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The Discovery of Neptune (1845–1846)

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Part of the Astrophysics and Space Science Library book series (ASSL,volume 397)


The discovery of Neptune has been the subject of an immense literature, for it was undeniably one of the major scientific events of the nineteenth century. It is well known that the effort to discover the perturbing planet responsible for the abnormal behavior of Uranus was carried out simultaneously in England and France, and that La Verrier was the first to announce the discovery, John Couch Adams having independently obtained similar results. From these events, interminable controversies followed, in which nationalism played a large role, and even today they are not totally extinguished.But at least it is now possible to look at these matters with cooler heads, and with relative neutrality.


  • Asperger Syndrome
  • Orbital Element
  • Semimajor Axis
  • Monthly Notice
  • Royal Greenwich Observatory

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  1. 1.

    In 1880, Gaillot, the only pupil of Le Verrier, wrote (Gaillot 1880, p. 103): “There had been in the past discussions, more passionate than impartial, about the priority of the discovery; today, the question is settled: to each one his due, and the mutual esteem between the two scientists proves that both, at least, were giving justice to each other. But it is to Le Verrier alone that the discovery of the planet is due.” However controversies revived from time to time.

  2. 2.

    *CRAS 21 (1845) pp. 524–525.

  3. 3.

    These letters are preserved in the archives of the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Cambridge, UK, in Papers of George Airy, general ref. GBR/0180/RGO 6. Important extracts are to be found in °Airy, G.B. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 7, 121–144, (1846).

  4. 4.

    *CRAS 21 (1845) pp. 1050–1055.

  5. 5.

    *CRAS 22 (1846) pp. 907–918.

  6. 6.

    Jean-Baptiste Biot attempted to explain Le Verrier’s methods in six papers in *Journal des Savants (October 1846, pp. 577–596; November 1846, pp. 641–664; December 1846, pp. 750–768; January 1847, pp. 18–35; February 1847, pp. 65–86; March 1847, pp. 182–187). Arrived at the third paper, he writes: “As I progress in the task I have undertaken, the difculty of the subject seems to increase.” In order to understand what Le Verrier did, the best thing is to read his own papers. A more elementary account can be found in *Tisserand and Andoyer (1912) pp. 279–288.

  7. 7.

    Centenaire de la naissance de Le Verrier (1911), pp. 12–13. In a considerably later letter from Airy to Le Verrier dated 20 December 1876 (BOP, MS 1072 (35)), he adds further details: “The part which depends on calculation of observations was to be divided between Bessel and me. Such work required generally only ordinary powers of judgment. But I believe that both Bessel and I looked, with a doubtful hope, to the possibility that our work would at some time be reconciled with theory. But at that time there was no Le Verrier; I was one of the few persons who might rashly have taken up the enterprise, but my time has always been very heavily subscribed. In discriminating amongst the various persons concerned in this great enterprise, we must give a very high position to Bessel. The failing of his rst discussion of Bradley’s observations have been well pointed out by you; but they did not in any case greatly affect the results as for planets: and in proceeding downwards along the course of time by uniform scale, they were practically annihilated. But I must say that Bessel, in the construction of his Tabulae Regiomontanae, showed himself as the rst man who profoundly felt that Astronomy is a science of connection and comparison. And my perception of this point in his character and the character of his work induced me to undertake (using his work as foundation) the reductions which you state to have been so useful to you.”

  8. 8.

    *CRAS 23 (1846) pp. 428–438.

  9. 9.

    *CRAS 23 (1846) pp. 657–659.

  10. 10.

    Centenaire de la naissance de Le Verrier (1911), p. 19.

  11. 11.

    Centenaire de la naissance de Le Verrier (1911), pp. 20–22.

  12. 12.

    Heinrich d’Arrest is the one who gave to Galle the idea of using this map, allowing him to work very fast.

  13. 13.

    One nds several spellings for this observatory: Pulkova, Pulkowa, Poulkova, Poulkovo.

  14. 14.

    *CRAS 23 (1846) pp. 657–659.

  15. 15.

    Congratulation letters from Encke, Schumacher, Plantamour, Otto Struve, de Vico, Littrow, Valz and Airy are published in Centenaire de la naissance de Le Verrier (1911).

  16. 16.

    Wartmann is often cited by the UFO fans as having observed one in 1831.

  17. 17.

    *CRAS 2 (1836) pp. 307–311.

  18. 18.

    *CRAS 23 (1846) pp. 741–754.

  19. 19.

    See Centenaire de la naissance de Le Verrier (1911), pp. 51–52.

  20. 20.

    *CRAS 25 (1847) pp. 465–466.

  21. 21.

    Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1 (1846–48), pp. 286–295.

  22. 22.

    From a contemporary article in *Revue des deux mondes.

  23. 23.

    Letter reproduced by Bigourdan in Annu. BdL for 1933, pp. A.30–A.33.

  24. 24.

    From Tisserand (1889–1899) t. 1, p. 375.

  25. 25.

    Reproduced in Centenaire de la naissance de Le Verrier (1911), pp. 29–30.

  26. 26.

    Centenaire de la naissance de Le Verrier (1911), pp. 30–33.

  27. 27.

    On the role of John Herschel, see Kollerstrom, N.: John Herschel on the discovery of Neptune, °J. Astron. Hist. Herit. 9 151–158 (2006).

  28. 28.

    One researcher (Kollerstrom 2006) has shed doubt on the insistence of Airy during the Board of Visitors meeting. It is however clear that he persuaded Challis on July 9 of the necessity to search for the planet.

  29. 29.

    *CRAS 23 (1846) pp. 751–754.

  30. 30.

    °Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 7 (1846) pp. 121–144. There is a long article by Airy on the discovery of Neptune in Astronomische Nachrichten 25 (1847) pp. 133–160.

  31. 31.

    See Kollerstrom, N.: A hiatus in history: the British claim for Neptune’s co-prediction, 1845–1846. Sci. Hist. Publ. 44, 1–51 (2006), and Sheehan, W., Kollerstrom, N., Waff, C.: The case of the Pilfered Planet. Sci. Am. 291(6), 92–99 (2004).

  32. 32.

    Sheehan, W., Thurber, S.: John Couch Adam’s Asperger syndrome and the British non-discovery of Neptune, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 61, 285–299 (2007).

  33. 33.

    °Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 7 (1846) p. 142.

  34. 34.

    See Kollerstrom N. (2006) op.cit. p. 33.

  35. 35.

    Heinrich Christian Schumacher, director of the Altona Observatory near Hamburg, created the most important astronomy journal of the time, the Astronomische Nachrichten, and was at a consequence at the center of European astronomy.

  36. 36.

    Contrary to planets, comets are designated by the name of their discoverer; actually, it was Pons who discovered the comet in question, but because Encke found previous observations and showed that this comet had the shortest known period, his name has been attached to it. The same thing had occurred before with Halley’s comet.

  37. 37.

    *CRAS 23 (1846) p. 662.

  38. 38.

    Le Verrier U.-J.-J. (1846) Recherches sur les mouvements de la planète Herschel (dite Uranus), Connaissance des temps for 1849, Additions, pp. 3–254. The memoir contains most of Le Verrier’s work leading to the discovery of Neptune. The cited text is a note at the bottom of p. 3. See also the letter of Le Verrier to Schumacher in Astronomische Nachrichten (1847) 25, pp. 237–238.

  39. 39.

    See in particular Astronomische Nachrichten (1847) 25, pp. 192–196 (Encke) and pp. 309–314 (Challis). The name of Neptune appears to have been denitively adopted in May 1847.

  40. 40.

    Lettre reproduced by Bigourdan in Annu. BdL for 1933, pp. A.30–A.33.


  • Kollerstrom, N.: John Herschel on the discovery of Neptune. J. Astron. Hist. Herit. 9, 151–158 (2006)

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  • *Tisserand, F., Andoyer, H.: Leçons de cosmographie, 6e éd. Armand Colin, Paris (1912)

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Lequeux, J. (2013). The Discovery of Neptune (1845–1846). In: Le Verrier—Magnificent and Detestable Astronomer. Astrophysics and Space Science Library, vol 397. Springer, New York, NY.

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