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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
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.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2000
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
on August 12, 2001
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
on January 29, 2001
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
VINE VOICEon March 18, 2002
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 14, 2006
I read this to my son a couple years ago (when he was 10), and we both really enjoyed it. I had been reading it myself, but decided to read the opening chapter to him and he was hooked. The process of "finding" Neptune gave perspective to our own backyard endeavors with a simple refractor telescope.
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on January 9, 2001
This book is a story of scientific prediction and discovery. It also is a lesson on the workings of institutional science.
A Cambridge mathematician calculates the position of an undiscovered planet, now known as Neptune. He submits his predictions to the director of the Cambridge Observatory. The Cambridge director, not wanting to take a chance on looking for a planet based solely on calculations, sends the mathematician to the director of the Greenwich Observatory. The Greenwich director, too busy with his mission, sends the mathematician back to the Cambridge Observatory. The directors spend endless weeks exchanging letters (the 19th century equivalent of e-mail) on why each should or should not look for the planet, seemingly oblivious to the opportunity that has been given to them. Meanwhile, a French mathematician also calculates the position of the planet. Going around the powers-that-be, he asks a contact at the Berlin Observatory, an assistant, to have a look for the planet. The German astronomer and a friend find the planet in a few hours. The English establishment is left with a lot of explaining to do.
How far have we come in the last 150 years? The only lesson is that we never learn our lesson.
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on October 13, 2009
I found this book at my college bookstore probably about 8 years ago and thought it was interesting. I bought it and then forgot about it until just recently finding it in my library and deciding to read it. I am glad I did.

The Discovery of Neptune is simply a good story. I can't help to like and feel bad for Adams whom had to see his brilliant work go unnoticed for too long and usher in another to claim initial glory. This is the first book I have read revolving around such subject matter (space, planets, etc) and I might look to read more.

The book is a quick read and the story flows very well. It will keep you interested, you will learn about planet hunting and never look at the sky the same way again.
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on May 4, 2014
This is an excellent book if you have an interest in math, history and science. Cosmos fans will love it.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 23, 2003
The field of science has long been a habitat for entrenched older types who do not want to shake the fundamental assumptions of its own field. It takes visionaries to do such a thing. The Neptune File chronicles the attempts and successes of planet hunters who had to work against the inertia of the belief that were no other planets to be found beyond Jupiter and Saturn. It begins with the discovery of Uranus by William Herschel in the 1700's and all the skepticism he had to fight against. Once it was accepted as a fact, it opened up a new can of worms because the orbit of the planet did not make sense. It seemed to be irregular, as though some force was operating on it, a force with enough mass to cause that might just be another planet, so the whole thing starts over again. Of course, we would find that there was another planet, Neptune. This book tries to show how much adventure, luck, and just plain persistance leads to great scientific discoveries. Some of the scientists are motivated by fame, others by simple curiosity. It does start to drag by the end, but for the most part is an engaging and entertaining read. It also shows how one discovery settles nothing, but simply leads to more.
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