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That star is not on the map!

July 10th, 2011

In Search of Planet Vulcan — The Ghost in Newton’s Clockwork Universe, by Richard Baum and William Sheehan, is one of my favorite astronomy books. It certainly has one of the best overviews of the momentous events and controversies surrounding the discovery of Neptune in September 1846. I’ll take the liberty to quote Baum and Sheehan’s recounting of the exact moment of Neptune’s discovery.

On September 18, Le Verrier wrote to Johann Gottfried Galle, then an obscure astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Berlin. A year earlier, Galle had sent Le Verrier his doctoral dissertation, which concerned observations made by 17th-century Danish astronomer Olaus Roemer. Belatedly, Le Verrier wrote to acknowledge it. Among other things, he queried Galle about Roemer’s Mercury observations, but then came quickly to his point:

“Right now I would like to find a persistent observer, who would be willing to devote some time to an examination of a part of the sky in which there may be a planet to discover… You will see, Sir, that I demonstrate that it is impossible to satisfy the observations of Uranus without introducing the action of a new Planet, thus far unknown; and, remarkably, there is only one single position in the ecliptic where this perturbing Planet can be located… The actual position of this body shows that we are now, and will be for several months, in a favorable situation for the discovery.

Galle indeed proved to be his man. He received Le Verrier’s letter on September 23, and at once sought permission from the observatory’s director, Johann Encke, to carry out the search. Encke was skeptical but nonetheless acquiesced: “Let us oblige the gentleman in Paris.” A young student astronomer, Heinrich Ludwig d’Arrest, begged to be included, and joined Galle as a volunteer observer. That night, they opened the dome to reveal the observatory’s main instrument, a 9-inch Fraunhofer refractor aimed at the spot assigned by Le Verrier. Recalculated for geocentric coordinates, its position was at right ascension 21 h, 46 min, declination -13 deg 24 min, very close to the position occupied by another planet, Saturn.

The question arose: What maps were available? At first they could think of none but “Harding’s very insufficient Atlas.” D’Arrest then suggested “it might be worth looking among the Berliner Akademische Sternkarten to see whether Hora XXI was among those already finished. On looking among a pile of maps in Encke’s hall [Vorzimmer], Dr. Bremiker’s map of Hora XXI [already engraved and printed at the beginning of 1846 but not yet distributed] was soon found.” As d’Arrest later recalled, “We then went back to the dome, where there was a kind of desk, at which I placed myself with the map, while Galle, looking through the refractor, described the configurations of the stars he saw. I followed them on the map one by one, until he [Galle] said: and then there is a star of the 8th magnitude in such and such a position, whereupon I immediately exclaimed, that star is not on the map!”

Neptune’s moment of discovery, at 11 PM Berlin local time on September 23, 1846, corresponded to 22:07 UT, or JD 2395563.4215. The period of Neptune is 60,190.03 days, or 164.79132 years. The first “Neptunian anniversary” of the discovery is therefore CE 2011 July 10 22:49:26.4 UT Sunday, that is, right now.

In 1846, photography was still in its very earliest stages, and it would be nearly two decades until the publication of Jules Verne’s De la Terre à la Lune. The fact that we greet the completion of one orbit in the possession of photographs of a crescent Neptune is a marvelous indeed.

Image Source.

Certainly, an occasion for celebration! On Friday, I got an invitational e-mail from Gaspar Bakos, who is hosting a Neptune-at-One cocktail party in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I briefly perused airfares before sadly having to decline.

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  1. July 12th, 2011 at 22:17 | #1

    ‘Tis a photo of a public house — and what is the meaning? Is it not our great hope, when we have discovered planets, and then planets with life, and then planets with sentient beings, that those beings like to take a drop or two with their mates? For what will more surely reveal a world with hopes, and fears — and dreams — like our own?!?

  2. greg
    July 13th, 2011 at 19:59 | #2


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