Illustration of Discovery of Neptune

1846 Discovery of Neptune

The book of science

Tom Sharp

John Couch Adams, Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier, Johann Gottfried Galle astronomy Illustration of Discovery of Neptune

Discovery of Neptune

Uranus was misbehaving. For years it had been speeding up then it started slowing down, pulled in both directions from its expected orbit by an unknown planet further from the sun. Mathematicians rushed to work to calculate the location of the unseen attractor and capture the praise of the world. John Couch Adams in Britain had the solution first but couldn’t convince an astronomer to look, which gave the prize to the French. Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier helped astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle quickly spot the planetary disk. The popular press had a heyday. A new planet was big news. Invisibly, it expanded our lives. A thing that had been nameless had been given a name. A god of the sea that had been dead had been resurrected in the sky.

Blinded by love

Seeing things, hearing voices, and believing what we cannot know, we gaze into our lover’s eyes full as crystal balls, and believe that we are seeing what we fear or what we favor. Or we deny the obvious— how we depend on everything on others, whom we defy, taking, but not giving enough. After death or separation promises thwarted, lost, violated, abandoned, victim of a series of acts of God, narcissism becomes pathological little else matters more. Or, having nothing, we need too much and give more than we should like a fire that burns up everything but the stones. Self-diagnosis is unreliable for lunatics and geniuses. And even normal people— not dulled or complacent— should be continually falling in love with everything they see.


Before the discovery of the outer planets ephemerides were thinner and astrologers had fewer explanations for oddball personalities. Being born with Neptune under Libra and Jupiter in retrograde under Pisces has a lot to say for a person that otherwise might be difficult to articulate.

Discovery of a new planet was big news. Invisibly, it expanded our lives. It at least renewed the use of a name for something that we might agree could mean something similar from one person to the next.

Ephemerides, books of tables giving the positions of the planets in the zodiac, are used with our dates and times of birth by astrologers to convey a sense of scientific credibility to their generalities and rules of thumb.

See also in The book of science:

Readings in wikipedia: