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Facts About John Couch Adams and His Contributions

written by: Nick Oza•edited by: RC Davison•updated: 7/26/2011

John Couch Adams was a brilliant scientist who made numerous significant contributions to the field of astronomy. We will look at his life and his contributions to the field of astronomy, particularly to planetary science, the Moon and the Leonid meteor shower.

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    The Early Years

    John Couch Adams 

    John Couch Adams was the name for the English astronomer and mathematician born on June 5, 1819 in Laneast, Cornwall in the United Kingdom. John was born in a farming family. His father, Thomas Adams, was a tenant farmer while his mother Tabitha Knill Grylls was a homemaker who had inherited a small estate in Badharlick. John was the eldest of the seven children in the family. His family were devout Wesleyans and lived a simple lifestyle.

    From a very early age John was fascinated by astronomy and had a keen interest in books related to the subject. Laneast had a small village school that John attended. Here, he learned Greek and basic algebra. However, for more advanced studies John had to change schools and attend a bigger institution. At age twelve, John went to Devonport to a school that was run by his mother's cousin, Rev. John Couch Grylls. It was the break he needed to further his education. In Devonport, John learned languages, art, history, literature and philosophy. He taught himself mathematics and was often found studying in the institute's library or reading Reese's Cyclopaedia as well as Samuel Vince's Fluxions.

    While at the Devonport institute, John showed great promise in mathematics and even went as far as making his own observations and calculations about Halley's comet, which he observed in 1835. Following this, he started tutoring others privately to pay for his tuition. His parents saw great potential in him and decided to send him to the University of Cambridge where he could pursue his interest in astronomy and mathematics. In 1839, John entered St. John's College as a sizar and pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree, which he completed and received in 1843. He was elected fellow of his college and received first Smith's prizeman of the year.

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    Professional Career and Contributions

    While at St. John's College as an undergraduate, John came across a problem that caught his attention. The planet Uranus had irregularities in its motion, which at the time could not be explained. John wanted to pursue the problem, and to him it seemed that the irregularities could be explained if one would assume the existence of another planet. John worked on the problem after graduating from St. John's and resolved it with an astounding solution. According to his calculations the irregularities were due to the existence of another planet beyond the orbit of Uranus.

    John presented his solution to James Chalis, the director of the Cambridge Observatory, in 1845. Meanwhile, at about the same time, another astronomer by the name of Urbain Le Verrier was working on the same problem and came up with the same solution. He presented his solution independently to the French Academy of Sciences in 1845. Eventually, the new planet was named Neptune and the world recognized that both astronomers independently reached the solution and gave equal recognition to both.

    This discovery gave John's carrier a huge boost and in 1847 he was offered knighthood by Queen Victoria. However, John modestly declined the honor. In the meantime he was working a fellowship at St. John's College. In 1848, the Royal Society awarded John its Copley Medal for his discovery. St. John's College founded an Adam's prize to be awarded to students on a breakthrough treatise in mathematics in the same year. In 1851, John was elected to the position of president of the Royal Astronomical Society and the following year his fellowship at the university came to an end. Pembroke College saw this as an opportunity to acquire him and elected him to a lay fellowship at the college, which John held the remainder of his life. He held a short position as professor of mathematics at St. Andrews and then was offered the position of Lowndean Professorship of Astronomy and Geometry at Cambridge. In 1860, he succeeded Challis as the director of the Cambridge Observatory. Here he remained till his death.

    In 1852, John published astoundingly accurate tables on the Moon's parallax. The following year, John worked on the problem of the mean motion of the Moon relative to the stars, which had been previously established by La Place and had remained unchallenged for sixty years. His results displaces partially the long held theory of La Place and was met with skepticism at first. Eventually, the results were verified by others and John's theory was accepted.

    In 1866, he turned his attention to the Leonid meteors on which Hubert Newton had previously worked and published results. Newton had showed that the longitude of the ascending node, which marked where the shower would occur was increasing. John showed that the Leonids traverse through the Solar System in an elongated elliptical orbit of 33.25 years. Furthermore, John showed that the cluster of meteors was influenced by perturbations from the larger gas giant planets Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus. This is considered one of the most important discoveries that John had made in his career.

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    Final Years

    For nearly forty years John involved himself in the determination of constants in Carl Friedrich Gauss's theory of terrestrial magnetism. His works were never published during his lifetime but were published after his death by his brother William Adams. In his works he calculated the Euler-Mascheroni constant to 236 decimal places and the made an evaluation on the Bernoulli numbers up to the 62nd. In 1874 he was re- elected president of the Royal Astronomical Society, which he held till 1876. He held his position at Cambridge where he taught and researched until his demise on January 21, 1892. He lived a long and successful career with amazing achievements. He will be remembered as one of the pioneers and legends in the field of astronomy and mathematics.

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    Image Credits:WikimediaCommons/JohnCouchAdams by Skraemer