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The Neptune File
Tom Standage
In 1841, while browsing in a Cambridge bookshop, a young English student named John Couch Adams happened upon a perplexed remark in an astronomical report on the erratic behavior of the planet Uranus. A gifted mathematician, Adams set about arriving at an explanation, commenting to a fellow student, "You see, Uranus is a long way out of his course. I mean to find out why." Eventually, he did, using not direct observation but, controversially, mathematical modeling of a sort that has become commonplace today. Adams's work, built in a close race against rival French scientist Urbain Le Verrier, eventually established that Uranus's path was influenced by the gravitational pull of the then unseen planet of Neptune; Standage credits both Adams and Le Verrier with its discovery.

Drawing on long-forgotten archives, including a scrapbook by the author of the remark that fired Adams's imagination, science correspondent Tom Standage serves up a fine tale of discovery. His story begins with the earliest scientific descriptions of Uranus, an annoyingly wayward planet whose "position in the sky obstinately refused to match up with the position predicted by theory"--the classical theory, that is, of a regular, clockwork universe, which obtained in Adams's day and would not quite be laid to rest until Einstein's time. Standage's story continues to the present, an era when astronomers are, it seems, discovering new planets at every turn. Thanks to Adams and Le Verrier, Standage writes at the end of this graceful book, "Uranus lit the way to Neptune--and Neptune now points the way to the stars." --Gregory McNamee

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