Unexpectedly Intriguing!
May 3, 2010

Illustration of the Pull of a More Distant Planet Following William Herschel's discovery of Uranus in 1781, the world's astronomers went to work to observe and describe the seventh planet of the solar system, taking detailed measurements of its trajectory in space.

Forty years later, French astronomer Alexis Bouvard published detailed tables describing Uranus' orbit about the sun. More than that however, his tables incorporated the lessons learned about planetary orbits from Johannes Kepler and Sir Isaac Newton to chart the path Uranus would follow into the future.

But then, something strange happened. Significant discrepancies between Bouvard's projected path for Uranus and its actual orbit began to be observed - irregularities that were not observed in the tables he had created to describe the orbital paths of the planets Jupiter and Saturn using the same methods. Soon, observations and detailed measurements confirmed that Uranus was moving along a path that was not described by Bouvard's careful calculations.

These irregularities led Bouvard to hypothesize that an as yet unseen eighth planet in the solar system might be responsible for what he and other astronomers were observing.

Over twenty years later, astronomer Urbain Le Verrier was working on the problem, taking a unique approach to resolving it.

What made Le Verrier's work unique is that he applied the math developed by Sir Isaac Newton to describe the gravitational attraction between two bodies to solve the problem. Here, he used Newton's theory to anticipate where an as yet unknown, but more distant planet also orbiting the sun would have to be to create the effects observed upon the position of the planet Uranus in its orbit.

Voyager 2 Image of Neptune, emphasizing the 'Great Dark Spot' Le Verrier completed his calculations regarding the position of the hypothetical eighth planet on 1 June 1846. A little over three months later, on 23 September 1846, the planet Neptune was observed for the first time at almost exactly the position in space where Le Verrier predicted it would be, confirming Newton's gravitational theory in the process.

We're going to attempt something similar to that process of discovery this week, only with stock prices instead. Stay tuned!...

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