Fruitless search of the Celestial Police


In 1800 a group of enthusiastic astronomers formed a Neighbourhood Watch to keep an eye on what was happening in the heavens. They were looking for a missing planet.

No misappropriation of any heavenly body was reported; they just suspected it should be there, and no one, as yet, had ever spotted it.

The group formed a kind of Special Branch and called themselves the "Celestial Police". Its members vowed that until the missing body was uncovered not a single heavenly stone would be left unturned.

It all went back some 30 years before to Johann Titius, who felt he had found the basis of the universe.

He noticed the orbits of the planets could be represented as a series of familiar numbers; the basic series he used was 3, 6, 12, 24 . . . where each number is double its predecessor.

But to make the sequence fit the cosmos, he cleverly put a zero at the start and added four to each, and arrived at 4, 7, 10, 16, 28, 52, 100.

This pattern, Titius said, reflected the proportionate distance of each of the seven known planets from the sun. If the nearest planet, Mercury, was thought of as four units distant, then the series accurately predicted that Earth, as No 3, was 10 units away; and the outermost planet, Saturn, was 100 units from the sun.

There was no known planet at distance 28, but otherwise the series seemed to fit exactly.

Titius's discovery was publicised by Johann Bode, so the pattern, rather unfairly one might think, was named "Bode's Law". Bode's Law was a mere mathematical curiosity until William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus in 1781; Titius's scale would predict a planet at 196, and Uranus was 190 "Titius units" from the sun.

All astronomical hell quickly broke loose. Everyone was now wildly excited by the strange gap between the 4th and 5th planets, Mars and Jupiter. There must surely be a major heavenly body in between, and the Celestial Police were formed to find it.

While the Police, under their leader Heinrich Olbers, were self-importantly making preparations for their search, an Italian astronomer called Giuseppe Piazzi discovered a new heavenly body quite by chance, right between the planets Mars and Jupiter; he called it Ceres.

But Ceres was even smaller than our moon. The Celestial Police felt sure there must be something else and continued their search for 15 years or more, but a major object to correspond to "28" was never found.