Great Astronomers HTML version

The illustrious mathematician who, among Englishmen, at all events, was second only to
Newton by his discoveries in theoretical astronomy, was born on June the 5th, 1819, at
the farmhouse of Lidcot, seven miles from Launceston, in Cornwall. His early education
was imparted under the guidance of the Rev. John Couch Grylls, a first cousin of his
mother. He appears to have received an education of the ordinary school type in classics
and mathematics, but his leisure hours were largely devoted to studying what
astronomical books he could find in the library of the Mechanics' Institute at Devonport.
He was twenty years old when he entered St. John's College, Cambridge. His career in
the University was one of almost unparalleled distinction, and it is recorded that his
answering at the Wranglership examination, where he came out at the head of the list in
1843, was so high that he received more than double the marks awarded to the Second
Among the papers found after his death was the following memorandum, dated July the
3rd, 1841: "Formed a design at the beginning of this week of investigating, as soon as
possible after taking my degree, the irregularities in the motion of Uranus, Which are as
yet unaccounted for, in order to find whether they may be attributed to the action of an
undiscovered planet beyond it; and, if possible, thence to determine the elements of its
orbit approximately, which would lead probably to its discovery."
After he had taken his degree, and had thus obtained a little relaxation from the lines
within which his studies had previously been necessarily confined, Adams devoted
himself to the study of the perturbations of Uranus, in accordance with the resolve which
we have just seen that he formed while he was still an undergraduate. As a first attempt
he made the supposition that there might be a planet exterior to Uranus, at a distance
which was double that of Uranus from the sun. Having completed his calculation as to the
effect which such a hypothetical planet might exercise upon the movement of Uranus, he
came to the conclusion that it would be quite possible to account completely for the
unexplained difficulties by the action of an exterior planet, if only that planet were of
adequate size and had its orbit properly placed. It was necessary, however, to follow up
the problem more precisely, and accordingly an application was made through Professor
Challis, the Director of the Cambridge Observatory, to the Astronomer Royal, with the
object of obtaining from the observations made at Greenwich Observatory more accurate
values for the disturbances suffered by Uranus. Basing his work on the more precise
materials thus available, Adams undertook his calculations anew, and at last, with his
completed results, he called at Greenwich Observatory on October the 21st, 1845. He
there left for the Astronomer Royal a paper which contained the results at which he had
arrived for the mass and the mean distance of the hypothetical planet as well as the other
elements necessary for calculating its exact position.