of December 8th 1846 to Adam Sedgwick has been the most censored
and inaccessible part of Britains 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 RGOs 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:
replied on 1846 December 8, to this letter, as may be gathered from
No scholar had access
to this letter, here reproduced in full for the first time, prior
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.
of the December 8th Letter
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.
Theory, & Rules thereon founded
1. Every Cambridge
man is a Baby, and cannot walk out except he has a Nurse to trot
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
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.
on the 10th reached its mysterious climax about
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 didnt 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
Britains top civil servant there were things he couldnt
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
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