By Vince Condella Published May 07, 2003 at 5:02 AM

It may not be a conspiracy worthy of The National Enquirer. The story would not rank up there with the latest political scandal. But for the mid-1840s it wasn't too bad. The scandal involved two scientists, one newly discovered planet and an international cover-up. Woodward and Berstein beware. This is the story of the discovery of the planet Neptune and some unearned credit.

Neptune is the eighth planet of our nine-planet solar system. It orbits outside of the planet Uranus but inside the planet Pluto, at least most of the time. There are occasions when Pluto's orbit swings inside of Neptune's path. So for a time Neptune can be called the most distant planet from the Sun. It was discovered on September 23, 1846, due to hard work, brilliant mathematics and the application of celestial mechanics.

Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier (1811-1877) noticed that the motions of the planet Uranus had a few bumps and curves. In the astronomical world these are known as "perturbations." Le Verrier figured these abnormalities in its orbit had to be due to the presence of another planet, another body in the solar system causing ripples in the gravitational field.

Without the aid of today's high-speed computers, Le Verrier used the laws of physics and good old pencil and paper to calculate the location of the unseen planet. Johann Galle at Berlin Observatory pointed the big telescope at that location, and there was Neptune!

The historical account talks about a young English mathematician, John Couch Adams, calculating the same physics problem as Le Verrier. Adams, it is told, came up with the Neptune location independently and as early as September 1845, a full year before Galle observed the new planet in the Berlin telescope.

The astronomers of England had apparently ignored young Adams' calculations and never spread the word. So the French and Le Verrier got the credit. After Neptune was discovered, a consensus within the scientific community granted equal credit of the discovery to both Le Verrier and Adams. All was right with the world of science.


But now things are not quite right. It has been revealed that the compromise was all part of a conspiracy. Young John Couch Adams was given too much credit for his work. It turns out that his mathematical equations were inaccurate. He had the astronomers of England hunting all over the sky for the unknown planet.

They never came close to discovering Neptune based on Adams' calculations. But the English astronomers didn't want to admit this to the French. So they made Adams a planetary hero rather than the goat.

The files revealing this cover-up were recently discovered in the papers of astronomer Olin J. Eggen after his death in 1998. Eggen had custody of the original file that described the Adams debacle. The Royal Greenwich Observatory's "Neptune File" was published two months after the discovery of the new planet. And just like today's "X-Files," the truth is out there!

Speaking of the nighttime heavens, check out the Moon dancing by the planet Jupiter on May 8. Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system, and has been a bright object high in the southwest-west sky in the evening. The Moon is full on May 15, known as the Full Flower Moon or the Full Corn-Planting Moon. The Sioux Indians of the Northern Plains called the May full moon the "moon when the ponies shed."

This month the full moon will be in total eclipse on the night of May 15. That means the shadow of the Earth will pass across the sunlit face of the Moon, turning it a dark shade of red. Why red? As the Sun's light passes around the Earth on its way to the Moon, some of that light is refracted, or bent, by the Earth's atmosphere. The longest wavelength of light, red, survives the journey and splashes on the Moon's surface.