The name of Le Verrier is one that goes down to fame on account of very different discoveries from those which have given renown to several of the other astronomers whom we have mentioned. We are sometimes apt to identify the idea of an astronomer with that of a man who looks through a telescope at the stars; but the word astronomer has really much wider significance. No man who ever lived has been more entitled to be designated an astronomer than Le Verrier, and yet it is certain that he never made a telescopic discovery of any kind. Indeed, so far as his scientific achievements have been concerned, he might never have looked through a telescope at all.
For the full interpretation of the movements of the heavenly bodies, mathematical knowledge of the most advanced character is demanded. The mathematician at the outset calls upon the astronomer who uses the instruments in the observatory, to ascertain for him at various times the exact positions occupied by the sun, the moon, and the planets. These observations, obtained with the greatest care, and purified as far as possible from the errors by which they may be affected form, as it were, the raw material on which the mathematician exercises his skill. It is for him to elicit from the observed places the true laws which govern the movements of the heavenly bodies. Here is indeed a task in which the highest powers of the human intellect may be worthily employed.
Among those who have laboured with the greatest success in the interpretation of the observations made with instruments of precision, Le Verrier holds a highly honoured place. To him it has been given to provide a superb illustration of the success with which the mind of man can penetrate the deep things of Nature.
The illustrious Frenchman, Urban Jean Joseph Le Verrier, was born on the 11th March, 1811, at St. Lo, in the department of Manche. He received his education in that famous school for education in the higher branches of science, the Ecole Polytechnique, and acquired there considerable fame as a mathematician. On leaving the school Le Verrier at first purposed to devote himself to the public service, in the department of civil engineering; and it is worthy of note that his earliest scientific work was not in those mathematical researches in which he was ultimately to become so famous. His duties in the engineering department involved practical chemical research in the laboratory. In this he seems to have become very expert, and probably fame as a chemist would have been thus attained, had not destiny led him into another direction. As it was, he did engage in some original chemical research. His first contributions to science were the fruits of his laboratory work; one of his papers was on the combination of phosphorus and hydrogen, and another on the combination of phosphorus and oxygen.
His mathematical labours at the Ecole Polytechnique had, however, revealed to Le Verrier that he was endowed with the powers requisite for dealing with the subtlest instruments of mathematical analysis. When he was twenty-eight years old, his first great astronomical investigation was brought forth. It will be necessary to enter into some explanation as to the nature of this, inasmuch as it was the commencement of the life- work which he was to pursue.
If but a single planet revolved around the sun, then the orbit of that planet would be an ellipse, and the shape and size, as well as the position of the ellipse, would never alter. One revolution after another would be traced out, exactly in the same manner, in compliance with the force continuously exerted by the sun. Suppose, however, that a second planet be introduced into the system. The sun will exert its attraction on this second planet also, and it will likewise describe an orbit round the central globe. We can, however, no longer assert that the orbit in which either of the planets moves remains exactly an ellipse. We may, indeed, assume that the mass of the sun is enormously greater than that of either of the planets. In this case the attraction of the sun is a force of such preponderating magnitude, that the actual path of each planet remains nearly the same as if the other planet were absent. But it is impossible for the orbit of each planet not to be affected in some degree by the attraction of the other planet. The general law of nature asserts that every body in space attracts every other body. So long as there is only a single planet, it is the single attraction between the sun and that planet which is the sole controlling principle of the movement, and in consequence of it the ellipse is described. But when a second planet is introduced, each of the two bodies is not only subject to the attraction of the sun, but each one of the planets attracts the other. It is true that this mutual attraction is but small, but, nevertheless, it produces some effect. It "disturbs," as the astronomer says, the elliptic orbit which would otherwise have been pursued. Hence it follows that in the actual planetary system where there are several planets disturbing each other, it is not true to say that the orbits are absolutely elliptic.
At the same time in any single revolution a planet may for most practical purposes be said to be actually moving in an ellipse. As, however, time goes on, the ellipse gradually varies. It alters its shape, it alters its plane, and it alters its position in that plane. If, therefore, we want to study the movements of the planets, when great intervals of time are concerned, it is necessary to have the means of learning the nature of the movement of the orbit in consequence of the disturbances it has experienced.
We may illustrate the matter by supposing the planet to be running like a railway engine on a track which has been laid in a long elliptic path. We may suppose that while the planet is coursing along, the shape of the track is gradually altering. But this alteration may be so slow, that it does not appreciably affect the movement of the engine in a single revolution. We can also suppose that the plane in which the rails have been laid has a slow oscillation in level, and that the whole orbit is with more or less uniformity moved slowly about in the plane.
In short periods of time the changes in the shapes and positions of the planetary orbits, in consequence of their mutual attractions, are of no great consequence. When, however, we bring thousands of years into consideration, then the displacements of the planetary orbits attain considerable dimensions, and have, in fact, produced a profound effect on the system.
It is of the utmost interest to investigate the extent to which one planet can affect another in virtue of their mutual attractions. Such investigations demand the exercise of the highest mathematical gifts. But not alone is intellectual ability necessary for success in such inquiries. It must be united with a patient capacity for calculations of an arduous type, protracted, as they frequently have to be, through many years of labour. Le Verrier soon found in these profound inquiries adequate scope for the exercise of his peculiar gifts. His first important astronomical publication contained an investigation of the changes which the orbits of several of the planets, including the earth, have undergone in times past, and which they will undergo in times to come.
As an illustration of these researches, we may take the case of the planet in which we are, of course, especially interested, namely, the earth, and we can investigate the changes which, in the lapse of time, the earth's orbit has undergone, in consequence of the disturbance to which it has been subjected by the other planets. In a century, or even in a thousand years, there is but little recognisable difference in the shape of the track pursued by the earth. Vast periods of time are required for the development of the large consequences of planetary perturbation. Le Verrier has, however, given us the particulars of what the earth's journey through space has been at intervals of 20,000 years back from the present date. His furthest calculation throws our glance back to the state of the earth's track 100,000 years ago, while, with a bound forward, he shows us what the earth's orbit is to be in the future, at successive intervals of 20,000 years, till a date is reached which is 100,000 years in advance Of A.D. 1800.
The talent which these researches displayed brought Le Verrier into notice. At that time the Paris Observatory was presided over by Arago, a SAVANT who occupies a distinguished position in French scientific annals. Arago at once perceived that Le Verrier was just the man who possessed the qualifications suitable for undertaking a problem of great importance and difficulty that had begun to force itself on the attention of astronomers. What this great problem was, and how astonishing was the solution it received, must now be considered.
Ever since Herschel brought himself into fame by his superb discovery of the great planet Uranus, the movements of this new addition to the solar system were scrutinized with care and attention. The position of Uranus was thus accurately determined from time to time. At length, when sufficient observations of this remote planet had been brought together, the route which the newly-discovered body pursued through the heavens was ascertained by those calculations with which astronomers are familiar. It happens, however, that Uranus possesses a superficial resemblance to a star. Indeed the resemblance is so often deceptive that long ere its detection as a planet by Herschel, it had been observed time after time by skilful astronomers, who little thought that the star-like point at which they looked was anything but a star. From these early observations it was possible to determine the track of Uranus, and it was found that the great planet takes a period of no less than eighty-four years to accomplish a circuit. Calculations were made of the shape of the orbit in which it revolved before its discovery by Herschel, and these were compared with the orbit which observations showed the same body to pursue in those later years when its planetary character was known. It could not, of course, be expected that the orbit should remain unaltered; the fact that the great planets Jupiter and Saturn revolve in the vicinity of Uranus must necessarily imply that the orbit of the latter undergoes considerable changes. When, however, due allowance has been made for whatever influence the attraction of Jupiter and Saturn, and we may add of the earth and all the other Planets, could possibly produce, the movements of Uranus were still inexplicable. It was perfectly obvious that there must be some other influence at work besides that which could be attributed to the planets already known.
Astronomers could only recognise one solution of such a difficulty. It was impossible to doubt that there must be some other planet in addition to the bodies at that time known, and that the perturbations of Uranus hitherto unaccounted for, were due to the disturbances caused by the action of this unknown planet. Arago urged Le Verrier to undertake the great problem of searching for this body, whose theoretical existence seemed demonstrated. But the conditions of the search were such that it must needs be conducted on principles wholly different from any search which had ever before been undertaken for a celestial object. For this was not a case in which mere survey with a telescope might be expected to lead to the discovery.
Certain facts might be immediately presumed with reference to the unknown object. There could be no doubt that the unknown disturber of Uranus must be a large body with a mass far exceeding that of the earth. It was certain, however, that it must be so distant that it could only appear from our point of view as a very small object. Uranus itself lay beyond the range, or almost beyond the range, of unassisted vision. It could be shown that the planet by which the disturbance was produced revolved in an orbit which must lie outside that of Uranus. It seemed thus certain that the planet could not be a body visible to the unaided eye. Indeed, had it been at all conspicuous its planetary character would doubtless have been detected ages ago. The unknown body must therefore be a planet which would have to be sought for by telescopic aid.
There is, of course, a profound physical difference between a planet and a star, for the star is a luminous sun, and the planet is merely a dark body, rendered visible by the sunlight which falls upon it. Notwithstanding that a star is a sun thousands of times larger than the planet and millions of times more remote, yet it is a singular fact that telescopic planets possess an illusory resemblance to the stars among which their course happens to lie. So far as actual appearance goes, there is indeed only one criterion by which a planet of this kind can be discriminated from a star. If the planet be large enough the telescope will show that it possesses a disc, and has a visible and measurable circular outline. This feature a star does not exhibit. The stars are indeed so remote that no matter how large they may be intrinsically, they only exhibit radiant points of light, which the utmost powers of the telescope fail to magnify into objects with an appreciable diameter. The older and well-known planets, such as Jupiter and Mars, possess discs, which, though not visible to the unaided eye, were clearly enough discernible with the slightest telescopic power. But a very remote planet like Uranus, though it possessed a disc large enough to be quickly appreciated by the consummate observing skill of Herschel, was nevertheless so stellar in its appearance, that it had been observed no fewer than seventeen times by experienced astronomers prior to Herschel. In each case the planetary nature of the object had been overlooked, and it had been taken for granted that it was a star. It presented no difference which was sufficient to arrest attention.
As the unknown body by which Uranus was disturbed was certainly much more remote than Uranus, it seemed to be certain that though it might show a disc perceptible to very close inspection, yet that the disc must be so minute as not to be detected except with extreme care. In other words, it seemed probable that the body which was to be sought for could not readily be discriminated from a small star, to which class of object it bore a superficial resemblance, though, as a matter of fact, there was the profoundest difference between the two bodies.
There are on the heavens many hundreds of thousands of stars, and the problem of identifying the planet, if indeed it should lie among these stars, seemed a very complex matter. Of course it is the abundant presence of the stars which causes the difficulty. If the stars could have been got rid of, a sweep over the heavens would at once disclose all the planets which are bright enough to be visible with the telescopic power employed. It is the fortuitous resemblance of the planet to the stars which enables it to escape detection. To discriminate the planet among stars everywhere in the sky would be almost impossible. If, however, some method could be devised for localizing that precise region in which the planet's existence might be presumed, then the search could be undertaken with some prospect of success.
To a certain extent the problem of localizing the region on the sky in which the planet might be expected admitted of an immediate limitation. It is known that all the planets, or perhaps I ought rather to say, all the great planets, confine their movements to a certain zone around the heavens. This zone extends some way on either side of that line called the ecliptic in which the earth pursues its journey around the sun. It was therefore to be inferred that the new planet need not be sought for outside this zone. It is obvious that this consideration at once reduces the area to be scrutinized to a small fraction of the entire heavens. But even within the zone thus defined there are many thousands of stars. It would seem a hopeless task to detect the new planet unless some further limitation to its position could be assigned.
It was accordingly suggested to Le Verrier that he should endeavour to discover in what particular part of the strip of the celestial sphere which we have indicated the search for the unknown planet should be instituted. The materials available to the mathematician for the solution of this problem were to be derived solely from the discrepancies between the calculated places in which Uranus should be found, taking into account the known causes of disturbance, and the actual places in which observation had shown the planet to exist. Here was indeed an unprecedented problem, and one of extraordinary difficulty. Le Verrier, however, faced it, and, to the astonishment of the world, succeeded in carrying it through to a brilliant solution. We cannot here attempt to enter into any account of the mathematical investigations that were necessary. All that we can do is to give a general indication of the method which had to be adopted.
Let us suppose that a planet is revolving outside Uranus, at a distance which is suggested by the several distances at which the other planets are dispersed around the sun. Let us assume that this outer planet has started on its course, in a prescribed path, and that it has a certain mass. It will, of course, disturb the motion of Uranus, and in consequence of that disturbance Uranus will follow a path the nature of which can be determined by calculation. It will, however, generally be found that the path so ascertained does not tally with the actual path which observations have indicated for Uranus. This demonstrates that the assumed circumstances of the unknown planet must be in some respects erroneous, and the astronomer commences afresh with an amended orbit. At last after many trials, Le Verrier ascertained that, by assuming a certain size, shape, and position for the unknown Planet's orbit, and a certain value for the mass of the hypothetical body, it would be possible to account for the observed disturbances of Uranus. Gradually it became clear to the perception of this consummate mathematician, not only that the difficulties in the movements of Uranus could be thus explained, but that no other explanation need be sought for. It accordingly appeared that a planet possessing the mass which he had assigned, and moving in the orbit which his calculations had indicated, must indeed exist, though no eye had ever beheld any such body. Here was, indeed, an astonishing result. The mathematician sitting at his desk, by studying the observations which had been supplied to him of one planet, is able to discover the existence of another planet, and even to assign the very position which it must occupy, ere ever the telescope is invoked for its discovery.
Thus it was that the calculations of Le Verrier narrowed greatly the area to be scrutinised in the telescopic search which was presently to be instituted. It was already known, as we have just pointed out, that the planet must lie somewhere on the ecliptic. The French mathematician had now further indicated the spot on the ecliptic at which, according to his calculations, the planet must actually be found. And now for an episode in this history which will be celebrated so long as science shall endure. It is nothing less than the telescopic confirmation of the existence of this new planet, which had previously been indicated only by mathematical calculation. Le Verrier had not himself the instruments necessary for studying the heavens, nor did he possess the skill of the practical astronomer. He, therefore, wrote to Dr. Galle, of the Observatory at Berlin, requesting him to undertake a telescopic search for the new planet in the vicinity which the mathematical calculation had indicated for the whereabouts of the planet at that particular time. Le Verrier added that he thought the planet ought to admit of being recognised by the possession of a disc sufficiently definite to mark the distinction between it and the surrounding stars.
It was the 23rd September, 1846, when the request from Le Verrier reached the Berlin Observatory, and the night was clear, so that the memorable search was made on the same evening. The investigation was facilitated by the circumstance that a diligent observer had recently compiled elaborate star maps for certain tracts of the heavens lying in a sufficiently wide zone on both sides of the equator. These maps were as yet only partially complete, but it happened that Hora. XXI., which included the very spot which Le Verrier's results referred to, had been just issued. Dr. Galle had thus before his, eyes a chart of all the stars which were visible in that part of the heavens at the time when the map was made. The advantage of such an assistance to the search could hardly be over-estimated. It at once gave the astronomer another method of recognising the planet besides that afforded by its possible possession of a disc. For as the planet was a moving body, it would not have been in the same place relatively to the stars at the time when the map was constructed, as it occupied some years later when the search was being made. If the body should be situated in the spot which Le Verrier's calculations indicated in the autumn of 1846, then it might be regarded as certain that it would not be found in that same place on a map drawn some years previously.
The search to be undertaken consisted in a comparison made point by point between the bodies shown on the map, and those stars in the sky which Dr. Galle's telescope revealed. In the course of this comparison it presently appeared that a star-like object of the eighth magnitude, which was quite a conspicuous body in the telescope, was not represented in the map. This at once attracted the earnest attention of the astronomer, and raised his hopes that here was indeed the planet. Nor were these hopes destined to be disappointed. It could not be supposed that a star of the eighth magnitude would have been overlooked in the preparation of a chart whereon stars of many lower degrees of brightness were set down. One other supposition was of course conceivable. It might have been that this suspicious object belonged to the class of variables, for there are many such stars whose brightness fluctuates, and if it had happened that the map was constructed at a time when the star in question had but feeble brilliance, it might have escaped notice. It is also well known that sometimes new stars suddenly develop, so that the possibility that what Dr. Galle saw should have been a variable star or should have been a totally new star had to be provided against.
Fortunately a test was immediately available to decide whether the new object was indeed the long sought for planet, or whether it was a star of one of the two classes to which I have just referred. A star remains fixed, but a planet is in motion. No doubt when a planet lies at the distance at which this new planet was believed to be situated, its apparent motion would be so slow that it would not be easy to detect any change in the course of a single night's observation. Dr. Galle, however, addressed himself with much skill to the examination of the place of the new body. Even in the course of the night he thought he detected slight movements, and he awaited with much anxiety the renewal of his observations on the subsequent evenings. His suspicions as to the movement of the body were then amply confirmed, and the planetary nature of the new object was thus unmistakably detected.
Great indeed was the admiration of the scientific world at this superb triumph. Here was a mighty planet whose very existence was revealed by the indications afforded by refined mathematical calculation. At once the name of Le Verrier, already known to those conversant with the more profound branches of astronomy, became everywhere celebrated. It soon, however, appeared, that the fame belonging to this great achievement had to be shared between Le Verrier and another astronomer, J. C. Adams, of Cambridge. In our chapter on this great English mathematician we shall describe the manner in which he was independently led to the same discovery.
Directly the planetary nature of the newly-discovered body had been established, the great observatories naturally included this additional member of the solar system in their working lists, so that day after day its place was carefully determined. When sufficient time had elapsed the shape and position of the orbit of the body became known. Of course, it need hardly be said that observations applied to the planet itself must necessarily provide a far more accurate method of determining the path which it follows, than would be possible to Le Verrier, when all he had to base his calculations upon was the influence of the planet reflected, so to speak, from Uranus. It may be noted that the true elements of the planet, when revealed by direct observation, showed that there was a considerable discrepancy between the track of the planet which Le Verrier had announced, and that which the planet was actually found to pursue.
The name of the newly-discovered body had next to be considered. As the older members of the system were already known by the same names as great heathen divinities, it was obvious that some similar source should be invoked for a suggestion as to a name for the most recent planet. The fact that this body was so remote in the depths of space, not unnaturally suggested the name "Neptune." Such is accordingly the accepted designation of that mighty globe which revolves in the track that at present seems to trace out the frontiers of our system.
Le Verrier attained so much fame by this discovery, that when, in 1854, Arago's place had to be filled at the head of the great Paris Observatory, it was universally felt that the discoverer of Neptune was the suitable man to assume the office which corresponds in France to that of the Astronomer Royal in England. It was true that the work of the astronomical mathematician had hitherto been of an abstract character. His discoveries had been made at his desk and not in the observatory, and he had no practical acquaintance with the use of astronomical instruments. However, he threw himself into the technical duties of the observatory with vigour and determination. He endeavoured to inspire the officers of the establishment with enthusiasm for that systematic work which is so necessary for the accomplishment of useful astronomical research. It must, however, be admitted that Le Verrier was not gifted with those natural qualities which would make him adapted for the successful administration of such an establishment. Unfortunately disputes arose between the Director and his staff. At last the difficulties of the situation became so great that the only possible solution was to supersede Le Verrier, and he was accordingly obliged to retire. He was succeeded in his high office by another eminent mathematician, M. Delaunay, only less distinguished than Le Verrier himself.
Relieved of his official duties, Le Verrier returned to the mathematics he loved. In his non-official capacity he continued to work with the greatest ardour at his researches on the movements of the planets. After the death of M. Delaunay, who was accidentally drowned in 1873, Le Verrier was restored to the directorship of the observatory, and he continued to hold the office until his death.
The nature of the researches to which the life of Le Verrier was subsequently devoted are not such as admit of description in a general sketch like this, where the language, and still less the symbols, of mathematics could not be suitably introduced. It may, however, be said in general that he was particularly engaged with the study of the effects produced on the movements of the planets by their mutual attractions. The importance of this work to astronomy consists, to a considerable extent, in the fact that by such calculations we are enabled to prepare tables by which the places of the different heavenly bodies can be predicted for our almanacs. To this task Le Verrier devoted himself, and the amount of work he has accomplished would perhaps have been deemed impossible had it not been actually done.
The superb success which had attended Le Verrier's efforts to explain the cause of the perturbations of Uranus, naturally led this wonderful computer to look for a similar explanation of certain other irregularities in planetary movements. To a large extent he succeeded in showing how the movements of each of the great planets could be satisfactorily accounted for by the influence of the attractions of the other bodies of the same class. One circumstance in connection with these investigations is sufficiently noteworthy to require a few words here. Just as at the opening of his career, Le Verrier had discovered that Uranus, the outermost planet of the then known system, exhibited the influence of an unknown external body, so now it appeared to him that Mercury, the innermost body of our system, was also subjected to some disturbances, which could not be satisfactorily accounted for as consequences of any known agents of attraction. The ellipse in which Mercury revolved was animated by a slow movement, which caused it to revolve in its plane. It appeared to Le Verrier that this displacement was incapable of explanation by the action of any of the known bodies of our system. He was, therefore, induced to try whether he could not determine from the disturbances of Mercury the existence of some other planet, at present unknown, which revolved inside the orbit of the known planet. Theory seemed to indicate that the observed alteration in the track of the planet could be thus accounted for. He naturally desired to obtain telescopic confirmation which might verify the existence of such a body in the same way as Dr. Galle verified the existence of Neptune. If there were, indeed, an intramercurial planet, then it must occasionally cross between the earth and the sun, and might now and then be expected to be witnessed in the actual act of transit. So confident did Le Verrier feel in the existence of such a body that an observation of a dark object in transit, by Lescarbault on 26th March, 1859, was believed by the mathematician to be the object which his theory indicated. Le Verrier also thought it likely that another transit of the same object would be seen in March, 1877. Nothing of the kind was, however, witnessed, notwithstanding that an assiduous watch was kept, and the explanation of the change in Mercury's orbit must, therefore, be regarded as still to be sought for.
Le Verrier naturally received every honour that could be bestowed upon a man of science. The latter part of his life was passed during the most troubled period of modern French history. He was a supporter of the Imperial Dynasty, and during the Commune he experienced much anxiety; indeed, at one time grave fears were entertained for his personal safety.
Early in 1877 his health, which had been gradually failing for some years, began to give way. He appeared to rally somewhat in the summer, but in September he sank rapidly, and died on Sunday, the 23rd of that month.
His remains were borne to the cemetery on Mont Parnasse in a public funeral. Among his pallbearers were leading men of science, from other countries as well as France, and the memorial discourses pronounced at the grave expressed their admiration of his talents and of the greatness of the services he had rendered to science.