Le Verrier: A man unfairly remembered

The annals of science celebrate the people and their discoveries which have changed the way humanity lives, or perhaps simply pushed knowledge and understanding forward, even a little.

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Urban-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier theorised the existence of a planet called Vulcan, much to the delight of later generations of Star Trek fans. Credit: Betmman/Getty Images

But what about those scientists who have laboured mightily, strenuously put forth a proposition, only to have been proved – wrong?

On the NASA webpage devoted to French mathematician and astronomer Urban-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier, born in Saint-Lo, in north-western France, on 11 March, 1811, the US space agency states: “Le Verrier theorised that there was a second asteroid belt in our solar system. He believed the second belt was between the sun and Mercury. We now know that this second belt does not exist.”

Now, you might think NASA wouldn’t devote online resources to someone just for producing one erroneous theory, and you’d be right.

2014 article produced by the University of St Andrews school of mathematics and statistics, in Scotland, details Le Verrier’s colourful career.

As a student he excelled at mathematics and chemistry, and after leaving school he went to work in the tobacco industry, researching the combination of phosphorus with oxygen and with hydrogen, “important topics for the tobacco industry, since matches were made from phosphorus”. 

His research came to the notice of other leading scientists and he published two papers on his chemistry studies.

In 1836 he secured a position at the Ecole Polytechnique, a prestigious and selective French scientific and engineering school. The job was as an astronomy teacher and researcher.

The St Andrews article explains that Le Verrier’s first contribution to astronomy was a paper, which he presented to the Academy of Sciences in September 1839, and which considered “the problem of the stability of the solar system”.

He then worked on a study of periodic comets and was able to show that certain of them, previously thought to be distinct objects, were in fact the same object moved into a different orbit by the gravitational attraction of Jupiter.

“His work gained him considerable recognition and, on 19 January 1846, he was elected to the Academy of Sciences,” the author states.

NASA takes up the story next. By 1845 Le Verrier had become interested in the motion of the planet Uranus, which did not have the orbit scientists expected it to have. He set out to determine why. 

Through mathematical calculations, he predicted the presence of another planet beyond Uranus. This, of course, turned out to be the planet Neptune.

Le Verrier gave his calculations to astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle at the Berlin Observatory. Using Le Verrier’s calculations, Galle was able to almost immediately observe the planet. 

Le Verrier expected to be declared the sole discoverer of Neptune, NASA says, but months before he’d completed his work, John Couch Adams, an English mathematician, had accomplished the same feat. 

“As a consequence,” NASA says, “Le Verrier and Adams share the honour as Neptune’s discoverers.”

Le Verrier continued to contribute important work in astronomy. In 1855 he began investigating a discrepancy in the motion in the perihelion, the point at which it is closest to the sun, of Mercury.

On 12 September 1859, he presented a paper to the Academy of Sciences in which he attributed this discrepancy to an undiscovered planet, which he called Vulcan, or to a second asteroid belt so close to the sun as to be invisible. Perhaps it was the name Vulcan, the god of fire in Roman mythology, not to mention a key component in Star Trek mythology, but somehow this brilliant astronomer is remembered for something he failed to find.

Le Verrier and many others continued the search for Vulcan. In 1915, long after his death – which occurred in Paris on 3 September 1877 – Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity explained the orbit of Mercury without the need for perturbing bodies.

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