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

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  1,750 ratings  ·  279 reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 229 pages
Published November 3rd 2015 by Random House
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Average rating 4.04  · 
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 ·  1,750 ratings  ·  279 reviews


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Start your review of The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe
Jaylia3
Nov 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 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. Fr
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Susanna - Censored by GoodReads
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.)
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Jean
Jun 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
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Paul
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
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Connie
May 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
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.

Luc
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Bfisher
Nov 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
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 ...more
Bandit
Aug 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
11811 (Eleven)
Sep 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
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.
Thom
Jan 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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 commu
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Muneel Zaidi
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 thi
...more
Joshua Buhs
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 b
...more
Rusty
Jul 07, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 clo
...more
Michael
Sep 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, science
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
- Referen
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~nikki the recovering book addict
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” 😂
Ashutosh Rai
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
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John
Oct 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Charlene
Dec 01, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: physics
Very short book that looked at how Newtonian physics works when applied to the very large but breaks down when it comes to the very small. This book attempts to tell this well told tale by using the hunt for Vulcan as the backdrop. While this is definitely a novel angle for me, the rest of the material has been told often and told better. So, the backstory of trying to find Neptune just didn't grab me. Though, 467 other people seem to have liked it quite a bit. This makes me think that maybe it' ...more
Raseel Bhagat
Nov 17, 2015 rated it really liked it
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.
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Gendou
Mar 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
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.
...more
Anna
Apr 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this! It was fascinating!
Ralph
Dec 26, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017, audio
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 mov
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Bruce
May 28, 2021 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
bri
Jul 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Such an inspiring tale of science, that unique and self-correcting way of human knowing.
Kathleen
Aug 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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.
Melissa
Nov 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, space
A great account of planetary and scientific discovery from Newton to Einstein.
Ari
Feb 16, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: widener
A quick diverting read. The topic is a historically important blind alley in the development of astronomy: the search for the once-hypothesized planet Vulcan. The book is short, but feels "padded out" with long digressions, anecdotes, and tangents. Happily, the author's taste in anecdotes matches mine, and many of them were new to me, so I enjoyed the experience. Levinson is a fine historian of scientist, and draws all the appropriate lessons and notes the important aspects of the story. If you ...more
Jake
Dec 31, 2015 rated it it was amazing
“Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.” ~ Adam Smith

There is a general sentiment today, which is a good thing I think, to be introspective about our past and what it means about our present. In the hunt for vulcan, Levenson explores the history of the planet vulcan, a fictionalized planet conjured up by the point of the pen of the mathematician Urbain Le Verrier to explain why mercury’s orbit did not fit within the framework
...more
Jason Furman
Jul 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
A nice short straightforward book that zooms in on a familiar episode in the history of physics but tells it in a manner that is both a good story and also illustrative of broader lessons about science. The story begins with the triumph of Newton's theory and then its use to predict a hitherto unknown planet--Neptune--that is inferred from the way the orbit of Uranus is assumed to be perturbed by an unobserved object. The same logic led scientists to hypothesize a planet Vulcan that orbited betw ...more
Abin Arjun
Dec 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Great read about the forgotten history of Vulcan and what it represents. From Newton's Principia to Einstein's Theory of Relativity, the book takes us through 3 centuries of advances in science and it's implication on our understanding of the cosmos. It's refreshing to come across a book on astrophysics mixed with history.
The Hunt for Vulcan is a timely reminder to be not too stubborn in our beliefs and our understanding of the world.
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Meghan
Nov 30, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2015
I took my Brownie troop to the Observatory last week (twenty-four seven year olds in a tiny, enclosed space -- not my smartest idea), so it seemed fitting that the next book I reviewed was about the Cosmos. In German, the universe translates to das All, which I also wonderfully appreciate. Einstein spoke German, so there we have it -- tying everything in together!

So The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe (ellipse
...more
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“This Saturday, Galle and a volunteer assistant, Heinrich Ludwig d’Arrest, command the main telescope. Galle stands at the eyepiece and guides the instrument, pointing toward Capricorn. As each star comes into view, he calls out its brightness and position. D’Arrest pores over a sky map, ticking off each candidate as it reveals itself as a familiar object. So it goes until, sometime between midnight and 1 A.M., Galle reels out the numbers for one more mote of light invisible to the naked eye: right ascension 21 h, 53 min, 25.84 seconds. D’Arrest glances down at the chart, then yelps: “that star is not on the map!” The younger man runs to fetch the observatory’s director, who earlier that day had only reluctantly given his permission to attempt what he seems to have thought a fool’s errand. Together, the trio continue to watch the new object until it sets at around 2:30 in the morning. True stars remain mere points in even the most powerful telescopes. This does not, showing instead an unmistakable disk, a full 3.2 arcseconds across—just as Le Verrier had told them to expect. That visible circle can mean just one thing: Galle has just become the first man to see what he knows to be a previously undiscovered planet, one that would come to be called Neptune, just about exactly where Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier told him to look. —” 2 likes
“Vulcan is long gone, almost completely forgotten. It may seem today to be merely a curiosity, just another mistake our ancestors made, about which we now know better. But the issue of what to do with failure in science was tricky right at the start of the Scientific Revolution, and it remains so now. We may—we do—know more than the folks back then. But we are not thus somehow immune to the habits of mind, the leaps of imagination, or the capacity for error that they possessed. Vulcan’s biography is one of the human capacity to both discover and self-deceive. It offers a glimpse of how hard it is to make sense of the natural world, and how difficult it is for any of us to unlearn the things we think are so, but aren’t.” 1 likes
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