The Neptune File

The Neptune File is the tale of the discovery of the planet Neptune in 1846 as a result of mathematical analysis of the anomalous motion of the planet Uranus. The book tells the story of the rival mathematicians who predicted Neptune’s existence, and the ensuing race to identify it in the skies. The discovery caused an international sensation and spawned a controversy that has continued to rumble ever since. Many of the key documents relating to the discovery, which were bound into a scrapbook by the English Astronomer Royal, George Airy, went missing after the second world war and were only recovered last year from a horde of documents found in Chile. This scrapbook, the Neptune File, is the primary source for my book, which is the most detailed account yet published of the Neptune affair.   

Neptune’s existence was predicted before it was observed through a telescope, which is where the modern-day parallel comes in. Today we know of over 40 planets in orbit around other stars, none of which has ever been seen, but whose existence has been determined from mathematical analysis of the stars’ motions. So we are, in effect, half-way through a modern recapitulation of the Neptune story. (Yes folks, another historical parallel.)

The Neptune story provides a natural way to examine the entire history of planet hunting, from the discovery of Uranus in 1781 to the first asteroid (Ceres) in 1801, Neptune in 1846, Pluto (which is not really a proper planet in my opinion) in 1930, and the first extrasolar planet in 1995. Neptune, described by one NASA mission controller as “an Audrey Hepburn planet”, is the thread that runs through and links together all these stories. The book ends with a look at the future of planet hunting, and the possibility of taking pictures of planets around other suns.

“Fascinating… Like the Titanic saga, this is a tale that should be repeated every generation!” — Sir Arthur C. Clarke

“This is science writing at its best, broadening the mind even as it entertains.” — The Oregonian

“A delightful story of astronomical discovery woven with political intrigue. It’s wonderful to realize that scientists of 150 years ago ewre chasing fame and glory just as they are today. And there were the same stick-in-the-muds and crafty thinkers then as now.” — Clifford Stoll

“Standage weaves into a gripping chronology an impressive amount of information… The Neptune File will suit a wide range of readers. Its thorough documentation will satisfy science historians, but Standage’s clear accounts of the science behind the story aren’t bogged down by too much detail. It will please everyone who longs to learn more about research into planets within the Solar System and beyond.” — New Scientist