George Airy, villain or not ?

George Airy Northumberland-born George Airy ( he was born in Alnwick in 1801 ) could safely lay claim to being the most controversial Astronomer Royal that Britain has ever had.

All because of his "failure" to detect the planet Neptune as predicted by British astronomer John Adams, thus leaving the way for the glory to be taken by Berlin Observatory, acting on the instructions of the French astronomer, Urban Leverrier.

Several years ago, I attended a lecture where the speaker announced :

"Let's face it, this guy Airy, he was a complete bastard. He totally failed to look for Neptune, then when he was called to account by the powers-that-be, he told them that the reason he hadn't found Neptune was because his instruments weren't good enough.So the powers-that-be said : in that case here's some money, go out and buy what it is you want."

In general all history books that contain no lies are extremely boring, and in this case the truth is likely to be a lot more boring than the above quote.

Allan Chapman, respected historian of Science at Oxford University, puts the blame squarely on Adam's shoulders. He twice went to meet Airy, both times without appointment. The first time Airy was away, the second time he was at dinner and was reluctant to interrupt his meal to meet an unannounced caller. There was actually quite a few reasons why he was unwilling to do this

Adams did however leave his calculations, which Airy reviewed later on. A request from Airy that Adams clear up a couple of technical queries never actually received a reply.

What does appear to be true, though, is that by June 1846, Airy had also heard of Leverrier's work, but never bothered to tell Leverrier and Adams about each other. He did however request Challis of Cambridge University to search for the planet. Challis responded unenthusiastically, and when he did get going, he did actually see Neptune without realising it.

Apart from the Neptune affair, he made many advances in astronomy and other fields. In astronomy, for example, he improved the orbital theory of Venus and the Moon. In science, he studied interference fringes in optics, and made a mathematical study of the rainbow.

By comparing pendulums at the top and bottom of Harton Colliery, South Shields to measure the change in the force of gravity with distance below the Earth's surface, he was able to compute the density of the Earth. ( The colliery itself is long gone - the area surrounding the colliery was formerly known as Harton Colliery, and has now become known as West Harton )

There is nevertheless one other down side - he had a long-running emnity with Charles Babbage (pictured), a person known for pioneering early computing devices. And in fact, Airy criticized Babbage's acclaimed "Calculating Machine" as "worthless". Some sources state that this was a vindicative act on Airy's part, instigated by the fact that the government had not compensated Airy for some work he had done for them - Charles Babbage Airy's opinion having the effect of hindering government support for Babbage's work. If this is true, then technical progress in this direction was severly delayed by Airy's actions.

The first clash appears to have been when the two men were both applying for the same post of Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a job which went to Airy.

Later the two clashed when they became involved in the "Battle of The Gauges" on the railways, i.e. for Brunel's broad gauge or Stephenson's "narrow" gauge (the one which won ). Airy supported the narrow gauge, and Airy the broad.

Later, when Airy was Director of the Royal Observatory, in 1854, Babbage was a member of the Board of Visitors for the Observatory, and another argument broke out. The squabble this time was over Airy giving money and information to a researcher, both supplied by the British government.

However, to get back to a few of his other achievements. He invented a "water telescope", which exploded the old idea of the "ether", the substance through which light was supposed to travel, and contributed to preparing the ground work for Eistein's Theory of Relativity (according to several sources, although the direct influence of his work is hard to gauge, i.e. it is not mentioned in many sources). He restored the standards of length and weight which had been destroyed in 1834 by a great fire at the Houses of Parliament, where they were formerly kept.

And in astronomy, he instituted the Airy Transit Circle (thus providing the Grenwich Observatory with its 4th meridian line ). He had the satisfaction of seeing, in 1884, international recognition of Airy's Meridian as longitude zero for the whole world.

He also worked as a scientific advisor to the Government, supervised a catalogue of geographical boundaries, advised on the laying of transatlantic telegraph cable and on the construction of the chimes for Big Ben.

Airy suffered from astigmatism, and in 1825, designed the first eyeglasses to correct it. The problem of astigmatism and its potential correction had been known since the time of Isaac Barrow, but Airy was the first to design lenses that worked.

From 1871-1873 he was President of the Royal Society

The Discovery of Neptune, from Berlin

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Brian Daugherty