Urbain Le Verrier was appointed to teach astronomy at the École Polytechnique in 1837 and abandoned his first subject of chemistry. He worked at the Paris Observatory for most of his life where his drive for efficiency was to made him very unpopular. A contemporary said of him:-
I do not know whether M. Le Verrier is actually the most detestable man in France, but I am quite certain that he is the most detested.
His main work was in celestial mechanics. Working independently of Adams, Le Verrier calculated the position of Neptune from irregularities in Uranus's orbit. As one of his colleagues said:-
... he discovered a star with the tip of his pen, without any instruments other than the strength of his calculations alone.
Le Verrier was better served by the German astronomer Galle (who found the planet in one hour) than Adams was by Airy who gave the task to Challis, the director of the Cambridge Observatory. He observed the planet first but did not recognise it.
Arago, who had first suggested that Le Verrier work on this problem, said
In the eyes of all impartial men, this discovery will remain one of the most magnificent triumphs of theoretical astronomy, one of the glories of the Académie and one of the most beautiful distinctions of our country.
Le Verrier received many honours and widespread recognition for his achievement. The London Times carried the headline on the 1 October 1846:-
Le Verrier's planet found.
He was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London and, in France, became an officer in the Legion of Honour.
In 1854 Le Verrier became director of the Paris Observatory but his unpopularity, mentioned above, led to him being removed from the post in 1870. A successor was appointed but died in 1873. At this time Le Verrier again was given the post but his authority was severely restricted as he was supervised by a council.
Le Verrier discovered of a discrepancy in the motion in the perihelion of Mercury in 1855, soon after his appointment as director of the Paris Observatory. The advance of the perihelion of Mercury by more than Newtonian theory predicted was to become important evidence for Einstein's general theory of relativity. Le Verrier, however, attributed this to a planet, which he called Vulcan, closer to the Sun than Mercury or to a second asteroid belt so close to the Sun as to be invisible.
He spent much effort searching for asteroids inside the orbit of Mercury in an attempt to prove his theory but it was long after his death, in 1915, that Einstein's general theory of relativity explained the orbit of Mercury without the need for perturbing bodies.
Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson