Sunday, June 5, 2011

John Couch Adams

John Couch Adams was born on June 5, 1819, in Cornwall, England. His father was a tenant farmer and his mother had a small estate. His early companions were the library of books, some on astronomy, that his mother had inherited from her uncle. At a village school in Laneast he learned algebra before the age of 12. Through his teens he avidly read books on mathematics and astronomy and in 1839 he entered St. John's College, Cambridge, graduating in 1843. Soon after graduation he obtained a fellowship and stayed at St. John's as a tutor.

After graduation he directed his attention to the problem of the irregularities in the observed orbit of the planet Uranus. The planet Uranus, visible to the naked eye, had been known since ancient times, but due to its slow orbit it was presumed to be a star. It was not until 1781 that English astronomer William Herschel identified it as a planet. Subsequent observations of its orbit showed that it had an irregular orbit, deviating what had been predicted. Using Newton's law of gravitation, Adams showed that the irregularity in Uranus' orbit was due to the presence of another planet.

In Autumn of 1845 he communicated his finding to James Challis, the director of the Cambridge Observatory, and George Airy, the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich, but neither acted upon his results until after Urbain LeVerrier, a French mathematician, published similar results the next summer. Airy attempted to find the planet but because he was using outdated star charts he failed to recognize it when he saw it, and it was instead first recognized by Johan Galle and Heinrich d'Arrest, working in Berlin, using LeVerrier's results. Precedence of the discovery was given to LeVerrier because Adams' results were not published until after the fact.

In 1851 Adams got a fellowship at Pembroke College, which he kept until his death. Also in 1851 he published corrections of the table of the moon's paralax. In 1858 he took a position of professor of mathematics at St. Andrew's University, but stayed for only one year before taking the Lowedean professorship for astronomy and geometry at St. John's College, Cambridge. In 1860 he replaced Challis as director of the Cambridge observatory. He remained at the observatory till his death. Honors won by Adams include the Copley Medal, from the Royal Society, in 1848 and though offered a knighthood during Queen Victoria's 1847 visit to Cambridge, he refused.

He died on January 21, 1892 at the Cambridge Observatory.


Sheehan, William and Thurber, Steven; "John Couch Adams's Asberger syndrome and the British non-discovery of Neptune"; Records and Notes of the Royal Society(2007)61:285-299

"Prof. John Couch Adams"; Journal of the British Astronomical Association(1893)2:196-197

Obituary in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society(1893)53:184-209

John Couch Adams Wikipedia Entry

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