They Told The Story
A Neptune Chronology
Adams Dated Computations
The Forgotten Diary
Within One Degree
The Crown Jewels Document
Announcing The Discovery
Challis' Unseen Testimony
A Retrospective History
A Cantab. Clique
Adam's July Ephemeris
Mapless In Cambridge
Airy Tells the Truth
The Radius Vector: A Trivial Question?
Airy Blows His Top
Eggen Takes the Papers
Selected Correspondence
Primary Sources
Related Links.



‘The majority of astronomers lead relatively uneventful lives, but [Olin] Eggen came with a varied, even bizarre past. Having put himself through Wisconsin State University by working as a waiter, a barman and a pianist in a nightclub, he was employed during World War II by the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of the CIA) as a courier, posing in Germany as a Swedish traveler in ball-bearings. After the war he wrote science fiction under the name-reversal pseudonym of Nilo Negge…’ his ‘red Austin-Healey sports car made a considerable impact on the public-service environment of Canberra.’ (Explorers of the Southern Sky, A History of Australian Astronomy 1996 R.Haynes et. al. p.179.)

In 1994, senior RGO archivist Adam Perkins announced that the UK’s ‘Neptune file’ had been missing since the sixties, in an address to the 1994 Federation of Astronomical societies, at Herstmonceaux castle (formerly the home of the RGO) on October 3rd. Not a single article written in 1996, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Neptune’s discovery, mentioned this fact. Admittedly, the situation was rather peculiar. Back in 1969, Neptune scholar Dennis Rawlins was the first to be told that the file was unavailable: the RGO’s librarian Philip Laurie informed him that ‘in spite of a prolonged search, the missing volume has not materialized.’

On October 1998 the eminent stellar astronomer Olin Eggen died, at the Southern hemisphere observatory in Chile (Sierra Tololo) and the Neptune file was found in his office with sixty other rare books and piles of historic manuscripts , all belonging to the RGO. A call from Chile that month was put through, the very week before the RGO at Cambridge closed and cut off its telephones. Adam Perkins was E-mailed: ‘at the RGO no-one believed there could be any Airy papers in Chile, but they passed the phone number to me’ (A.P.) The RGO closed after its long and eventful life at the end of that very October, just as its files were being returned.

The papers were discovered by Elaine MacAuliffe at La Serena observatory, at Cerro Tololo, Chile. Altogether Eggen’s flat was found to contain 105 kg of stolen archive material! When I e-mailed Ms MacAuliffe she denied that any theft was involved, claiming that Eggen had merely borrowed material, for his researches on Airy. In June of ’99 the sizeable crates of borrowed/stolen material arrived in Cambridge, senior RGO archivist Adam Perkins having collected them.

Around the 150-year anniversary of Neptune’s discovery in 1996, Eggen answered two letters of enquiry, both times denying that he had the papers. His letter to RGO Public Relations Officer Peter Andrews (sent in c.1993, gone missing) flatly denied having the file and took umbrage at the suggestion that he had it. His e-mail to astronomy writer Ian Ridpath gave an equally spurious answer concerning the files. Was Eggen a kleptomaniac, and did he like having his shelves Down Under lined with priceless historical documents? He had much Newtonian 17th-century archive material, and the earliest major volume he took was of Horrocks, early 17th-century. The RGO’s Neptune files were only a tiny part of what he took.

The Neptune file emerged from under the North Downs in 1956 where it had been in wartime storage with other RGO archives and these were taken to the Herstmonceaux castle, postwar site of the RGO. The library was then in chaos. Eggen and Woolley both arrived in that year, the latter as Astronomer Royal having little interest in archive material and Eggen his chief assistant a keen bibliophile. Eggen, gaining access to an unsorted library, was evidently exposed to temptation. ‘Olin spent most of the cloudy evenings in the library, and more or less re-arranged it single-handed’ (Observatory 1999 Vol 119 p.186). The library was kept in the Great Hall of Hertstmonceaux castle. He stayed till 1961 when he returned to California. In 1964 he somehow came back as Chief Assistant a second time, for a year.

The theft occurred in the mid-sixties. Eggen then became Director of the Mount Stromlo Observatory, up in the mountains outside Canberra, a part of the Australian National University. Wooley, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, was then an A.N.U. hon. Prof, and had formerly held the same post as Eggen, Director of the Mount Stromlo Observatory. Did Wooley know that Eggen was taking the UK’s RGO Neptune file Down Under? Eggen was lent the file, because he had been commissioned to do two items for the forthcoming Dictionary of Scientific Biography, on Airy and Challis, which he did prior to 1971. From that point of view, everyone knew he had it; but, on the other hand, one cannot readily imagine him being given permission to take this priceless file to Australia, which is where he went.

The only official mention of the Neptune file, as belonging within the RGO for a century and a half, is here shown. A list of all RGO manuscripts had to be drawn up as mandated by the Public Record Act, and so the RGO produced a book thereof, which has no date upon it. It alludes to the bound volume made by Airy. The archivist then at Herstmonceaux was Phil Laurie, and at an unspecified date he wrote beside the Neptune file 'Missing for a long time, c. 1965' as shown i.e. that was his estimate of when it vanished. Laurie was an honourary i.e. unpaid archivist so it would have been improper for him to indulge in whistle-blowing over the behavour of a superior, viz. Eggen. This page is the sole statement, concerning the existence of Airy's Neptune file, in any official RGO document!

Olin Eggen is on LHS, Woolley (the Astronomer Royal) is on RHS

Eggen visited the RGO 24th April 1967. He was the last scholar to make verbatim use of unpublished material from the ‘lost’ Neptune-file, for his 1971 DSB article on Challis. Eggen’s ‘official’ biography has him chief Assistant to the Astronomer Royal at the Royal Greenwich Observatory 1956-1961, and then Professor of Astronomy at Caltech and Staff Astronomer at the Hale Observatories, 1961-66. This however omits a second term of employment with the RGO 1963-5 approximately, after which he was fired by Woolley. He must have stolen the shelfloads of material during this period. According the Margaret Penston, ex RGO, it was his row with Woolley, in September 1965, over promotion, as led to his 2nd departure from RGO.

A slight puzzle remains, why a galactic stellar astronomer should have been asked to do two DSB items, for the lives of Airy and Challis, when he had no qualifications as a science historian and had not written on these topics previously (except for a review of Grosser’s book which he did for Sky and Telescope).

Eggen's Portrait courtesy Royal Astronomical Society

RGO Page by permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library