The captivating, all-but-forgotten story of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and the search for a planet that never existed
For more than fifty years, the world’s top scientists searched for the “missing” planet Vulcan, whose existence was mandated by Isaac Newton’s theories of gravity. Countless hours were spent on the hunt for the elusive orb, and some of the era’s most skilled astronomers even claimed to have found it.
There was just one problem: It was never there.
In The Hunt for Vulcan, Thomas Levenson follows the visionary scientists who inhabit the story of the phantom planet, starting with Isaac Newton, who in 1687 provided an explanation for all matter in motion throughout the universe, leading to Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier, who almost two centuries later built on Newton’s theories and discovered Neptune, becoming the most famous scientist in the world. Le Verrier attempted to surpass that triumph by predicting the existence of yet another planet in our solar system, Vulcan.
It took Albert Einstein to discern that the mystery of the missing planet was a problem not of measurements or math but of Newton’s theory of gravity itself. Einstein’s general theory of relativity proved that Vulcan did not and could not exist, and that the search for it had merely been a quirk of operating under the wrong set of assumptions about the universe. Levenson tells the previously untold tale of how the “discovery” of Vulcan in the nineteenth century set the stage for Einstein’s monumental breakthrough, the greatest individual intellectual achievement of the twentieth century.
A dramatic human story of an epic quest, The Hunt for Vulcan offers insight into how science really advances (as opposed to the way we’re taught about it in school) and how the best work of the greatest scientists reveals an artist’s sensibility. Opening a new window onto our world, Levenson illuminates some of our most iconic ideas as he recounts one of the strangest episodes in the history of science.
Praise for The Hunt for Vulcan
“Delightful . . . a charming tale about an all-but-forgotten episode in science history.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Engaging . . . At heart, this is a story about how science advances, one insight at a time. But the immediacy, almost romance, of Levenson’s writing makes it almost novelistic.”—The Washington Post
“A well-structured, fast-paced example of exemplary science writing.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The history of science brims with searches for mysteries that didn't pan out, and Levenson (Newton and the Counterfeiter), director of the graduate program in science writing at MIT, charmingly captures the highs and lows of one such hunt for the "undiscovered" planet Vulcan in the 19th century. Levenson explains that Isaac Newton's theory of gravity gave astronomers of the period the expectation that orbiting bodies move along predictable elliptical paths; according to the theory, a wobble in a planet's orbit would hint that the gravity of another body is affecting it. Neptune was discovered in the mid-19th century after irregularities were observed in the orbit of Uranus, so when perturbations were observed in Mercury's orbit, a "planet fever" sent astronomers hunting for something orbiting nearby, close to the Sun. Levenson captures both the hunt and hunters in broad, lively strokes, including the grumpy Urbain Le Verrier, "a man who cataloged slights, tallied enemies, and held his grudges close," and Edmond Lescarbault, a doctor and do-it-yourself "village astronomer." Arguments over orbital mechanics and planet-shaped shadows (which turned out to be sunspots) in solar photos ended in 1915 with Einstein's general theory of relativity and its description of curved space-time, which explained Mercury's wobble. Levenson deftly draws readers into a quest that shows how scientists think and argue, as well as how science advances: one discovery at a time.
Customer ReviewsSee All
This is the riveting story of the search for and "discovery" of something that never existed. The process was driven by past accomplishments, ego, power, and an apparently overwhelming desire for one's own work (and the work of a legendary scientist) to be validated. I hear echoes of this cautionary tale in the financially and politically charged science issues of the present.
The author quickly captured and held my interest as he related the events which spanned a period of more than 200 years. He also presented the pertinent ideas in Einstein's Theory of Relativity in a such a respectful, plain language manner that even I could (almost!) understand them.