John Couch Adams – The Stargazy Cornishman and the search for Neptune

If you google ‘how to find a new planet’ an article published in The Guardian in May pops up.  In recent months, it reports, NASA has discovered 1200 new planets orbiting distant stars in far off solar systems. In just the last couple of weeks a possible “earth-like” planet has also been discovered.  How far we have come and how deep we can reach into space makes it seem all the more improbable that it is only a mere 86 years since Pluto, the farthest planet (I know, debateable) in our own solar system, was discovered.

Back in the early 19th century however, according to thinking at the time, there were still only 6 planets including our own.  Finding a new planet in the night sky with the telescopes that they had back then was in many ways more luck than judgement.

And it was a Cornishman who lucked out and discovered Neptune, well, more to the point he predicted the existence of Neptune, because that’s what you did apparently, you found the signs of its existence, you didn’t actually see the planet itself.  (Are you picking up on to the fact that science was not my forte at school, along with maths and netball?)

John Couch Adams was born in Lidcott in North Cornwall in 1819 and I know he had no problem with maths at school! The young farmer’s son showed a natural aptitude to algebra and developed an early passion for astronomy after seeing Halley’s Comet in the clear Cornish skies in 1835.

While still an undergraduate at Cambridge in 1841, Adams made notes that he had decided to investigate:-

… the irregularities of the motion of Uranus…in order to find out whether they may be attributed to the action of an undiscovered planet beyond it.

Adams became convinced of the existence of another planet. However he was it seems a unassuming man, many of the other students hardly recalled him, those who did said he was a neat, quiet fellow in a faded green frock coat and not much else. True to his nature Adams only made his findings concerning the new planet known to his small inner circle of like-minded friends.  He did hand in a report in September 1845 to the Cambridge Observatory and this was passed onto the Royal Observatory at Greenwich but it didn’t cause much of a ripple.

When the Frenchman Urbain Le Verrier announced his ‘discovery’ of the possible location of a new planet in 1846 Adams made little attempt at a counter claim, in fact he is said to have written a paper in which he bashfully congratulated Le Verrier on his success.  It was Adams’ friends who reminded the scientific community of his earlier work and in the end the Royal Observatory had to admit their mistake. As a result both men were given the credit for Neptune’s discovery.

Adams went on to work quietly within the field of astronomy for

KODAK Digital Still Camera
Memorial to Adams in Truro Cathedral

the rest of his life teaching and making many other discoveries mostly around comets and meteors. He gained honorary degrees from Oxford, Dublin, Edinburgh, and Bologna and  was elected to the Royal Society, the St Petersburg Academy and to The Academy of Sciences.  But Adams was never one to boast of his achievements and it is said that when he was offered a knighthood in 1847 he turned it down. His own students remembered him mostly for setting them dastardly maths problems to solve.

I think Adams is a wonderful character who despite perhaps his own wishes shouldn’t be allowed to fade into the background.  We as a race have always been so fascinated by what lies beyond our own blue planet and that fascination continues to the present day in our culture and our scientific strivings.  It was men like Adams who were at the forefront of each new discovery that pushed us little by little to where we are today – gazing at a planet like our own 500 light years away.

Because of our long mining heritage there is a saying in Cornwall that if there is a hole anywhere in the world you will find a Cornishman at the bottom of it, I like to think that there is a Cornishman amongst the stars too.

For another clever Cornishman try : The Singular Mr Daniel Gumb & his house of rocks

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