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Leverrier and Neptune

Last updated: July 22, 1998

On April 2, 1997 I sent this letter to Scientific American, editors@sciam.com:

Reappraising Leverrier's discovery of Neptune

In the December 1996 issue ("50, 100 and 150 Years Ago", p. 14) you quote the December 1846 Scientific American, with regard to Leverrier's discovery of Neptune:

This discovery is perhaps the greatest triumph of science upon record. [...] He calculates its place in the heavens, with such precision, that astronomers [...] have all succeeded in finding it.

Please compare with the following (the quotation is from Charles Fort's "New Lands", in The Complete Books of Charles Fort, chapter 2):

In The Story of the Heavens, Sir Robert Ball's opinion of the discovery of Neptune is that it is a triumph unparalleled in the annals of science. He lavishes -- the great astronomer Leverrier, buried for months in profound meditations -- the dramatic moment -- Leverrier rises from his calculations and points to the sky -- "Lo!" there a new planet is found.

My desire is not so much to agonize over the single fraudulencies or delusions, as to typify the means by which the science of Astronomy has established and maintained itself:

According to Leverrier, there was a planet external to Uranus; according to Hansen, there were two; according to Airy, "doubtful if there were one."

One planet was found -- so calculated Leverrier, in his profound meditations. Suppose two had been found -- confirmation of the brilliant computations by Hansen. None -- the opinion of the great astronomer, Sir George Airy.

Leverrier calculated that the hypothetic planet was at a distance from the sun, within the limits of 35 and 37.9 times this earth's distance from the sun. The new planet was found in a position said to be 30 times this earth's distance from the sun. The discrepancy was so great that, in the United States, astronomers refused to accept that Neptune had been discovered by means of calculation: see such publications as the American Journal of Science, of the period. Upon Aug. 29, 1849, Dr. Babinet read, to the French Academy, a paper in which he showed that, by the observations of three years, the revolution of Neptune would have to be placed at 165 years. Between the limits of 207 and 233 years was the period that Leverrier had calculated. [...]

So it is our expression that hosts of astronomers calculate, and calculation-mad, calculate and calculate and calculate, and that, when one of them does point within 600,000,000 miles (by conventional measurements) of something that is found, he is the Leverrier of the text-books; that the others are the Prof. Chases not of the text-books.

If Mr. Fort's assertions are correct, then the alleged "discovery by calculation" is possibly the greatest swindle of science upon record. We can find illustrious and outstanding thinkers among the victims: Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon (see Models of Discovery) and Sir Karl Raimund Popper (Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, §8):

The general assumption of the truth of Newton's theory was of course the result of its incredible success, culminating in the discovery of the planet Neptune.

Dan Schlenoff, Researcher, dschlenoff@sciam.com, promptly replied:
Thanks for your e-mail. Few articles from the older editions stand up well to the test of time (perhaps the same will be said for the articles we are publishing now). Leverrier's planet in the end matched neither the orbit, size, location or any other significant characteristic of the planet Neptune, but he still garners most of the credit for discovering it. Most discoveries seem to have two stories: the person with the most name; and the story of those who did the work/got it right.

Andrea Bernagozzi, Astrophysics student at the Osservatorio Astronomico di Brera in Milan, Italy, sends me these very interesting links:


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