The "Neptune File" tells the story of the gifted mathematician John Couch Adams and the discovery of the planet Neptune in 1846. Combining scientific triumph with international controversy, this is an intriguing tale of the search for an unseen planet, and the uproar it caused. More than just an intriguing historical yarn, Adam's work signified the beginning of a new era of planet hunting by providing astronomers with a powerful tool with which to search for new worlds. It marked the genesis of the idea that astronomers could find new planets by looking for their telltale gravitational influence on other bodies, rather than observing them directly with telescopes. In recent years this approach has led to an extraordinary series of discoveries - today's planet detectives are relying on a technique whose theoretical foundations were laid by their 19th-century predecessors.
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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 behaviour 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 modelling 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 and 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 was 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 McNameeAbout the Author:
Tom Standage is science correspondent of The Economist. He is the author of The Victorian Internet and has written for Wired, The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Telegraph. He is married and lives in Greenwich.
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