Today, another useless fight over who was first.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
J. Donald Fernie tells the
convoluted story of Neptune. It begins in 1841 when
John Adams, a brilliant Cambridge student, took an
interest in the irregular movement of Uranus. Maybe
the irregularity was caused by another, yet
In 1843, Adams went to the Cambridge astronomy
professor, James Challis, with a computational
scheme. Challis got the data Adams needed from the
royal astronomer, George Airy. Adams went to work.
Two years later, he knew where to aim a telescope
to find the mystery planet. He asked Challis to
look for it. Challis didn't want to take on the
job. He sent Adams to Airy.
Airy read Adams's work and sent back a note with a
minor question. The question struck Adams as too
simple. He figured the great Airy was writing
rhetorically. He didn't bother to answer. Airy
thought the young man was snubbing him. He wrote an
angry letter to Challis, and he wouldn't even to
speak to Adams.
Months later, a young French astronomer, LeVerrier,
made the same calculation Adams had. He also went
to Airy. Airy heard him out, then went to Challis
and said, "Let's look for the planet." Challis
finally began looking. But so did German
astronomers. On September 23, 1846, the Berlin
Observatory found the planet we call Neptune. It
lay very near the spot both young men had
Airy wrote congratulations to LeVerrier. The French
Academy cheered a French triumph and tried to name
the planet after LeVerrier instead of naming it
after yet another Roman god. Then the great English
astronomer, John Herschel, announced that Adams had
actually done the calculation first.
The French were furious at Herschel. The English
Royal Society was equally furious at Airy and
Challis for dropping the ball. They subjected them
to a public humiliation from which neither ever
fully recovered. And what of Adams and LeVerrier?
Well, those two level-headed young men became close
friends. After all, they'd discovered Neptune,
hadn't they? This nationalistic stuff wasn't their
fight. But then, a few years later, a Harvard
astronomer showed that their calculations had been
incomplete. They'd both been lucky to find anything
Maybe the crowning irony was the discovery, in
1980, of notes that Galileo had made in 1612 and
1613. He'd clearly identified Neptune, but he
hadn't realized it was moving in relation to the
stars behind it. He thought it was another star.
So, who did discover Neptune? Well, that's the most
misleading kind of scientific question. The next
time anyone tells you who was first to discover
this or that, be wary. For singular discoverers are
only the stuff of myth. They are not what science
is really made of.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds