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Cambridge University astronomy graduate student John Couch Adams must have been furious when he heard the news. On its first night of observation, September 23, 1846, the Berlin Observatory had discovered the long suspected but never seen planet, soon to be known as Neptune, capping three months of world-wide anticipation. How could his mentor, Cambridge Observatory Director James Challis, have waited so long to begin searching for the planet when Adams had told him where to look the preceding fall? And why did George Biddell Airy, Britain's astronomer royal, keep Adams' computational tour de force, which had pointed directly to one of the century's greatest discoveries, under wraps for a year?
In The Neptune File, author Tom Standage tells a true story with Adams as protagonist. He not only relates the scientific quest for Neptune and other unseen planets, but also illuminates the human quest for personal recognition and national pride, with all the drama, glory, and folly such pursuits normally entail.
Airy, a distinguished scientist but an unimaginative bureaucrat, is an unlikely villain of the story. No one but conspiracy theorists would claim he deliberately set out to undermine Adams. Rather it seems he acted with misguided nationalism, seeking to secure the planet's discovery for Britain when he discovered that the French were in the race.
Soon after Airy saw Adams' calculations, he learned that the great French astronomer Urbain Jean-Joseph Le Verrier was embarking a similar mathematical quest and was planning to publish his results. Airy waited until June, when Le Verrier's preliminary calculations confirmed Adams' predicted orbit. Then he quietly recommended that Cambridge quietly undertake a systematic search.
The plan almost worked. Challis began mapping the likely celestial neighborhood in late July. A second scan of that region on August 12 detected an object that was not there two weeks earlier, but in the overwhelming collection of manual data, Challis failed to notice it. Neptune slipped through his fingers, and with it Adams' claim as discoverer.
Adams, to his credit, never disputed Le Verrier's primacy. Though the Frenchman was second to calculate the planetary orbit, he had published first. In time, astronomers gave Adams his share of the glory, and he went on to have a distinguished career. Challis never fully shook off the embarrassment of a missed opportunity, and Airy never fully regained the respect of the astronomical community.
Le Verrier, overbearing and brilliant, changed little and achieved much both before and after the Neptune affair, though his transparent efforts to orchestrate the naming of the planet in his honor failed. Oddly, he and the modest Adams developed a long lasting personal and professional friendship.
At the end of his compelling tale, Mr. Standage looks to the future. Astronomers are discovering extra-solar planets at the rate of approximately one per month, and hints of planetary systems like ours are emerging. Within a few decades, perhaps sooner, researchers will probably report the discovery of the first Earth-like planet orbiting another star. Competing groups will probably squabble about who deserves the credit, forgetting that the discovery itself is what matters most, and displaying the wonderful glories and foibles of being human.