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 Wrangler.
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.
As we have seen in the preceding chapter, Le Verrier had been also investigating the same problem. The place which Le Verrier assigned to the hypothetical disturbing planet for the beginning of the year 1847, was within a degree of that to which Adams's computations pointed, and which he had communicated to the Astronomer Royal seven months before Le Verrier's work appeared. On July the 29th, 1846, Professor Challis commenced to search for the unknown object with the Northumberland telescope belonging to the Cambridge Observatory. He confined his attention to a limited region in the heavens, extending around that point to which Mr. Adams' calculations pointed. The relative places of all the stars, or rather star-like objects within this area, were to be carefully measured. When the same observations were repeated a week or two later, then the distances of the several pairs of stars from each other would be found unaltered, but any planet which happened to lie among the objects measured would disclose its existence by the alterations in distance due to its motion in the interval. This method of search, though no doubt it must ultimately have proved successful, was necessarily a very tedious one, but to Professor Challis, unfortunately, no other method was available. Thus it happened that, though Challis commenced his search at Cambridge two months earlier than Galle at Berlin, yet, as we have already explained, the possession of accurate star-maps by Dr. Galle enabled him to discover the planet on the very first night that he looked for it.
The rival claims of Adams and Le Verrier to the discovery of Neptune, or rather, we should say, the claims put forward by their respective champions, for neither of the illustrious investigators themselves condescended to enter into the personal aspect of the question, need not be further discussed here. The main points of the controversy have been long since settled, and we cannot do better than quote the words of Sir John Herschel when he addressed the Royal Astronomical Society in 1848:--
"As genius and destiny have joined the names of Le Verrier and Adams, I shall by no means put them asunder; nor will they ever be pronounced apart so long as language shall celebrate the triumphs Of science in her sublimest walks. On the great discovery of Neptune, which may be said to have surpassed, by intelligible and legitimate means, the wildest pretensions of clairvoyance, it Would now be quite superfluous for me to dilate. That glorious event and the steps which led to it, and the various lights in which it has been placed, are already familiar to every one having the least tincture of science. I will only add that as there is not, nor henceforth ever can be, the slightest rivalry on the subject between these two illustrious men--as they have met as brothers, and as such will, I trust, ever regard each other--we have made, we could make, no distinction between then, on this occasion. May they both long adorn and augment our science, and add to their own fame already so high and pure, by fresh achievements."
Adams was elected a Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1843; but as he did not take holy orders, his Fellowship, in accordance with the rules then existing came to an end in 1852. In the following year he was, however, elected to a Fellowship at Pembroke College, which he retained until the end of his life. In 1858 he was appointed Professor of Mathematics in the University of St. Andrews, but his residence in the north was only a brief one, for in the same year he was recalled to Cambridge as Lowndean Professor of Astronomy and Geometry, in succession to Peacock. In 1861 Challis retired from the Directorship of the Cambridge Observatory, and Adams was appointed to succeed him.
The discovery of Neptune was a brilliant inauguration of the astronomical career of Adams. He worked at, and wrote upon, the theory of the motions of Biela's comet; he made important corrections to the theory of Saturn; he investigated the mass of Uranus, a subject in which he was naturally interested from its importance in the theory of Neptune; he also improved the methods of computing the orbits of double stars. But all these must be regarded as his minor labours, for next to the discovery of Neptune the fame of Adams mainly rests on his researches upon certain movements of the moon, and upon the November meteors.
The periodic time of the moon is the interval required for one circuit of its orbit. This interval is known with accuracy at the present day, and by means of the ancient eclipses the period of the moon's revolution two thousand years ago can be also ascertained. It had been discovered by Halley that the period which the moon requires to accomplish each of its revolutions around the earth has been steadily, though no doubt slowly, diminishing. The change thus produced is not appreciable when only small intervals of time are considered, but it becomes appreciable when we have to deal with intervals of thousands of years. The actual effect which is produced by the lunar acceleration, for so this phenomenon is called, may be thus estimated. If we suppose that the moon had, throughout the ages, revolved around the earth in precisely the same periodic time which it has at present, and if from this assumption we calculate back to find where the moon must have been about two thousand years ago, we obtain a position which the ancient eclipses show to be different from that in which the moon was actually situated. The interval between the position in which the moon would have been found two thousand years ago if there had been no acceleration, and the position in which the moon was actually placed, amounts to about a degree, that is to say, to an arc on the heavens which is twice the moon's apparent diameter.
If no other bodies save the earth and the moon were present in the universe, it seems certain that the motion of the moon would never have exhibited this acceleration. In such a simple case as that which I have supposed the orbit of the moon would have remained for ever absolutely unchanged. It is, however, well known that the presence of the sun exerts a disturbing influence upon the movements of the moon. In each revolution our satellite is continually drawn aside by the action of the sun from the place which it would otherwise have occupied. These irregularities are known as the perturbations of the lunar orbit, they have long been studied, and the majority of them have been satisfactorily accounted for. It seems, however, to those who first investigated the question that the phenomenon of the lunar acceleration could not be explained as a consequence of solar perturbation, and, as no other agent competent to produce such effects was recognised by astronomers, the lunar acceleration presented an unsolved enigma.
At the end of the last century the illustrious French mathematician Laplace undertook a new investigation of the famous problem, and was rewarded with a success which for a long time appeared to be quite complete. Let us suppose that the moon lies directly between the earth and the sun, then both earth and moon are pulled towards the sun by the solar attraction; as, however, the moon is the nearer of the two bodies to the attracting centre it is pulled the more energetically, and consequently there is an increase in the distance between the earth and the moon. Similarly when the moon happens to lie on the other side of the earth, so that the earth is interposed directly between the moon and the sun, the solar attraction exerted upon the earth is more powerful than the same influence upon the moon. Consequently in this case, also, the distance of the moon from the earth is increased by the solar disturbance. These instances will illustrate the general truth, that, as one of the consequences of the disturbing influence exerted by the sun upon the earth-moon system, there is an increase in the dimensions of the average orbit which the moon describes around the earth. As the time required by the moon to accomplish a journey round the earth depends upon its distance from the earth, it follows that among the influences of the sun upon the moon there must be an enlargement of the periodic time, from what it would have been had there been no solar disturbing action.
This was known long before the time of Laplace, but it did not directly convey any explanation of the lunar acceleration. It no doubt amounted to the assertion that the moon's periodic time was slightly augmented by the disturbance, but it did not give any grounds for suspecting that there was a continuous change in progress. It was, however, apparent that the periodic time was connected with the solar disturbance, so that, if there were any alteration in the amount of the sun's disturbing effect, there must be a corresponding alteration in the moon's periodic time. Laplace, therefore, perceived that, if he could discover any continuous change in the ability of the sun for disturbing the moon, he would then have accounted for a continuous change in the moon's periodic time, and that thus an explanation of the long-vexed question of the lunar acceleration might be forthcoming.
The capability of the sun for disturbing the earth-moon system is obviously connected with the distance of the earth from the sun. If the earth moved in an orbit which underwent no change whatever, then the efficiency of the sun as a disturbing agent would not undergo any change of the kind which was sought for. But if there were any alteration in the shape or size of the earth's orbit, then that might involve such changes in the distance between the earth and the sun as would possibly afford the desired agent for producing the observed lunar effect. It is known that the earth revolves in an orbit which, though nearly circular, is strictly an ellipse. If the earth were the only planet revolving around the sun then that ellipse would remain unaltered from age to age. The earth is, however, only one of a large number of planets which circulate around the great luminary, and are guided and controlled by his supreme attracting power. These planets mutually attract each other, and in consequence of their mutual attractions the orbits of the planets are disturbed from the simple elliptic form which they would otherwise possess. The movement of the earth, for instance, is not, strictly speaking, performed in an elliptical orbit. We may, however, regard it as revolving in an ellipse provided we admit that the ellipse is itself in slow motion.
It is a remarkable characteristic of the disturbing effects of the planets that the ellipse in which the earth is at any moment moving always retains the same length; that is to say, its longest diameter is invariable. In all other respects the ellipse is continually changing. It alters its position, it changes its plane, and, most important of all, it changes its eccentricity. Thus, from age to age the shape of the track which the earth describes may at one time be growing more nearly a circle, or at another time may be departing more widely from a circle. These alterations are very small in amount, and they take place with extreme slowness, but they are in incessant progress, and their amount admits of being accurately calculated. At the present time, and for thousands of years past, as well as for thousands of years to come, the eccentricity of the earth's orbit is diminishing, and consequently the orbit described by the earth each year is becoming more nearly circular. We must, however, remember that under all circumstances the length of the longest axis of the ellipse is unaltered, and consequently the size of the track which the earth describes around the sun is gradually increasing. In other words, it may be said that during the present ages the average distance between the earth and the sun is waxing greater in consequence of the perturbations which the earth experiences from the attraction of the other planets. We have, however, already seen that the efficiency of the solar attraction for disturbing the moon's movement depends on the distance between the earth and the sun. As therefore the average distance between the earth and the sun is increasing, at all events during the thousands of years over which our observations extend, it follows that the ability of the sun for disturbing the moon must be gradually diminishing.
It has been pointed out that, in consequence of the solar disturbance, the orbit of the moon must be some what enlarged. As it now appears that the solar disturbance is on the whole declining, it follows that the orbit of the moon, which has to be adjusted relatively to the average value of the solar disturbance, must also be gradually declining. In other words, the moon must be approaching nearer to the earth in consequence of the alterations in the eccentricity of the earth's orbit produced by the attraction of the other planets. It is true that the change in the moon's position thus arising is an extremely small one, and the consequent effect in accelerating the moon's motion is but very slight. It is in fact almost imperceptible, except when great periods of time are involved. Laplace undertook a calculation on this subject. He knew what the efficiency of the planets in altering the dimensions of the earth's orbit amounted to; from this he was able to determine the changes that would be propagated into the motion of the moon. Thus he ascertained, or at all events thought he had ascertained, that the acceleration of the moon's motion, as it had been inferred from the observations of the ancient eclipses which have been handed down to us, could be completely accounted for as a consequence of planetary perturbation. This was regarded as a great scientific triumph. Our belief in the universality of the law of gravitation would, in fact, have been seriously challenged unless some explanation of the lunar acceleration had been forthcoming. For about fifty years no one questioned the truth of Laplace's investigation. When a mathematician of his eminence had rendered an explanation of the remarkable facts of observation which seemed so complete, it is not surprising that there should have been but little temptation to doubt it. On undertaking a new calculation of the same question, Professor Adams found that Laplace had not pursued this approximation sufficiently far, and that consequently there was a considerable error in the result of his analysis. Adams, it must be observed, did not impugn the value of the lunar acceleration which Halley had deduced from the observations, but what he did show was, that the calculation by which Laplace thought he had provided an explanation of this acceleration was erroneous. Adams, in fact, proved that the planetary influence which Laplace had detected only possessed about half the efficiency which the great French mathematician had attributed to it. There were not wanting illustrious mathematicians who came forward to defend the calculations of Laplace. They computed the question anew and arrived at results practically coincident with those he had given. On the other hand certain distinguished mathematicians at home and abroad verified the results of Adams. The issue was merely a mathematical one. It had only one correct solution. Gradually it appeared that those who opposed Adams presented a number of different solutions, all of them discordant with his, and, usually, discordant with each other. Adams showed distinctly where each of these investigators had fallen into error, and at last it became universally admitted that the Cambridge Professor had corrected Laplace in a very fundamental point of astronomical theory.
Though it was desirable to have learned the truth, yet the breach between observation and calculation which Laplace was believed to have closed thus became reopened. Laplace's investigation, had it been correct, would have exactly explained the observed facts. It was, however, now shown that his solution was not correct, and that the lunar acceleration, when strictly calculated as a consequence of solar perturbations, only produced about half the effect which was wanted to explain the ancient eclipses completely. It now seems certain that there is no means of accounting for the lunar acceleration as a direct consequence of the laws of gravitation, if we suppose, as we have been in the habit of supposing, that the members of the solar system concerned may be regarded as rigid particles. It has, however, been suggested that another explanation of a very interesting kind may be forthcoming, and this we must endeavour to set forth.
It will be remembered that we have to explain why the period of revolution of the moon is now shorter than it used to be. If we imagine the length of the period to be expressed in terms of days and fractions of a day, that is to say, in terms of the rotations of the earth around its axis, then the difficulty encountered is, that the moon now requires for each of its revolutions around the earth rather a smaller number of rotations of the earth around its axis than used formerly to be the case. Of course this may be explained by the fact that the moon is now moving more swiftly than of yore, but it is obvious that an explanation of quite a different kind might be conceivable. The moon may be moving just at the same pace as ever, but the length of the day may be increasing. If the length of the day is increasing, then, of course, a smaller number of days will be required for the moon to perform each revolution even though the moon's period was itself really unchanged. It would, therefore, seem as if the phenomenon known as the lunar acceleration is the result of the two causes. The first of these is that discovered by Laplace, though its value was overestimated by him, in which the perturbations of the earth by the planets indirectly affect the motion of the moon. The remaining part of the acceleration of our satellite is apparent rather than real, it is not that the moon is moving more quickly, but that our time-piece, the earth, is revolving more slowly, and is thus actually losing time. It is interesting to note that we can detect a physical explanation for the apparent checking of the earth's motion which is thus manifested. The tides which ebb and flow on the earth exert a brake-like action on the revolving globe, and there can be no doubt that they are gradually reducing its speed, and thus lengthening the day. It has accordingly been suggested that it is this action of the tides which produces the supplementary effect necessary to complete the physical explanation of the lunar acceleration, though it would perhaps be a little premature to assert that this has been fully demonstrated.
The third of Professor Adams' most notable achievements was connected with the great shower of November meteors which astonished the world in 1866. This splendid display concentrated the attention of astronomers on the theory of the movements of the little objects by which the display was produced. For the definite discovery of the track in which these bodies revolve, we are indebted to the labours of Professor Adams, who, by a brilliant piece of mathematical work, completed the edifice whose foundations had been laid by Professor Newton, of Yale, and other astronomers.
Meteors revolve around the sun in a vast swarm, every individual member of which pursues an orbit in accordance with the well-known laws of Kepler. In order to understand the movements of these objects, to account satisfactorily for their periodic recurrence, and to predict the times of their appearance, it became necessary to learn the size and the shape of the track which the swarm followed, as well as the position which it occupied. Certain features of the track could no doubt be readily assigned. The fact that the shower recurs on one particular day of the year, viz., November 13th, defines one point through which the orbit must pass. The position on the heavens of the radiant point from which the meteors appear to diverge, gives another element in the track. The sun must of course be situated at the focus, so that only one further piece of information, namely, the periodic time, will be necessary to complete our knowledge of the movements of the system. Professor H. Newton, of Yale, had shown that the choice of possible orbits for the meteoric swarm is limited to five. There is, first, the great ellipse in which we now know the meteors revolve once every thirty three and one quarter years. There is next an orbit of a nearly circular kind in which the periodic time would be a little more than a year. There is a similar track in which the periodic time would be a few days short of a year, while two other smaller orbits would also be conceivable. Professor Newton had pointed out a test by which it would be possible to select the true orbit, which we know must be one or other of these five. The mathematical difficulties which attended the application of this test were no doubt great, but they did not baffle Professor Adams.
There is a continuous advance in the date of this meteoric shower. The meteors now cross our track at the point occupied by the earth on November 13th, but this point is gradually altering. The only influence known to us which could account for the continuous change in the plane of the meteor's orbit arises from the attraction of the various planets. The problem to be solved may therefore be attacked in this manner. A specified amount of change in the plane of the orbit of the meteors is known to arise, and the changes which ought to result from the attraction of the planets can be computed for each of the five possible orbits, in one of which it is certain that the meteors must revolve. Professor Adams undertook the work. Its difficulty principally arises from the high eccentricity of the largest of the orbits, which renders the more ordinary methods of calculation inapplicable. After some months of arduous labour the work was completed, and in April, 1867, Adams announced his solution of the problem. He showed that if the meteors revolved in the largest of the five orbits, with the periodic time of thirty three and one quarter years, the perturbations of Jupiter would account for a change to the extent of twenty minutes of arc in the point in which the orbit crosses the earth's track. The attraction of Saturn would augment this by seven minutes, and Uranus would add one minute more, while the influence of the Earth and of the other planets would be inappreciable. The accumulated effect is thus twenty-eight minutes, which is practically coincident with the observed value as determined by Professor Newton from an examination of all the showers of which there is any historical record. Having thus showed that the great orbit was a possible path for the meteors, Adams next proved that no one of the other four orbits would be disturbed in the same manner. Indeed, it appeared that not half the observed amount of change could arise in any orbit except in that one with the long period. Thus was brought to completion the interesting research which demonstrated the true relation of the meteor swarm to the solar system.
Besides those memorable scientific labours with which his attention was so largely engaged, Professor Adams found time for much other study. He occasionally allowed himself to undertake as a relaxation some pieces of numerical calculation, so tremendously long that we can only look on them with astonishment. He has calculated certain important mathematical constants accurately to more than two hundred places of decimals. He was a diligent reader of works on history, geology, and botany, and his arduous labours were often beguiled by novels, of which, like many other great men, he was very fond. He had also the taste of a collector, and he brought together about eight hundred volumes of early printed works, many of considerable rarity and value. As to his personal character, I may quote the words of Dr. Glaisher when he says, "Strangers who first met him were invariably struck by his simple and unaffected manner. He was a delightful companion, always cheerful and genial, showing in society but few traces of his really shy and retiring disposition. His nature was sympathetic and generous, and in few men have the moral and intellectual qualities been more perfectly balanced.
In 1863 he married the daughter of Haliday Bruce, Esq., of Dublin and up to the close of his life he lived at the Cambridge Observatory, pursuing his mathematical work and enjoying the society of his friends.
He died, after a long illness, on 21st January, 1892, and was interred in St. Giles's Cemetery, on the Huntingdon Road, Cambridge.