John Couch Adams' account of the discovery of Neptune

John Couch Adams wrote on the History of the Discovery of Neptune in the Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 16, 1847:-

The irregularities in the motions of Uranus have for a long time engaged the attention of Astronomers. When the path of the planet became approximately known, it was found that, previously to its discovery by Sir W Herschel in 1781, it had several times been observed as a fixed star by Flamsteed, Bradley, Tobias Mayer, and Lemonnier. Although these observations are doubtless very far inferior in accuracy to the modern ones, they must be considered valuable, in consequence of the great extension which they give to the observed arc of the planet's orbit. Bouvard, however, to whom we owe the tables of Uranus at present in use, found that it was impossible to satisfy these observations without attributing much larger errors to the modern observations than they admit of, and consequently founded his tables exclusively on the latter. But, in a very few years, sensible errors began again to show themselves, and, though the tables were formed so recently as 1821, their error at the present time exceeds two minutes of space, and is still rapidly increasing. There appeared, therefore, no longer any sufficient reason for rejecting the ancient observations, especially since, with the exception of Flamsteed's first observation, which is more than twenty years anterior to any of the others, they are mutually confirmatory of each other.

Now that the discovery of another planet has confirmed in the most brilliant manner the conclusions of analysis, and enabled us with certainty to refer these irregularities to their true cause, it is unnecessary for me to enter at length upon the reasons which led me to reject the various other hypotheses which had been formed to account for them. It is sufficient to say, that they all appeared to be very improbable in themselves, and incapable of being tested by any exact calculation. Some had even supposed that, at the great distance of Uranus from the sun, the law of attraction becomes different from that of the inverse square of the distance. But the law of gravitation was too firmly established for this to be admitted till every other hypothesis had failed, and I felt convinced that in this, as in every previous instance of the kind, the discrepancies which had for a time thrown doubts on the truth of the law, would eventually afford the most striking confirmation of it.

My attention was first directed to this subject several years since, by reading Mr Airy's valuable Report on the recent progress of Astronomy. I find among my papers the following memorandum, dated July 3, 1841: "Formed a design, in the beginning of this week, of investigating, as soon as possible after taking my degree, the irregularities in the motion of Uranus, which are yet unaccounted for, in order to find whether they may be attributed to the action of an undiscovered planet beyond it, and, if possible, thence to determine approximately the elements of its orbit, etc., which would probably lead to its discovery." Accordingly, in 1843, I attempted a first solution of the problem, assuming the orbit to be a circle, with a radius equal to twice the mean distance of Uranus from the sun. Some assumption as to the mean distance was clearly necessary in the first instance, and Bode's law appeared to render it probable that the above would not be far from the truth. This investigation was founded exclusively on the modern observations, and the errors of the tables were taken from those given in the equations of condition of Bouvard's tables as far as the year 1821, and subsequently from the observations given in the Astronomische Nachrichten, and from the Cambridge and Greenwich Observations. The result showed that a good general agreement between theory and observation might be obtained; but the larger differences occurring in years where the observations used were deficient in number, and the Greenwich Planetary Observations being then in process of reduction, I applied to Mr Airy, through the kind intervention of Professor Challis, for the observations of some years in which the agreement appeared least satisfactory. The Astronomer Royal, in the kindest possible manner, sent me in February 1844 the results of all the Greenwich Observations of Uranus.

Meanwhile the Royal Academy of Sciences of Göttingen had proposed the theory of Uranus as the subject of their mathematical prize, and although the little time which I could spare from important duties in my college prevented me from attempting the complete examination of the theory which a competition for the prize would have required, yet this fact, together with the possession of such a valuable series of observations, induced me to undertake a new solution of the problem. I now took into account the most important terms depending on the first power of the eccentricity of the disturbing planet, retaining the same assumption as before with respect to the mean distance. For the modern observations, the errors of the tables were taken exclusively from the Greenwich Observations as far as the year 1830, with the exception of an observation by Bessel in 1823; and subsequently from the Cambridge and Greenwich Observations, and those given in various numbers of the Astronomische Nachrichten. The errors of the tables for the ancient observations were taken from those given in the equations of condition of Bouvard's tables. After obtaining several solutions differing little from each other, by gradually taking into account more and more terms of the series expressing the perturbations, I communicated to Professor Challis, in September 1845, the final values which I had obtained for the mass, heliocentric longitude, and elements of the orbit of the assumed planet. The same results, slightly corrected, I communicated in the following month to the Astronomer Royal. The eccentricity coming out much larger than was probable, and later observations showing that the theory founded on the first hypothesis as to the mean distance was still sensibly in error, I afterwards repeated my investigation, supposing the mean distance to be about 130\large\frac{1}{30}\normalsizeth part less than before. The result, which I communicated to Mr Airy in the beginning of September of the present year, appeared more satisfactory than my former one, the eccentricity being smaller, and the errors of theory, compared with late observations, being less, and led me to infer that the distance should be still further diminished.

In November 1845, M Le Verrier presented to the Royal Academy of Sciences, at Paris, a very complete and elaborate investigation of the theory of Uranus, as disturbed by the action of Jupiter and Saturn, in which he pointed out several small inequalities which had previously been neglected; and in June, of the present year, he followed up this investigation by a memoir, in which he attributed the residual disturbances to the action of another planet at a distance from the sun equal to twice that of Uranus, and found a longitude for the new planet agreeing very nearly with the result which I had obtained on the same hypothesis. On the 31st of August, he presented to the Academy a more complete investigation, in which he determined the mass and the elements of the orbit of the new planet, and also obtained limiting values of the mean distance and heliocentric longitude. I mention these dates merely to show that my results were arrived at independently, and previously to the publication, of those of M Le Verrier, and not with the intention of interfering with his just claims to the honours of the discovery; for there is no doubt that his researches were first published to the world, and led to the actual discovery of the planet by Dr Galle, so that the facts stated above cannot detract, in the slightest degree, from the credit due to M Le Verrier.

Last Updated March 2006