Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 74.djvu/498

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494
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

THE CLOSING OF A FAMOUS ASTRONOMICAL PROBLEM
By Professor W. W. CAMPBELL

DIRECTOR OF THE LICK OBSERVATORY

THERE is perhaps no more striking illustration of the power of scientific method than that relating to the discovery of Neptune in 1846. The planet Uranus, until then the outermost known member of our solar system, refused to follow the path computed for it by mathematical astronomers. With the progress of time the discrepancies between its predicted and observed positions grew constantly larger until, in the early eighteen-forties, the discordance amounted to fully 75 seconds of arc. This is a small angle—not more than one twenty-fifth the angular diameter of our moon—yet a very large angle to refined astronomy, for a discrepancy of two seconds would have been detected with ease. The opinion gradually developed that Uranus was drawn from its natural course by the attractions of an undiscovered planet still farther from the sun than itself. Adams in 1843 and Le Verrier in 1845, independently, and each without knowledge of the other's plans, attacked the then extremely difficult problem of determining the approximate orbit, mass and position of an undiscovered body whose attractions should produce the perturbations observed. Regrettable and avoidable delays occurred in searching for the planet after Adams's results were communicated to the astronomer royal, in October, 1845. Le Verrier's results were communicated to the Berlin Observatory in September, 1846, with the request that a search be made. The disturbing planet, later named Neptune, was found on the first evening that it was looked for, less than one degree of arc from the position assigned by Le Verrier. If an energetic search had been made in England the year before, the planet would have been discovered within two degrees of the position assigned by Adams.

The above résumé of this unsurpassed achievement of the human mind forms a natural prelude to the present article, as it was the immediate forerunner of another problem, famous for half a century, which has now been brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

The determination of the orbit of the planet Mercury gave great difficulty to its investigators, principally from two causes:

1. Being the innermost known planet in our system, remaining always near the sun, and usually lost to view in the sun's glare, fairly