1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Leverrier, Urbain Jean Joseph
LEVERRIER, URBAIN JEAN JOSEPH (1811–1877), French astronomer, was born at St Lô in Normandy on the 11th of March 1811. His father, who held a small post under government, made great efforts to send him to Paris, where a brilliant examination gained him, in 1831, admittance to the École Polytechnique. The distinction of his career there was rewarded with a free choice amongst the departments of the public service open to pupils of the school. He selected the administration of tobaccos, addressing himself especially to chemical researches under the guidance of Gay-Lussac, and gave striking proof of ability in two papers on the combinations of phosphorus with hydrogen and oxygen, published in Annales de Chimie et de Physique (1835 and 1837). His astronomical vocation, like that of Kepler, came from without. The place of teacher of that science at the École Polytechnique falling vacant in 1837, it was offered to and accepted by Leverrier, who, “docile to circumstance,” instantly abandoned chemistry, and directed the whole of his powers to celestial mechanics. The first fruits of his labours were contained in two memoirs presented to the Academy, September 16 and October 14, 1839. Pursuing the investigations of Laplace, he demonstrated with greater rigour the stability of the solar system, and calculated the limits within which the eccentricities and inclinations of the planetary orbits vary. This remarkable début excited much attention, and, on the recommendation of François Arago, he took in hand the theory of Mercury, producing, in 1843, vastly improved tables of that planet. The perturbations of the comets discovered, the one by H. A. E. A. Faye in November 1843, the other by Francesco de Vico a year later, were minutely investigated by Leverrier, with the result of disproving the supposed identity of the first with Lexell’s lost comet of 1770, and of the other with Tycho’s of 1585. On the other hand, he made it appear all but certain that Vico’s comet was the same with one seen by Philippe de Lahire in 1678. Recalled once more, by the summons of Arago, to planetary studies, he was this time invited to turn his attention to Uranus. Step by step, with sagacious and patient accuracy, he advanced to the great discovery which has immortalized his name. Carefully sifting all the known causes of disturbance, he showed that one previously unknown had to be reckoned with, and on the 23rd of September 1846 the planet Neptune was discerned by J. G. Galle (d. 1910) at Berlin, within one degree of the spot Leverrier had indicated (see Neptune).
This memorable achievement was greeted with an outburst of public enthusiasm. Academies vied with each other in enrolling Leverrier among their members; the Royal Society awarded him the Copley medal; the king of Denmark sent him the order of the Dannebrog; he was named officer in the Legion of Honour, and preceptor to the comte de Paris; a chair of astronomy was created for his benefit at the Faculty of Sciences; he was appointed adjunct astronomer to the Bureau of Longitudes. Returned to the Legislative Assembly in 1849 by his native department of Manche, he voted with the anti-republican party, but devoted his principal attention to subjects connected with science and education. After the coup d’état of 1851 he became a senator and inspector-general of superior instruction, sat upon the commission for the reform of the École Polytechnique (1854), and, on the 30th of January 1854, succeeded Arago as director of the Paris observatory. His official work in the latter capacity would alone have strained the energies of an ordinary man. The institution had fallen into a state of lamentable inefficiency. Leverrier placed it on a totally new footing, freed it from the control of the Bureau of Longitudes, and raised it to its due rank among the observatories of Europe. He did not escape the common lot of reformers. His uncompromising measures and unconciliatory manner of enforcing them raised a storm only appeased by his removal on the 5th of February 1870. On the death of his successor Charles Eugène Delaunay (1816–1872), he was reinstated by Thiers, but with authority restricted by the supervision of a council. In the midst of these disquietudes, he executed a task of gigantic proportions. This was nothing less than the complete revision of the planetary theories, followed by a laborious comparison of results with the most authentic observations, and the construction of tables representing the movements thus corrected. It required all his indomitable perseverance to carry through a purpose which failing health continually menaced with frustration. He had, however, the happiness of living long enough to perfect his work. Three weeks after he had affixed his signature to the printed sheets of the theory of Neptune he died at Paris on the 23rd of September 1877. By his marriage with Mademoiselle Choquet, who survived him little more than a month, he left a son and daughter.
The discovery with which Leverrier’s name is popularly identified was only an incident in his career. The elaboration of the scheme of the heavens traced out by P. S. Laplace in the Mécanique céleste was its larger aim, for the accomplishment of which forty years of unremitting industry barely sufficed. He nevertheless found time to organize the meteorological service in France and to promote the present system of international weather-warnings. He founded the Association Scientifique, and was active in introducing a practical scientific element into public education. His inference of the existence, between Mercury and the sun, of an appreciable quantity of circulating matter (Comptes rendus, 1859, ii. 379), has not yet been verified. He was twice, in 1868 and 1876, the recipient of the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, and the university of Cambridge conferred upon him, in 1875, the honorary degree of LL.D. His planetary and solar tables were adopted by the Nautical Almanac, as well as by the Connaissance des temps.
The Annales de l’Observatoire de Paris, the publication of which was set on foot by Leverrier, contain, in vols. i.-vi. (Mémoires) (1855–1861) and x.-xiv. (1874–1877), his theories and tables of the several planets. In vol. i. will be found, besides his masterly report on the observatory, a general theory of secular inequalities, in which the development of the disturbing function was carried further than had previously been attempted.
The memoirs and papers communicated by him to the Academy were summarized in Comptes rendus (1839–1876), and the more important published in full either separately or in the Conn. des temps and the Journal des mathématiques. That entitled Développemens sur différents points de la théorie des perturbations (1841), was translated in part xviii. of Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs. For his scientific work see Professor Adams’s address, Monthly Notices, xxxvi. 232, and F. Tisserand’s review in Ann. de l’Obs. tom. xv. (1880); for a notice of his life, J. Bertrand’s “Éloge historique,” Mém. de l’Ac. des Sciences, tom. xli., 2me série. (A. M. C.)