The Hunt for Vulcan — Thomas Levenson

Another very exciting development in the world of The Warbler: I had the privilege of reading (and now reviewing) a book from Random House (!) thanks to this whole “building a brand” nonsense I’ve been trying to do. Learning about the options available to independent book reviewers has been exciting and illuminating. Publishers want books read and reviewed. I want to read and review books. It’s a wonderful match. But let’s stop talking about talking about books, and get to the talking about books, shall we?

Outside of speculative fiction, I best like reading books on science designed for laypeople. Many (if not most) books like this focus on successes of science. On discoveries that change the world, and a glimpse at the far-reaching ramifications they may have had.

Not so with Vulcan.

The Hunt for Vulcan tells a tale — and a tale it is — of hubris, ego, and failure. Of desperation and curiosity. Of a world rapt in the excitement of discovering the new. Leveson expresses that excitement in such a way that I was electrified with it. He makes statements that capture the heart of the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and the fallibility of those who engage in that pursuit: us.

“At first blush, this may seem something of a burlesque, a tale of nineteenth-century astronomical follies, Victorian gentlemen chasing a mistake. But there’s more here than a comedy of errors. The story of Vulcan suggests something much deeper, something that gets to the heard of the way science really advances…”

That something deeper? The simple notion that in the search for truth, we make mistake after mistake until a definitive result appears. Once we achieve that result, we look out from our updated view of the real and begin the process again.

In the case of The Hunt for Vulcan, the subject is a planet that never existed — Vulcan — save for in the minds of astronomers and mathematicians in the nineteenth century.

The book covers the history necessary to understand the Vulcan conundrum in its entirety. We learn of Sir Issac Newton, and how his mathematical formulae were able to consistently predict the positions of celestial bodies in motion, explaining the relationships between the planets. Newtonian mechanics covered, we jump ahead to issues with Saturn that plagued astronomers. It didn’t conform well enough to the math. If the math was inaccurate, what was missing?

In order to maintain the sanctity of math in the post-Newton world, a French mathematician, Le Verrier, set out to explain the error by introducing a new planet to the solar system before it had been observed. One that, crucially, conformed to the existing mathematical explanation of the universe. When proof of said planet was found (Neptune), Le Verrier was elevated and glorified, and the existing worldview remained intact.

But Saturn’s oddities were not the only problem in the Solar System. Mercury had a sort of wobble that perplexed scientists for centuries following the development of Newtonian mechanics. Le Verrier, now proven in the realm of discovering unseen planets using the power of mathematics, haughtily pronounced the existence of an intra-Mercurial planet. Thanks to the math, this planet had an approximate size and mass, and a predictable position in the night sky. What to do next? Name it!

Thus, the planet Vulcan was born.

“As Vulcan’s troublesome history reveals, no one gives up on a powerful, or a beautiful, or perhaps simply a familiar and useful conception of the world without utter compulsion — and a real alternative.”

But nobody found it. What’s more, it should have been much easier to spot, being between Mercury and the Sun. Think about it: a nice, big light behind it to illuminate it in the day, and a collection of recognizable landmarks (space-marks?) to guide the eye at night.

The hunt went on for years. Le Verrier, enraged, worked tirelessly to prove Vulcan’s existence. He practically tortured his staff, his inflated ego blasting any and all in its path as it was punctured. After a final failed attempt to find Vulcan, in which several astronomers were shamed (for reporting false sightings,) the lid seemed to be closed on Vulcan. Despite the fact that it had never been seen, it still hovered in the periphery of popular science, until a better explanation for Mercury’s behavior would rear its head.

Along came Albert Einstein (of personal interest to me and my family. Ask about it later, if you must), with the audacity to blow the lid off of science completely in a series of four papers which completely changed the world. Newtonian mechanics weren’t wrong. In fact, they’re still used today to get a “ballpark” for beginning physics students. Einstein simply proved that they weren’t right enough. Einstein’s tremendous triumph not only rocked the world, it destroyed Vulcan entirely. Here was math that perfectly explained the behavior of the planet, without the need for a ghost planet.

“The result emerged at the end of a chain of mathematical reasoning, the inevitable outcome of subjecting matter to number. Einstein, usually a fairly phlegmatic man, felt this one to the bone. When he completed the calculation of the orbit of Mercury and saw exactly the right number fall out of the long chain of pure reasoning, he told friends that seeing Mercuries motion fall out of his equations hit him with a physical shock.”

The Hunt for Vulcan is a wonderful book. It reads like a novel, full of tension, laughs, and drama, with a cast of characters that seem almost unreal. At the core of it all rests the beauty that it is real, and by the heroic efforts of those researchers, even when they were wrong, we know more about our magnificent universe. Levenson captures the thrill of the chase, the thirst for knowledge, and the unstoppable force that is scientific truth, in a way that is relatable and eminently enjoyable.

“Science is unique among human ways of knowing because it is self-correcting. Every claim is provisional, which is to say each is incomplete in some small or, occasionally, truly consequential way. But in the midst of the fray, it is impossible to be sure what any gap between knowledge and nature might mean.”

Originally published at The Warbler.

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