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The Hunt for Vulcan: ...And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe

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A short, charming, character-driven book on science that tells the story of the 50-year search by the world’s top scientists for the “missing” planet Vulcan and Albert Einstein’s remarkable proof of the Theory of Relativity, which once and for all proved that the planet never existed in the first place. November 2015 is the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s discovery of the General Theory of Relativity.

Levenson, head of MIT’s Science Writing Program, tells the captivating, unusual, and nearly-forgotten backstory behind Einstein’s invention of the Theory of Relativity, which completely changed the course of science forever. For over 50 years before Einstein developed his theory, the world’s top astronomers spent countless hours and energy searching for a planet, which came to be named Vulcan, that had to exist, it was thought, given Isaac Newton’s theories of gravity. Indeed, in the two centuries since Newton’s death, his theory had essentially become accepted as fact. It took Einstein’s genius to realize the mystery of the missing planet wasn’t a problem of measurements or math but of Newton’s theory of gravity itself. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity proved that Vulcan did not and could not exist, and that the decades-long search for it had merely been a quirk of operating under the wrong set of assumptions about the universe. Thomas Levenson tells this unique story, one of the strangest episodes in the history of science, with elegant simplicity, fast-paced drama, and lively characters sure to capture the attention of a wide group of readers.

229 pages, Hardcover

First published November 3, 2015

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Thomas Levenson

14 books45 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 316 reviews
Profile Image for Jaylia3.
752 reviews132 followers
November 23, 2015
The determined hunt for a planet that doesn't exist

This short but fascinating book works as both an illustration of how scientific ideas advance and an engaging focused history that stretches from Newton, whose work crowned the scientific revolution and helped inspire Europe’s Age of Enlightenment, to Einstein, who spent the WWI years absorbed in his nascent theories of relativity which changed the way we look at the world and made possible most further developments in science and technology. Framing the book’s story is the hunt for a missing planet, known as Vulcan (not Mr. Spock’s planet, unfortunately).

In 1846 Urbain Le Verrier, a French scientist, used the mathematics of Newton's theories of gravity to predict the existence and location of Neptune, which was still undiscovered, based on slight anomalies in the orbit of Uranus. With almost perfect accuracy, Le Verrier was able to tell skywatchers where to point their telescopes and several found the planet immediately, a highly exciting moment in physics and astronomy that was downright inspiring to read about.

So when Le Verrier used Newton’s formulas to postulate the existence of a planet between the Sun and Mercury based on anomalies in Mercury’s orbit, everyone assumed he was correct--both Newton and Le Verrier had proven themselves almost god-like in their insights after all. Scientists spent 50 years looking for the planet they called Vulcan--some actually thought they had found it and no one was willing to jettison Newton’s universal law of gravitation--until 1915 when Einstein used the theories of relativity and the bending of spacetime by gravity to prove that Vulcan doesn’t, and couldn't, exist.

With biographical sketches, some history of the era, and accessible explanations of the involved science, The Hunt for Vulcan is informative and highly entertaining.
Profile Image for Susanna - Censored by GoodReads.
543 reviews604 followers
January 14, 2018
Actual rating 3.5 stars.

The extraordinary thing is how many observers in the 19th century convinced themselves that they saw Vulcan. (And some of them were professional scientists and trained astronomical observers.) I was struck by reading this how the Harvard method of photographic astronomy could have settled this question. (And indeed Dr. Draper, whose widow funded Harvard's efforts, was one of the hunters for Vulcan. Neither he nor his camera saw it, and he said so.)
Profile Image for Jean.
1,730 reviews753 followers
July 1, 2016
When I hear about the planet Vulcan I think of Mr. Spock. I enjoyed this book as it provided a quick review of Einstein and his work. It has been awhile since I have read anything about Einstein.

In the 19th century they believed that near Mercury was the planet Vulcan. Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation and how it governed the orbits of planets is discussed by the author and how it related to Vulcan. Levenson outlines the long search for Vulcan ending with Albert Einstein’s journey to the theory of relativity. Einstein applied the theory to the Mercury question and the existence of the phantom planet. Levenson detailed his talk at the Prussian Academy of Science on November 18, 1915 in Berlin, where he destroyed Vulcan and re-imagined the cosmos.

The book is well written and researched. Levenson has the ability to make complex ideas into easy to understand language. Thomas Levenson is the head of MIT’s graduate program in science writing. If you are interested in the history of science and astronomy you will enjoy this short book.

I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. Kevin Pariseau does an excellent job narrating the book. Pariseau is a Broadway stage actor and also has performed in musicals. Like many stage actors Pariseau narrates audiobooks.
Profile Image for Atila Iamarino.
411 reviews4,385 followers
January 8, 2018
Uma boa biografia sobre a gravitação universal e a relatividade. Começa com a descrição de como descobrimos Netuno por conta da gravitação universal e como o mesmo pensamento levou à proposição de um planeta entre Mercúrio e o Sol, Vulcano. Que muitos "viram" mas não estava realmente lá e só Einstein explicou o porquê. Bem explicado, curioso e legal de ler. Só não fez tanto meu gosto por explicar uma fatia mais curta da história da ciência do que gosto de ler.
Profile Image for Paul.
2,143 reviews
September 7, 2016
Everyone has heard of Einstein; his name is synonymous with genius and his Theory of Relativity not only gave us a completely new branch of physics, it also solved the mystery of the missing planet ‘Vulcan’ that scientists and astronomers had been searching for. The story though begins much earlier.

In 1687 Isaac Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica or Principia which described how particles attract using the force of gravity. This seminal book defined classical mechanics that allowed scientists to understand and even predict the movement of the planets around the sun. Noticing that there were anomalies in the orbit of Saturn, Urbain Le Verrier using the mathematics in the equations that Newton developed, managed to predict that there was a planet outside of Saturn. This discovery by Verrier and visual verification of the planet Neptune by Johann Gottfried Galle was a remarkable demonstration of celestial mechanics, and made their reputations in scientific discovery.

One thing that had puzzled astronomers for years was that there was an anomaly in the orbit of Mercury. Aiming to reproduce his success in the discovery of Neptune, Verrier worked through the calculations and claimed that there was a planet closer to the sun. People all over the world scoured the heavens looking for this planet, even claiming to see it at times.

But there was just one minor problem; it didn’t exist.

It took another fifty 50 years for the former assistant at the Swiss patent office to understand the errors in Newton’s work, and formulate his new simple theories that revolutionised our understanding of physics.

Levenson has drawn together all these fascinating characters into a story that is not only interesting to read, but reveals the way that we have come to understand our Solar System. Occasionally he drifts of into fairly complex science, but this is a great example of bringing alive a science story that most have forgotten, as you’d expect from the head of MIT’s Science Writing. Well worth reading, even for those who haven’t thought about physics since they left school.
Profile Image for Connie.
347 reviews16 followers
May 24, 2018
I really enjoyed this book. It is so much more succinct than other astronomy books I've read (I'm looking at you Parallax). To be fair, though, it deals with a much shorter period of history.

I enjoyed learning more about Le Verrier. Boy, was that guy full of himself! He was a mathematical genius, however. Considering his success in mathematically predicting Neptune, it’s understandable how no one would want to go up against him when he predicted yet another planet between Mercury and the Sun.

Luckily Einstein came along. He was not only willing to go up against Le Verrier, but Newton himself. And now we know that there is no planet Vulcan. My inner Star Trek nerd just died a little.

If you ever want to learn about this little known astronomical anomaly, this would definitely be the book to pick up. Live long and prosper!
120 reviews51 followers
November 3, 2016
Levenson’s book gives a very readable account of the impact of Newton’s theory of gravity on modern science; how its success in explaining the cosmos of 1700 and 1800s science validated Newton’s theory to the extent that eminent astronomers of the late 1800s spent considerable efforts and gambled reputations on the search for a non-existent inner planet that would explain a significant anomaly in Newton’s theory, the procession of the perihelion of Mercury. He describes how Einstein was able to demonstrate in 1915 that relativity could explain the issue of Mercury’s orbit. All in all, a great illustration of how the scientific method works.
Profile Image for Bandit.
4,609 reviews469 followers
August 30, 2015
Once again thanks to publishers and Netgalley I have the honor to be the first person to review the book. And it was a good one. Played along with my interest in astronomy, although frustrated my nonscientific brain with occasional physics discourse. Turns out for about 50 years, until Einstein put it to rest in 1915, there existed a great fallacy of a planet Vulcan, a planet, that while unobserved, was much like Neptune presupposed and predicted into existence. This is a story of how it Vulcan came to be and than not be, including a look at its celestial predecessors and the two great minds (Newton and Einstein)that shaped the way our universe is perceived then and now, by discovering and redefining gravity respectably. Really fascinating book, written with notable accessibility despite the complex and technical subject matter, with a welcome infusion of author's erudite personality and wry humor. Thoroughly educational, without pedantry or unnecessary launches into academese, this was a very interesting intelligent book. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for 11811 (Eleven).
662 reviews145 followers
September 1, 2016
I suck at science but this was pretty cool and easy enough for this layman to follow. Great story about the absence of evidence becoming evidence of absence. I never even heard of Vulcan until I picked this up.
Profile Image for Ints.
749 reviews74 followers
September 7, 2016
Reti kurš vairs atceras, ka aizpērnā gadsimta beigās un pērnā gadsimta sākumā pasaules astronomi meklēja planētu Vulkānu. Vulkānam teorētiski pienācās atrasties orbītā starp Sauli un Merkuru. Tikai tas varēja izskaidrot Merkura orbītas īpatnības. Izrādījās, ka Merkura orbītas novirzes no aprēķiniem izskaidrojums prasa pavisam citu skatījumu uz mūsu telplaiku. Šis izskaidrojums slēpjas Vispārīgajā relativitātes teorijā.

Par Vulkāna teoriju es uzzināju jau desmit gadu vecumā. Lasīju padomju populārzinātniskās grāmatas, un tur šī lieta bija pieminēta. Vēlāk laiku pa laikam saskāros ar šīs noslēpumainās pieminēšanu pāris grāmatos. Taču neko vairāk kā pāris rindkopas par šo tēmu vienuviet nenācās lasīt. Tad ar laiku interese pieklusa un parādījās tikai brīdī, kad izlasīju šīs grāmatas nosaukumu. Izrādās, ka es visu laiku esmu vēlējies izlasīt grāmatu par šo tēmu. Atverot grāmatu, iedomājos, ka nu tik būs, pustraki matemātiķi, kas visu mūžu veltījuši orbītu kalkulācijām, amatieri astronomi, kuri savos teleskopos redz vairāk nekā tur ir patiesībā, un konspirāciju teoriju piekritēji, kas uz horoskopu, kurš neņem vērā Vulkāna ietekmi uz Jupiteru, nemaz neskatās.

Jāatzīst, ka iespējams ne tik krāšņi kā manā prātā, bet daļēji šis vis te ir atrodams. Sākās viss ar Urāna atklāšanu. Lai ar’ bija tādi, kas vēlējās, lai šo jauno planētu sauktu par Džordžu, beigās uzvarēja Urāns. Un tad, balstoties uz Ņūtona trīs likumiem, tika atklāts Neptūns. Šī planēta bija nepieciešama, lai izskaidrotu dīvainības Urāna orbītā. Un tad uz to brīdi palika tikai viena planēta, kuras orbītu pilnībā nevarēja izskaidrot. Novērotās orbītas atšķirība no aprēķinātās bija niecīga, taču aizvien precīzāki novērojumi un aprēķini nespēja sastiķēties kopā. Tādēļ radās ideja par Vulkānu. Mazu planētu, kas riņķo tik tuvu Saulei, ka reāli ir novērojam tikai tās tranzīta laikā. Neviens viņu nebija redzējis, taču formulas norādīja vietu, kur tai jāatrodas. Matemātika jau reiz bija uzvarējusi, kādēļ gan tas nevarētu atkārtoties.

Šī grāmata nav tikai par Vulkānu, tā pie reizes ir arī liecība tam, kā cilvēki gadsimta gaitā uzlaboja savas zināšanas par debesu ķermeņu mehāniku. Par novērošanas instrumentu un matemātikas metožu attīstību. Par veco teoriju uzlabošanu un to, kā galu gala Einšteins piedabūja to, ka Saules sistēmā visas orbītu dīvainības tiek izskaidrotas. Pat mūsdienās sistēmā ar daudziem ķermeņiem orbītu izskaitļošana nav triviāls darbs, bet savulaik cilvēki visus aprēķinus veica uz papīra, un arī novērojumi nebija ne tie precīzākie. Var tikai nobrīnīties par atsevišķu indivīdu uzcītību un vēlmi veltīt šim procesam daļu no savas dzīves. Autors nodaļu pa nodaļai parāda kā zinātniskā teorija evolucionē uz aizvien precīzāko objektīvās realitātes aprakstu. Katra jauna teorija prasa papildus pierādījumus, un Vispārīgās Relativitātes Teorijas viens no tādiem bija Merkura orbītas novirze.

Taču arī daļa par Vulkānu un tā meklētājiem ir izcila. Tā labi ilustrē entuziasmu, vēlmi atklāt jaunu planētu, instrumentu robežas un godkārību. Šis kopums deva “rezultātu” - Vulkānu novēroja daudzas reizes, bija pat brīdis, kad kāds novērotājs tika atzīts par Vulkāna atklājēju. Taču kritiķi vienmēr atrada kļūdas aprēķinos un novērojumos, ar laiku ideja par Vulkānu pierima un beigās izplēnēja pavisam.

Lieku 9 no 10 ballēm. Ja esi rūdīts populārzinātnisko grāmatu lasītājs, tad aptuveni 70% nesniegs nekā jauna, būs parastais stāsts no Ņūtona līdz Einšteinam planētu mehānikas kontekstā. Taču Vulkāna daļa ir tā vērta, lai šo grāmatu izlasītu. Cilvēkam, kurš ar šāda tipa grāmatām ir uz Jūs, šī dos ļoti labu ieskatu astronomijā, Ņūtona mehānikā un Einšteina relativitātes teorijā. Iesaku!
Profile Image for Thom.
1,593 reviews47 followers
June 24, 2016
One way to think of this is as a biography of the planet Vulcan, zeroth planet in our solar system.

It was born in an 1859 paper by Le Verrier (who discovered Neptune using only mathematics and astronomical observations of Uranus) as the story behind Mercury's perihelion advance. It's troubled childhood include hiding from astronomers and a claimed sighting by French physician and amateur astronomer Edmond Lescarbault. After being declared missing (and presumed dead) in 1878, the scientific community basically ignored the discrepancy in Sir Isaac Newton's system of the world until finally Albert Einstein came along to declare that poor Vulcan had never existed.

That discrepancy between Newtonian orbital mechanics and one described by the general theory of relativity are the focus of this short book, which also delves into the stories of the men involved. No serious math is required, though I felt the author rushed through the explanation of the change in distance / time required in a gravity field. It took Einstein years to make the math for this come out right - I expect a few more pages in a book for the layman.

If most of the terms in this review are familiar to you, I think you will enjoy this fairly quick read.
Profile Image for Muneel Zaidi.
185 reviews72 followers
May 30, 2016
Those who enjoy knowing a little bit more about the proper names in their scientific textbooks will find this an at least interesting, if not entertaining read.

You might know what a Laplace Transform is, but did you know that Pierre Laplace had cocktails with Napoleon? All the while making snarky (offensive) remarks about prominent institutions of the times.

You probably didn't; but if that's the kind of the stuff you want to know about Newton, Einstein, and other familiar names, you'll like this book. The search for Vulcan is a great vehicle to explore these lives, and an informative one about the scientific process.

Reading this book is like eating a delicious candy bar...only to realize it's a health bar made of superfoods.

Profile Image for Joshua Buhs.
647 reviews113 followers
June 25, 2017
Fine, I guess.

This is standard science journalism--though in the history of science vein, not engaging current research--and remains standard throughout, in both senses of that word. The acknowledgments name check all the contemporary science journalists you can imagine: it's standard in fitting the contemporary mode. But it's also standard in being unchallenging: this is the beach read novel of science writing.

Levenson tells the story of the rise and fall of a belief in a planet with an orbit between the sun and Mercury. He starts with Newton, and his description of the laws of gravity. These were then applied to understanding the movement of the planets; perturbations were used as a way to predict the existence of as-yet undiscovered planets.

The crux of the story is the 19th-century French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier, who helped to predict the existence of Neptune based on anomalies in the orbit of other planets; and when similar anomalies were discovered in the movements of Mercury, gave his imprimatur to the existence of some infra-Mercurial planet that had not been seen because of the sun's glare. In past histories, Le Verrier has been something of a villain--both arrogant and wrong--but Levenson wants to understand him as more complex, wrong, but for the right reasons.

Le Verrier's vote of approval led to this other planet being named, called Vulcan. There were various searches for it, but the evidence remained elusive. Levenson wants to make the point that scientists sometimes hold on to ideas even when the empirical case for them is less than overwhelming, because they have no alternative. It's a very soft version of the relativism favored by many historian of science, and by the end he pretty much abandons it, concluding that science is self-correcting.

It's a weird conclusion, given that Levenson himself is a blogger, and is well aware of the fun that is held by the old notion that the blogosphere is self-correcting. All the same criticisms about the idea of a self-correcting blogosphere--what an ugly word--can be applied to science, as well. But Levenson has faith in the institution of science to overcome the prejudices of individual scientists.

The hero of his story, an uncomplicated protagonist, is Einstein, whose theory of relativity explained Mercury's weird motion, without the need of r a mystery planet. Einstein did his theoretical calculations, paid attention to empirical results, and offered other scientists an alternative framework so they could abandon Le Vierre's wrong view for the right one. It's all very tidy.

Nothing here is really challenging--though the concept of relativity remains hard to understand. Levenson's account of Newton is fairly standard, and his discussion of Le Vierre and Herschel reminds me of Richard Holmes's "The Age of Wonder," without the wonder. This story of Neptune and the Vulcan has been told before. As has Einstein's working out the theory of relativity. Levenson tries hard to make relativity understandable, relying on, well, the standard examples.

There's nothing wrong with the book, but there's nothing exciting about it, either. It was fine.
Profile Image for Rusty.
Author 10 books27 followers
July 14, 2019
I’m trying to wrap up all my affairs in this part of the world before I depart for friendlier shores.

I lost my job a few months ago and me and the missus decided to just move to another country. She’s there now, I’m still in the states goobering around and trying to take care of all the muck associated with leaving (keeping our house, but renting it out) changing insurance stuff, mail stuff, storing personal items, packing stuff, dealing with the cars, the family, the headaches, etc.

But the clock on my departure time is now being measured in days, not weeks, or months. Not sure when I’ll be back.

Anyway, I thought I’d have a ton of time to read and write and be cool, turns out, not so much. I’ve been marking things as ‘currently reading’ for the past month or so after I finish them just so I won’t forget to review them later. I was looking over some of the stuff I had listed and was kinda sorta starting to forget what the books were like.

Hence, my taking a few moments to write something down about this book (and maybe a few others before I leave, I dunno).

I really liked this one, a lot. It’s predominately a tale of how Newtonian physics was ushered into the collective consciousness of the educated world when it was used to discover Neptune. The amount known about the the orbit and mass of it based solely on the subtle influence it placed on Uranus was incredible. It made believers out of everyone.

When Mercury showed similar hiccups in its orbit of the sun, well, it was obvious the cause was another planetary body between it and the sun - and so the hunt was on.

I was riveted by this story. The work that went into calculating Vulcan’s position between the Sun and Mercury was exhaustive. Astronomers and mathematicians alike worked nonstop on the problem.

And to cut to the spoilery end, in case you were unaware, there is no planet orbiting between Mercury and the Sun. It’s a quirk of the universe that Newtonian physics breaks down in the presence of a great deal of mass, in this case, the mass of the sun, that mass distorts the orbit of Mercury in a way that’s unpredictable using Newton’s picture of the cosmos.

All that is well known, but it’s this story of just how clear it all seemed to the intelligentsia at the time - and how fundamentally they misunderstood the universe - that I loved so much.

I’d like to spend more time going over what all this means, to me, and why I found this book so unputdownable, but I have some time constraints (I have some more packing to do).

It’s a perfect blend of pop-science and narrative history that I absolutely adored.
Profile Image for Gilbert Stack.
Author 62 books57 followers
May 5, 2022
This is an interesting book, telling a story about astronomy that I had never heard before. It starts with Isaac Newton’s Theory of Gravity and goes on to show how it led to the discovery of Uranus. When Uranus’ orbit didn’t perfectly accord with the expectations Newton’s theory led scientists to predict, that led to the discovery of Neptune. When a similar orbital irregularity was discovered in Mercury, it led to the hypothesis that another planet—called Vulcan—was circling the sun even closer than Mercury was. But no one could find it and eventually Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity explained the irregularity of the orbit without the need for another planet.

I didn’t try and follow all the heavy science. I was just interested in the outlines of the hunt. But one thing that did surprise me was how incredibly petty some of these great scientists proved to be. Great men can be very small.

If you liked this review, you can find more at www.gilbertstack.com/reviews.
Profile Image for Michael.
197 reviews
September 13, 2020
I love history of science (and especially history of astronomy). This was a really fun look at how theoretical physics ran aground, over and over, on the shoals of observation until someone (Einstein) discovered a means to take accurate soundings. It also included the best brief explanation of relativity that I've read.

Little copyediting amusements, though:

- Remarking on the fact that someone in the 1860s calls the city on the Bosporus "Constantinople," when its name was changed in 1923
- Reference to "Platform Nine and a Half"
Profile Image for ~nikki the recovering book addict.
1,240 reviews2 followers
March 25, 2020
Fascinating narrative story about physics! I didn’t know what to expect but it was definitely great to read a somewhat blow-by-blow account of what each genius scientist did to get to where Einstein could then come up with his theory of special relativity.

The fact that it’s a narrative story just puts the icing on the cake because I think it would have been way too dry otherwise.

That said, I believe I need to reread this because my physics is slightly worse for wear than merely “rusty” 😂
Profile Image for Blaine Snow.
142 reviews106 followers
July 15, 2022
Curious about how science works? Wonder why theories eventually fall short, why observations always produce new anomalies that cannot be explained by existing theory? Wonder why theories are so slow to change?

Here is a fabulous true story of how science advances, how knowledge advances, how the relationship between awareness and knowledge grows and develops, and how human hubris and pride often intervene. Here is the best book that explains philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn’s theory of “scientific paradigm change” in his (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). It is the true story of humanity’s coming to awareness of the solar system, the universe around us, and how it all hangs together. That story centers on a planet that, according to the most successful scientific theory of all time, had to be there but couldn’t be found – the planet Vulcan.

Levenson’s recounting of the hunt for Vulcan involves many interweaving stories: 1) the prolonged history of discovering and sorting out of the structure of our solar system, what it consists of, how it’s organized, how it works; 2) stories of the major characters who were involved in figuring it all out; 3) the technologies and advancements thereof that allowed for ever more accurate observation and measurement; and 4) the many victories and failures involved in getting it right. It’s a story of human successes and failures, of the triumphs and limits of Newtonian physics, and the phenomenal genius of one man who provided the new framework within which to explain and predict that which Newtonian physics could not… Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity.

In addition to the two main characters the book is built around, Newton and Einstein, there appear many other fascinating characters:

Edmond Halley, who worked with Isaac Newton on the study of comets,
William and Caroline Herschel, discoverers of the planet Uranus,
Pierre Simon Laplace, math whiz and author of the 5-vol/1,500-page Celestial Mechanics which purported to explain the entire solar system using Newtonian gravitation,
Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier, math whiz who improved on Laplace’s work and discovered by calculations on paper the planet Neptune using Newtonian theory to explain anomalies in the orbit of Uranus, who also calculated the discrepancies in the orbit of Mercury and subsequently fueled the hunt for Vulcan,
• Edmond Modeste Lescarbault, Heinrich Weber, and James Craig Watson, the three most notable of dozens who claimed to have observed Vulcan, the planet that, according to Newtonian theory, had to be there to explain the anomalies in the orbit of Mercury.

The latter part of the book describes the almost super-human efforts of Einstein to recast our understanding of space, time, matter, and energy around the limitations of the speed of light and show why Newtonian theory could not explain everything, why Vulcan could not be there. With Einstein, the universe went from 3-dimensional absolute time and space to 4-dimensional relativistic spacetime. Einstein’s story is told in the context of the scientists he worked with, Planck, Bohr, Minkowski, Grossman, Hilbert, and many others.

Levenson’s story shows how tenacious a successful theory can be, how attached we become to a successful framework, how difficult it is to accept its limitations, how it can even make us believe in phenomena that don’t actually exist even though they can’t be verified by repeat observations or even by a single observation – theoretical entities that must be there to make the theory ‘work’ such as with today's dark matter. Newtonian theory was so successful that Vulcan had to exist, so people started finding it… that is, until they didn’t.

Today we have the incredibly successful theories of general relativity and the standard model of particle physics, but each of which still has its own Vulcans. Discrepancies in these models, like before in the orbit of Mercury, have appeared over time and even more recently, new ones have arisen such as in the inconsistencies in the Hubble constant as well as the recent surprise differences in the mass of a W boson (see, Quanta magazine April 7, 2022: “Newly Measured Particle Seems Heavy Enough to Break Known Physics” by Charlie Wood).

What’s the takeaway here? I’ll leave that for you to ponder. Maybe with every increment of detail and precision in scientific theory and observation comes a new layer of complexity and a deeper layer of more nuanced unknowns always out of reach of our most powerful instruments. Perhaps the James Webb Space Telescope, the LIGO detectors, the ALMA array in Chile, the Large Hadron Collider, or the Event Horizon Telescope will add pieces to the puzzle but, my view is that complete knowledge is categorically impossible, an ever-receding horizon. Think about it – what would complete knowledge even look like?
Profile Image for Ashutosh Rai.
66 reviews16 followers
September 28, 2019
The hunt for Vulcan was an easy read, but did not give me much to ponder over. For people in the academic world, they are already familiar with the scientific method and process and the pitfalls associated with it, so hammering it in again and again did not work for me. What worked were the historical accounts though, which are presented in the form of a nice story, highlighting the humanity of the giants.

I would not recommend this to someone who has some elementary understanding of the theory of relativity, even if he is not aware of the Vulcan story. The whole Vulcan story can be summarized as follows.

Newton's theory of Gravitation worked well, but was only an approximation which made measurable differences only in the close vicinity of massive objects. This made Mercury's orbit misbehave a bit, and in the 19th century, having faith in Newton's laws, astronomers thought that there must be another planet in between Mercury and the Sun to cause this anomaly. They looked for this planet, Vulcan, and some of them misidentified some sunspots or other objects as Vulcan among other errors. What was needed was a new way to see things, that Einstein provided with the General theory of Relativity, and that explained the anomaly in Mercury's orbit.

Having said that, it can be a really nice read for someone interested in the scientific method, or as a popular science book for the younger audience to tell them about how science works and the possible pitfalls along the way.
Profile Image for John.
Author 341 books166 followers
October 13, 2016
Vulcan was the small planet predicted in the mid-nineteenth century by the great French astronomer Le Verrier (whose calculations had allowed the planet Neptune to be discovered) to orbit between Mercury and the sun, since otherwise the small but not ignorable precession of Mercury's orbit seemed inexplicable. For over half a century the hunt for Vulcan continued, and there were several occasions when its existence appeared to have been confirmed; at last it was Albert Einstein who demonstrated through his general theory of relativity that Mercury's precession was perfectly explicable in terms of his new comprehension of the nature of gravity. The tale of Vulcan is thus one of good science building upon bad understanding, of self-deception, and of the power of science to correct itself as understanding advances . . . and it's a tale that has always fascinated me.

I therefore much enjoyed Levenson's largely breezy account of the saga, which gave far more detail, often fascinating, than I'd known before. I hadn't realized Le Verrier was such a bastard, for example (but then, hey!, so was Newton), and I hadn't known about the humble French country doctor and amateur astronomer, Edmond Lescarbault, who in 1859 became the first to "see" Vulcan. (No one knows what he actually did see, and Levenson doesn't hazard any guesses.)

Talking of Lescarbault, however, leads me to my one reservation about this book. I'm no great fan of the type of history -- scientific or otherwise -- that uses essentially invented details in an attempt to create faux-atmosphere . . .

We can imagine Bilgewater crouched over his notebook at the kitchen table, its pages covered with the chicken scratches that he called handwriting, his mind feverishly churning through the calculations that seemed to him to be trying to reveal the great new truth he was seeking. Yet, every time he tried to peer into their mysteries, they seemed to evanesce, to melt away like the morning mists that time he and Evangeline had spent their happy (but not entirely so) second honeymoon among the rolling glades of Tuscany.

Evangeline was now telling him that, if only he'd go out and shoot a few carrots, they could have shepherd's pie for their supper. But he heard her not.

Just a hairsbreadth beyond the boundary of his comprehension there lay . . .

You know the kind of thing. (I'm sure I've done it myself on occasion, but for obvious reasons that's entirely different.) Levenson uses the technique quite a lot in The Hunt for Vulcan, to the extent that it began eventually to irritate.

And its lure led Levenson into at least one error that had me staring at the page. Amateur astronomer Lescarbaut is making his potentially epochal observation of the sun through his 10cm refracting telescope when

Another patient arrives and, likely with unrecorded frustration, he pulls his eye from his telescope. [p73]

If you look through a 10cm refractor at the sun, you permanently blind yourself: it's as simple as that. (Remember how as a kid you used a simple lens to set things on fire by focusing sunlight on them? Well, imagine doing that to your retina, only even more so.) The way you use a telescope to observe the sun is by projecting the image of the solar disk onto a sheet of paper, or the wall, or . . . You can put a dark filter over the telescope's objective lens and look through it at the sun, but no one does that because, if the filter slips, you're blinded.

So, as I say, overall an extremely enjoyable book from which I learned a lot, but I could have done with a bit less of the cozy "atmospherics"; it is, I think, underestimating the reader to assume they're needed.
33 reviews
January 5, 2016
Awesome book. It was a real surprise. I thought it would be a dry subject and had only chosen this book from Audible since it was a Best-seller.
But the way the book unfolds right from the Newton's time to Einstein's is nothing short of a full-blown mystery novel.
For people who do not like Science, particularly Astronomy, I would not recommend this book. But a must read for all the Nerds and Geeks.
Profile Image for Gendou.
597 reviews272 followers
March 15, 2016
This is a concise history of the mystery surrounding the procession of Venus. It works the reader into the problem with a decent background on the planets, and ends with a rather superficial resolution to the mystery without going too deep into the physics.

While people's claimed and mistaken observations of the planet-that-wasn't seem quaint today, the episode from history serves as a skeptical reminder to watch out for confirmation bias.
Profile Image for Anna.
Author 1 book11 followers
April 8, 2019
I loved this! It was fascinating!
Profile Image for Ralph.
500 reviews3 followers
December 26, 2017
4.0 out of 5 -- The biography of a planet that never existed and more.

I enjoy reading about history and the threads of knowledge that were followed to arrive at our current state of understanding. James Burke's Connections being an example of such writing.

In The Hunt for Vulcan, Thomas Levenson takes us on a journey that begins with Sir Issac Newton's laws of motion and gravitation and a challenge put to French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier in the 1840's to apply Newton's laws to model the movement of planetary bodies. This is how the existance of Neptune was predicted and later confirmed.

Through observations, a discrepancy in the orbit of Mercury was observed, a new planet (Vulcan) perhaps, and the game was afoot. No less than Albert Einstein would provide the ultimate solution to Vulcan.

While this may sound very dry and uninteresting, it is not. Mr. Levenson has created an accessible and easy to follow history that provides many insights into human nature and perceptions. If you like books about science, the quest for knowledge, and its often circuitous path, you will most likely enjoy this book..
Profile Image for Abdullah Al-Abri.
162 reviews8 followers
February 1, 2017
Audial الكتاب سمعته عن طريق

الكتاب علمي بحث تمت كتابته بطريقة سرد روائي جميل وهذا الاسلوب يعزز فهم الناس للعلم والاكتشافات العلمية

الكتاب يتحدث عن نظرية نيوتن وكيف ان العلماء ولمدة خمسين عام كانوا يبحثون عن كوكب مجهول اسمه vulcan بدون اثبات رؤيته والكوكب توقع وجوده حسب نظرية نيوتن للجاذبية الارضية

المشكلة الكبيرة ان الكوكب لم يكون موجودا في الحقيقة ابدا

الكتاب رائع ويبين كيف ان التطور في العلم يكشف اشياء كثيرة وقد يلغي او يثبت نظريات موجودة وكيف ان اينشتاين مع تطويره لنظرية الجاذبية وعلاقتها بالضوء واكتشاف فوتونات الضوء اثبت بان الكوكب لا وجود له

قرأة ممتعة للجميع

Profile Image for Haru.
32 reviews
March 25, 2021
Its been hanging around on my desk for like a year or two and wow, what an achievement for me.

The book by any means, wasn't dry or boring. In fact, it was a stellar read and I think I would have rate it 5 stars if I read it in a shorter period of time. It is a great book with a brilliant illustration of how the scientific method works! I loooooove it ;;

The book is about the impact of Newton's theory of gravity on modern science, the issue of Mercury's orbit etc etc leading to theory of relativity, quite a lengthy book I must say.. But very readable! Probably because it's a narrative story?
Profile Image for Bruce.
Author 13 books230 followers
May 28, 2021
A fine book, very interesting, and I may upgrade to a 5-star. As with any book that discusses the theories of special and general relativity, I feel like maybe my brain isn't quite as large as that of the rest of the human race, which isn't encouraging. Still, it's a fascinating story, and any time spent contemplating the lives and accomplishments of Newton and Einstein is time well spent.
Profile Image for bri.
93 reviews3 followers
July 30, 2017
Such an inspiring tale of science, that unique and self-correcting way of human knowing.
38 reviews
August 6, 2018
Such a lovely little boil about the wonders of human imagination and ingenuity, the ceaseless desire to know, and the precise labor that is necessitated when one loves the unknown.
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