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

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Random House Publishing Group, Aug 2, 2016 - General relativity (Physics) - 256 pages
7 Reviews
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

"Captures the drama of the tireless search for this celestial object."--Science
 
"A well-structured, fast-paced example of exemplary science writing."--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"A short, beautifully produced book that tells a cautionary tale . . . Levenson is a breezy writer who renders complex ideas in down-to-earth language."--The Boston Globe

"An inspiring tale about the quest for discovery."--Walter Isaacson

"Equal to the best science writing I've read anywhere, by any author. Beautifully composed, rich in historical context, deeply researched, it is, above all, great storytelling."--Alan Lightman, author of The Accidental Universe

"Levenson tells us where Vulcan came from, how it vanished, and why its spirit lurks today. Along the way, we learn more than a bit of just how science works--when it succeeds as well as when it fails."--Neil deGrasse Tyson

"Science writing at its best. This book is not just learned, passionate, and witty--it is profoundly wise."--Junot D az


From the Hardcover edition.
 

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User Review  - waltzmn - LibraryThing

"Remember, you are mortal." Roman generals, when they came home to celebrate a Triumph (a parade to commemorate a major victory) were supposed to always have a slave accompanying them, whispering that ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - jms001 - LibraryThing

Science storytelling on the hunt for Vulcan. So apparently there used to be the idea that there was another planet, hidden between Mercury and the Sun, and my first thought was: "What kind of ... Read full review

Contents

A HAPPY THOUGHT
13
THAT STAR IS NOT ON THE MAP
27
SO VERY OCCULT
44
A DISTURBING MASS
71
SO LONG ELUDING THE HUNTERS
92
VULCAN To EINSTEIN 19051915
127
HELP ME OR ELSE ILL GO CRAZY
143
BESIDE HIMSELF WITH JOY ló0
161
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
183
POSTSCRIPT THE LONGING TO BEHOLD PREEXISTING HARMONY 174
205
BIBLIOGRAPHY
207
Copyright

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About the author (2016)

Thomas Levenson is a professor at MIT and head of its science writing program. He is the author of several books, including Einstein in Berlin and Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist. He has also made ten feature-length documentaries (including a two-hour Nova program on Einstein) for which he has won numerous awards.

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