Great Astronomers HTML version
The name of Le Verrier is one that goes down to fame on account of very different
discoveries from those which have given renown to several of the other astronomers
whom we have mentioned. We are sometimes apt to identify the idea of an astronomer
with that of a man who looks through a telescope at the stars; but the word astronomer
has really much wider significance. No man who ever lived has been more entitled to be
designated an astronomer than Le Verrier, and yet it is certain that he never made a
telescopic discovery of any kind. Indeed, so far as his scientific achievements have been
concerned, he might never have looked through a telescope at all.
For the full interpretation of the movements of the heavenly bodies, mathematical
knowledge of the most advanced character is demanded. The mathematician at the outset
calls upon the astronomer who uses the instruments in the observatory, to ascertain for
him at various times the exact positions occupied by the sun, the moon, and the planets.
These observations, obtained with the greatest care, and purified as far as possible from
the errors by which they may be affected form, as it were, the raw material on which the
mathematician exercises his skill. It is for him to elicit from the observed places the true
laws which govern the movements of the heavenly bodies. Here is indeed a task in which
the highest powers of the human intellect may be worthily employed.
Among those who have laboured with the greatest success in the interpretation of the
observations made with instruments of precision, Le Verrier holds a highly honoured
place. To him it has been given to provide a superb illustration of the success with which
the mind of man can penetrate the deep things of Nature.
The illustrious Frenchman, Urban Jean Joseph Le Verrier, was born on the 11th March,
1811, at St. Lo, in the department of Manche. He received his education in that famous
school for education in the higher branches of science, the Ecole Polytechnique, and
acquired there considerable fame as a mathematician. On leaving the school Le Verrier at
first purposed to devote himself to the public service, in the department of civil
engineering; and it is worthy of note that his earliest scientific work was not in those
mathematical researches in which he was ultimately to become so famous. His duties in
the engineering department involved practical chemical research in the laboratory. In this
he seems to have become very expert, and probably fame as a chemist would have been
thus attained, had not destiny led him into another direction. As it was, he did engage in
some original chemical research. His first contributions to science were the fruits of his
laboratory work; one of his papers was on the combination of phosphorus and hydrogen,
and another on the combination of phosphorus and oxygen.
His mathematical labours at the Ecole Polytechnique had, however, revealed to Le
Verrier that he was endowed with the powers requisite for dealing with the subtlest
instruments of mathematical analysis. When he was twenty-eight years old, his first great
astronomical investigation was brought forth. It will be necessary to enter into some