Tuesday, October 06, 2015

John Couch Adams and the Search for the Planet Neptune

Not long ago, I was helping my daughter brainstorm for an independent writing project. This is a project from her writing curriculum, so certain assignment parameters were set, but the topic was open (partly to encourage brainstorming from inspiration to final paper).

Her dad and I decided to ask her to confine her topic choices to something in the 19th century, chiefly around the middle of the century, since that's the period she's currently studying in history. Beyond the era, we gave her carte blanche on topic choice. As usual, she gravitated (pun intended) to science first, though she ended up swerving direction in the end and is currently at work on a paper about the impressionist artist Edgar Degas.

Before she got there, we were doing some online research into scientific events in the mid-19th century and came upon the discovery of Neptune. In the wonderful way of learning trails, this led us to the book The Neptune File by Tom Standage, which our library quickly moved to the hold shelf for us.

As I said in my very brief review on Goodreads:
This is a highly readable account of the 19th century search for Neptune, the first planet ever discovered not by observation but by mathematical deduction. Standage's writing style is engaging. He makes the science, and even the math, not only interesting but understandable.

His fascination with the history is evident on every page too. I enjoyed his profiles of some of the major players involved in the discovery and the controversy that surrounded it, especially John Couch Adams, Airy, and Le Verrier. Adams emerged as one of my new 19th century heroes: his humility is just as impressive as his intellect.

The story of John Couch Adams (pronounced "Cooch"; he was from Cornwall) really did intrigue me for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact that he was a poor and relatively unknown graduate student who "got there" faster than anyone else (meaning he got to the relative position of the unknown planet based on his elegant and complex mathematics) and yet due to a series of unfortunate misunderstandings and downright blunders, almost never was credited for that amazing work. Someone else "got there" not far behind him. Le Verrier's math may not have been as elegant, but he got there all the same, and he had the good fortune to be in a position to get people with powerful telescopes to listen to him and take him seriously, so they could point those instruments to the sky and confirm his prediction. Which they did, prompting the world to credit Le Verrier with a discovery that Couch Adams had actually made first.

This controversy from 1846 was the whole reason I found this fascinating book in the first place. When the sweet girl and I were looking up the discovery of Neptune, the first thing she asked was: "Who DID discover it?" I went to a trusty online search and came up with...Le Verrier. And then read and googled a bit more and came up with...Couch Adams. Which one was it? she wanted to know. And based on a hasty skim read of online sources, I couldn't tell her, which surprised me. It would seem that something as momentous as the first finding of a planet via mathematical deduction would be a pretty certain fact. It was clear that Le Verrier and Couch Adams hadn't been collaborators, that there was some confusion about who got the credit.

In the end, as I learned from Standage, they shared the credit pretty peaceably, though there were people who shouted at each other across the English Channel about this for a long time. A lot of people in England, responsible for the errors and mistakes that caused Couch Adams' work to be ignored rather than explored at the proper time, tried to justify themselves and pass the buck. To Couch Adams' credit, he never laid into anyone publicly, blaming them for this or anything else. Genuinely excited about the discovery and genuinely humble, he praised Le Verrier's work, seemed gratified that they'd reached the same conclusion, and went on about the business of working. He even turned down an eventual knighthood.

As I concluded in my review:
It's also fascinating to reflect on how a story like this played out in 1846 -- so very different from how it would play out in our age of social media.

The last two chapters would benefit from a revision just because so much has happened regarding both Pluto (the recent fly-by) and the search for extrasolar planets since he wrote the book. (To date, NASA has confirmed over 1,800 exosolar planets!) Still, this is a very readable and enjoyable scientific narrative, one I would recommend to youth as well as adults. I plan to read this one with my eighth grader, as it ties in beautifully with both her physics and modern history studies in homeschool this year.
Can you imagine what the shouting would have been like if they'd had Facebook when this controversy occurred?! Kind of makes you wistful for a time of slightly more civil conversations.

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