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.


AIRY BLOWS HIS TOPAIRY_sm.jpg (4356 bytes)

Airy’s letter of December 8th 1846 to Adam Sedgwick has been the most censored and inaccessible part of Britain’s Neptune file. It occurs within an intense and heated correspondence between him and Sedgwick, both writing by return of post. The latter replied on the 9th by admitting that Adams had conducted himself that year ‘like a very simpleton,’ – also, not a very publishable remark. This heated but candid correspondence helps us to answer the question, as to why the RGO’s Neptune file has at times appeared inaccessible. In composing his centenary essay, William Smart had no access to this letter, as shown by his comment:

‘Airy evidently replied on 1846 December 8, to this letter, as may be gathered from …’ (p.74)

No scholar had access to this letter, here reproduced in full for the first time, prior to 1999.

As the image of Adams as the heroic-but-reticent first predictor of Neptune's position was taking shape, Airy realised that it depended upon his being prepared to accept 'blame'. Had he somehow not received Adams in October of 1845 and had he ignored his priceless insights? Revolving likewise in his mind Challis' awesome ineptitude in failing to find the star over a six weeks' search, he finally blew his top, to Sedgwick. The latter had been griping about the course of events. Airy comes the nearest here to telling the truth, as far as was permitted by his status as the top government scientist.

The Text of the December 8th Letter

DE1846_sm_2.jpg (12003 bytes)'I showed your yesterday's letter to my wife - received last evening. I have no doubt that the facts of Adams call were as you & Adams have made out. My wife seems to have a notion of his card being brought to her in my absence, but nothing further is known. I was at the end of October 1845 busy almost every day at the Gauge Commission and on October 29th my boy Edward was born. I am ashamed to mention these things; I have no misgivings whatsoever of the spirit with which you have entered into the matter [this correspondence]; but I must have a very low opinion of those who have so taken it up that my old friend has felt himself obliged to question me as if I were a criminal.

'In regard to the publishing of Adams priority: I refer you to what I said in my last letter, and only add that if you were not so serious (?) about it, I should think it very ludicrous. I will put your propositions into the form, in which there is not the most trifling exaggeration.


DEC1846A_sm.jpg (12423 bytes)Sedgwick's Theory, & Rules thereon founded

1. Every Cambridge man is a Baby, and cannot walk out except he has a Nurse to trot him out.

2. Only extra-Cantabs are eligible as Nurses. No Resident, not even a Plumian Professor, is competent to this office.

3. Simple nomination of an Extra-Cantab. by a baby imposes on such extra-Cantab., relente relente (?), all the duties and responsibilities of Nurse.

4. The regular duty of Nurse is, to divine the unexpressed wishes of the Baby to walk, and then to take him out.

5. The responsibilty of the Nurse is not removed even though the baby take a fit of the pique (?) and refuse to answer questions, or though the baby refuse to clothe himself in what the Nurse considers to be a proper walking dress.

DEC1846B_sm.jpg (10527 bytes)‘I do not enter into any details about Adams notion that the examination of the effect of the radius vector was unimportant. It now suffices for my guidance that I thought it important and still think so. Perhaps it might be sufficient for your persuasion, to tell you that Leverrier also thought it important.

‘And here finishes my Cambridge discussion. The next blow will probably be from Paris....

Yours very truly,

The idea of an earlier publishing of Adams' priority claim would have been 'ludicrous.’ Airy had found himself in the role of a Nurse who had to lead out certain Cantab. babes for walks, select their dresses and even 'divine their unexpressed wishes.' One feels that Airy never apprehended the extent to which he himself had written the script for the Neptune saga - no British case would have existed without his actions.

Between Dec 3rd and 10th, seven letters flew back and forth between Sedgwick and Airy. Grosser in his 1962 opus only cited the first of these, by Sedgwick on 3rd December, about how ‘I must myself chime in with the pack of grumblers;’ and then blithely affirmed that 'such criticism had almost no effect on Airy' (p.137). It is evident that Grosser, for his Harvard PhD thesis of 1961 on this subject, had no access to the ‘Neptune file’ - nor did he even allude to it.

Airy’s reply on the 10th reached its mysterious climax about ‘…such a train of circumstances that you have been compelled to ask questions which no gentleman if free would ask and which no gentleman could be expected to answer.’

What was this train of circumstances, and what were the terrible questions, as should neither be asked nor answered? There were, one can imagine, various things he didn’t want to be asked about, and much he wanted to forget. The plan had gone horribly wrong – and he, without whom Adams would have remained unknown, was having to take the blame! He knew better, as the above letter shows all too clearly, but as Britain’s top civil servant there were things he couldn’t say. A few days earlier Sedgwick had asked him (on the 6th of December) whether Adams had been told that Leverrier was ‘at his heels;’ the answer to which would have been that Adams did, because, when Airy, Challis and Adams had met on the 4th of December 1845 in Cambridge, Airy told them about the meeting he had just returned from, where Arago delegated Leverrier to tackle the problem.

This letter has been described as 'an extraordinarily satirical and deeply contemptuous reply,' in the British Society for History of Maths Newsletter (Spring 2000, 41), reviewing the US journal Dio. An extract of the letter had been published (sent by the present writer) in Dio. The unnamed reviewer is believed to have been the late John Fauvel, then editor of the BSHM Newsletter. That is the sole comment on this letter made to-date by a science historian.

Airy's  Portrait courtesy Royal Astronomical Society