Feb 13

Another Candidate for my Autism Hall of Fame: John Couch Adams

Isaac Newton (1642-1726) is often mentioned (and rightly so, from what I can tell) as having probably been autistic.

Now, I learn of a later-day (1819-1892) kindred spirit.

John Couch Adams is known to history as having been hot on the trail of the discovery of Neptune, only to be beaten to the punch in 1846 by Urbain Jean-Joseph Le Verrier, who produced similar (and more accurate) calculations of its presumed orbit, enabling astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle to definitively identify the planet for the first time.

Neptune had been seen and noted by other astronomers, including Galileo (in 1612), but they had not recognized it as a planet. Over the years, irregularities in the orbit of Uranus had led to speculation that there might be another, more distant, planet whose gravitational pull was influencing the slightly erratic pathway of Uranus through the heavens..

Adams evidently had investigated this problem, and had either figured out the orbit of the unknown planet, or knew how to do so. He had presented his preliminary findings to the British Astronomer Royal, George Biddell Airy. Neither man actively pursued an empirical investigation, so the honors of the discovery of Neptune went to Le Verrier and Galle.


  • forgive the links to wikipedia: I’m aware this can be an unreliable and biased source at times, but there is also a plethora of external sources for well-known stories such as these, for those who wish to read more
  • to see a full-sized copy of the graphic below, click on the image, and then use the “back” function in your browser to return to this post

In my reading about this story, the article that caught my eye with respect to autism was one that appeared in Scientific American in December 2004, not long after some missing papers were found (in 1998) that filled in gaps in the historical record. It’s a good article, but it is unfortunately behind a paywall. The article is here for those who have access to it, and here is a graphic that summarizes the discussion.

The overview of the article states

  • The early 19th century had its own version of today’s dark matter problem: the planet Uranus was drifting off course. The mystery was solved in 1846, when observers, guided by theorists, discovered Neptune. Its gravity could account for Uranus’s wayward orbit.
  • Historians have traditionally apportioned credit between a French theorist, Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier, and an English one, John Couch Adams. Le Verrier’s role is undisputed, and so was Adams’s–until the mid-20th century.
  • Just as more historians were beginning to reexamine Adams’s role, a sheaf of crucial documents went missing from a British archive. It surfaced in Chile in 1998. The authors came across other crucial documents this past summer.
  • The bottom line is that Adams did some interesting calculations but deserves no credit for the discovery.

In writing about Adams, the authors say

His life paralleled that of Isaac Newton in some respects. Both grew up in the English countryside — Newton as the son of an illiterate yeoman in Lancashire, Adams as the son of a sharecropper in Cornwall. Both were interested from an early age in the regularities of mathematics and natural phenomena; both drove pegs or cut notches in window ledges or walls to mark the seasonal motion of the sun. They had similar idiosyncrasies: sobriety, fastidiousness, religious scrupulosity. Contemporaries viewed them as dreamy, eccentric and absentminded. Both Newton and Adams would probably be regarded today [2004] as having Asperger’s syndrome, sometimes known as high-intelligence autism.

Other anecdotes in the article also paint Adams as the typical “absentminded professor” that Hans Asperger himself had mentioned as an example of how autism is not rare, but can be seen all around if one knows what to look for.

Adams arrived to take up his studies at Cambridge in 1839.

His landlady said she “sometimes found him lying on the sofa, with neither books nor papers near him; but not infrequently … when she wanted to speak to him, the only way to attract his attention, was to go up to him and touch his shoulder; calling to him was no use.”

Oh, how familiar that is to me! I can’t say how many times I was told I had been addressed, and made no acknowledgement of having been spoken to, although I seemed alert. Sometimes I would remember the incident, but often I did not, my mind having been occupied with some problem or thought that excluded the outside world from interfering.

Elsewhere, the article describes Adams as a retiring, self-effacing man, who perhaps could have earned credit for discovering Neptune had it not been for his tendency to procrastinate and his dislike of writing. Again, I can relate to these characteristics, as well as to the description given toward the end of the article:

 A discovery does not consist merely of launching a tentative exploration of an interesting problem and producing some calculations; it also involves realizing that one has made a discovery and conveying it effectively to the scientific world. Discover thus has a public as well as a private side. Adams accomplished only half of this two-part task. Ironically, the very personal qualities that gave Le Verrier the edge in making the discover — his brashness and abrasiveness, as opposed to Adam’s shyness and naïveté — worked against him in the postdiscovery spin-doctoring. The British scientific establishment closed ranks behind Adams, whereas Le Verrier was unpopular among his colleagues.”

In my career as a financial analyst, I always felt if I did a good job and produced superior results, my work would be recognized and rewarded. To a certain extent that was true, but I can see now that a good measure of my success was aided by people around me who were willing to publicize my achievements.

It’s possible that I could have done bigger and better things if I had been more of a Le Verrier type and less like Adams, but I was more than satisfied with what I had accomplished, and really did not crave any more attention. I can see now that this attitude did not necessarily lead to maximizing my economic value (which is okay by me). I really loved doing research and exploring new ideas. That was the thrill for me. Having solved one problem, I was ready to move on. But my employer on Wall Street had other priorities.

At one point in my career, I had been using a set of models and a method of analysis to ferret out values within the largest American companies whose stocks were traded by my firm. I wrote a weekly market commentary and provided detailed lists to my clients. At first it was fun, because I was still learning. After a time, though, I began to get bored, despite the dynamism of the marketplace. I wanted a new challenge.

I began to dabble in analyzing other markets; in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. I published some (internal) research papers that were well-received, and I had visions of taking over the world (so to speak). My company had just purchased the largest historical database in existence, of financial and market price data, of thousands of companies around the world. But I knew I couldn’t do everything. It would be huge undertaking to tackle this new challenge.

I went to my boss and told him of my desire to undertake this project. I had confidence in the team that worked for me, and I knew that I could figure out how to create a great value-added product. I explained that in order to do that, I’d have to give up the work that I was already doing, because that was a full-time job in itself, but that was okay with me because I felt a need to move on.

It would be another 15 years or more before I would become aware of my own autism. Perhaps with an expanded understanding of how I fit into the world (or don’t), I would have recognized my own naïveté. Peter listened attentively, and he was very supportive. “Sure, you can do that, it sounds great! Just one thing, though. You have to keep doing what you’re doing now. Our clients love you!” I was trapped by my own success!

I can also relate to Adams’s reluctance to push himself on to others. In explaining why he had failed to convince his colleagues at Cambridge to pursue a search for the mysterious planet, he admitted to not taking the time to fully explain his ideas.

I could not expect however that practical astronomers, who were already fully occupied with important labours, would feel as much confidence in the results of my investigations, as I myself did.

This brings to mind a conversation I had with a couple of brothers in a family that appeared to me to have plenty of autism running through all three generations I knew. “We’re not very good self-promoters!” one of them said as we discussed the challenges of setting up a new business. His brother laughed and nodded.

I never got to do that international project. A few months later, I left that firm to take a job in a new city, where I was offered a chance to take on new challenges. I had to take a cut in pay, but I had my priorities.

Adams was honored in many ways during his lifetime. He is said to have turned down a knighthood that was offered by Queen Victoria. In 1881, he was offered the position of Astronomer Royal, but he preferred to pursue his teaching and research in Cambridge.

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