John Couch Adams

Born: 5 June 1819 in Laneast, Cornwall, England
Died: 21 Jan 1892 in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England

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John Couch Adams was an astronomer and mathematician who, at the age of 24, was the first person to predict the position of a planet beyond Uranus.
John showed great mathematical ability while at school, and he became known for his considerable abilities for accurate numerical calculations. During this period he first became interested in astronomy and, by the age of 16, he had worked out when an annular eclipse of the Sun would be visible in Lidcot. His brother lived at Lidcot, which is near Launceston about 10Km from where John was born.

Adams was educated at St John's College, Cambridge. He began his undergraduate course in October 1839 and graduated Senior Wrangler four years later. He is said to have been awarded double the marks of the Second Wrangler which, if true, is an incredible achievement. Also in 1843 he became first Smith's Prizeman and he became a Fellow of Pembroke College. He was to hold this Fellowship, in addition to other posts, until his death.

In 1841, while still an undergraduate, he decided to investigate

the irregularities of the motion of order to find out whether they may be attributed to the action of an undiscovered planet beyond it .
In September 1845 Adams gave accurate information on the position of the new planet to James Challis, director of the Cambridge Observatory. Action was not taken by Cambridge and Urbain Le Verrier's later prediction was published before Adams's. It was Le Verrier's prediction which led to the discovery of Neptune on September 23, 1846 by Galle at the Berlin Observatory.

Adams became Regius Professor of Mathematics at St Andrews in 1858. In 1859 he succeeded Peacock as Lowndean Professor of Astronomy and Geometry at Cambridge and held the post for over 32 years. He became director of the Cambridge Observatory in 1861.

Adams's made many other contributions to astronomy, notably his studies of the Leonid meteor shower (1866) where he showed that the orbit of the meteor shower was very similar to that of a comet. He was able to correctly conclude that the meteor shower was associated with the comet.

Adams spent much effort on the complex problem of a description of the motion of the Moon, giving one which was more accurate than that of Laplace. He also studied terrestrial magnetism.

Adams will be best remembered, however, for his role as the co-discoverer of Neptune. The difference between his role in that discovery and that of Le Verrier is more clearly understood when Adams's character is studied. A fellow undergraduate at Cambridge could hardly remember Adams and described him as:-

A rather small man, who walked quickly, and wore a faded coat of dark green.
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!). He was a man of great learning studying history, literature, biology and geology. He had a keen interest in politics and he was so affected by the Franco-Prussian war that, according to [6]

he could scarcely work or sleep. He never boasted of his achievements and in fact he refused a knighthood which was offered to him in 1847. After the discovery of Neptune, Adams met Le Verrier in Oxford in June 1847. According to [3]

He uttered no complaint, he laid no claim to priority, Le Verrier had no warmer admirer.
The portrait on the left was taken when he was in St Andrews by the pioneer photographer John Adamson.

References (7 books/articles)

References elsewhere in this archive:

Tell me about Adams's work on orbits and gravitation

Tell me about Adams's part in the discovery of Neptune

John C Adams was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1849. You can see a history of the Royal Society and a list of the members among the mathematicians in our archive.
He was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society in 1848. You can see a history of the Copley Medal and a list of the winners.

There is a Crater Adams on the moon (named after this mathematician, among others). You can see a list of lunar features named after mathematicians.

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JOC/EFR December 1996