Person: Adams, John Couch
John Couch Adams was an astronomer and mathematician who was the first person to predict the position of a planet beyond Uranus.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- It is particularly fitting that this should be the case since John Couch provided some education for Tabitha who inherited his library which included several astronomy books.
- It was this library, particularly the astronomy books in it, which fired John's interest as he grew up.
- John attended the nearby village school at Laneast, where he studied Greek and algebra, until he was twelve years old when he went to a private school at Devonport run by his cousin the Revd John Couch Grylls.
- Adams was educated at St John's College, Cambridge but this was only made possible by a number of fortuitous circumstances.
- Also in 1843 he became first Smith's Prizeman and he became a Fellow of St John's College.
- In September 1845 Adams gave accurate information on the position of the new planet to James Challis, director of the Cambridge Observatory.
- Challis gave Adams a letter of introduction to Airy, the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich.
- Adams twice called at Greenwich during October attempting to see Airy, but he had not made an appointment and was unsuccessful.
- He did leave the data giving his predicted position which Airy received and sent a letter to Adams with what he considered a vital question.
- Adams felt that Airy's question was trivial and so did not reply.
- Urbain Le Verrier's prediction was published in June 1846 while Adams' prediction was still only known to Challis and Airy.
- Despite this published prediction being close to that of Adams, he still made no claim regarding his precedence.
- Strangely, Airy wrote to Le Verrier with the same question he had posed to Adams, but still did not mention Adams' prediction (in fact Adams' name was not mentioned).
- The Royal Astronomical Society was in a difficult position over Adams and Le Verrier.
- At its meeting on 14 November 1846, as well as communications from Airy and Challis explaining their actions regarding Adams' prediction, a paper from Adams was read entitled Explanation of the observed irregularities in the motion of Uranus.
- Adams was, however, awarded the Gold Medal in 1866 for his work on the lunar perigee and acceleration.
- In 1852 Adam's fellowship at St John's College ended so he effectively became unemployed although he continued his research.
- Adams became Regius Professor of Mathematics at St Andrews in October 1857.
- Challis and Stokes approached Adams to take on the directorship in place of Challis who wished to leave the post.
- Adams was interested in theoretical work, not in observing, so he made conditions that he would not have to observe or process data.
- In October 1862 Adams met Elizabeth Bruce, from Dublin, who was a friend of Stokes's wife.
- They met again in December when Adams went to Ireland to offer the senior assistant position to Andrew Graham, director of Markree observatory.
- Adams's made many other contributions to astronomy, notably his studies of the Leonid meteor shower.
- Adams spent much effort on the complex problem of a description of the motion of the Moon, giving a theory which was more accurate than that of Laplace.
- It is fair to say that the French were not pleased to see Adams correcting Laplace, particularly since they had reacted angrily a few years earlier when they saw him as attempting to detract from Le Verrier's glory.
- Adams also studied terrestrial magnetism, determined the Gaussian magnetic constants at every point on the Earth and produced maps with contour lines of equal magnetic variation which were published after his death.
- Adams will be best remembered, however, for his role as the co-discoverer of Neptune.
- We return to this topic now since the difference between his role in that discovery and that of Le Verrier is more clearly understood when Adams's character is studied.
- Always meticulous, Adams had a reputation for constructing mathematical questions for his students which were admired by all for their beauty (except perhaps the students being examined!).
- After the discovery of Neptune, Adams first met Le Verrier in Oxford in June 1847.
- Adams, as President of the Society, gave the address when Le Verrier received the Gold Medal again in 1876 for his theories of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
- In October 1889 Adams became seriously ill with a stomach haemorrhage.
- The portrait above was taken when he was in St Andrews by the pioneer photographer John Adamson.
Born 5 June 1819, Lidcott, near Launceston, Cornwall, England. Died 21 January 1892, Cambridge, England.
View full biography at MacTutor
Tags relevant for this person:
Astronomy, Origin England, Physics
Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive