Within minutes of sitting at my computer I can study clear, high-resolution images of star clusters hundreds of light years from the Earth- so far away, in fact, that I don’t have a suitable metaphor that can help me grasp how amazing this is. This ability is worlds away from the amateur and professional scientists that Thomas Levenson describes in his wonderful book, “The Hunt for Vulcan... And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe.”
Levenson begins his tale with the moment when mathematics rises to replace Latin as the language of science. Isaac Newton establishes basic mathematical laws that allow astronomers to understand the motion of planets. Applying Newtonian laws to planetary bodies results in, among other things, the discovery of Neptune and the apparent vindication of Newton’s work. The French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange said, “Newton was the greatest genius who ever lived, and the most fortunate; for we cannot find more than once a system of the world to establish.”
However, a problem with Newton’s mathematics surfaces. Mercury’s orbit refuses to comply with mathematical calculations of its orbit. Mercury’s precession around the sun includes anomalous behavior that can be explained by the presence of a mystery planet influencing Mercury’s orbit. The planet is named Vulcan, and for 50 years astronomers search in vain for observational proof. They never find it. This means there is either a problem with the mathematics or a problem with the observation - or, unthinkably, a problem with Newton’s conception of the world.
The problem of Vulcan remains until Einstein begins his groundbreaking work that establishes another system of the world. It took Einstein, laboring for years over his theory of relativity, to overthrow Newtonian mathematics and, as the book’s title suggests, “destroy a planet.”
“The Hunt for Vulcan” is short, but covers a lot of ground. Levenson’s historical interpretation takes us from Isaac Newton in 1682 through Albert Einstein in 1915. Over two and a half centuries, Levenson shows how science works to self-correct, as observation both challenges and confirms theories. Unfortunately, changing established ideas, when evidence contradicts them, isn’t always an easy task. As Levenson states in his preface, people are reluctant to give up on “a powerful, or a beautiful, or simply a familiar and useful conception of the world without utter compulsion - and a real alternative.”
Don’t worry if you quit mathematics long ago. Levenson’s book can be read by the mathematically-challenged. He explains ideas and science clearly. He also sketches the personalities and circumstances of the main actors so that the history of planetary orbits becomes fascinating and humbling.
This is excellent science writing that illuminates the power and shortcomings of science and lifts up - once again - the genius of Albert Einstein. Levenson draws drama from the awe of discovering the secrets of the Universe. For those interested in science or astronomy, this book is highly recommended.