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

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

Tom Standage. Walker & Company, $25 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-8027-1363-6

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.)