencil and little more.
Standage's book is a good read, particularly for those unfamiliar with the details of the story. However, I would still recommend Grosser's book as the better account (minus the modern info), but I would even more highly recommend Richard Baum and William Sheehan's excellent 'In Search Of Planet Vulcan: The Ghost In Newton's Clockwork Universe,' a book which retells the Neptune story, possibly better than either Grosser and Standage, and adding the historical context of the planet Vulcan search as well.
I was frustrated upon finishing this book. I wished Standage had done the digging necessary to really tell the story behind the "file." Hopefully more will come to light of the contents of Airy's Neptune File, and will be published in some still unwritten account.