By Chet Yarbrough
The Hunt for Vulcan:…And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe
Written by: Thomas Levenson
Narration by: Kevin Pariseau
Thomas Levenson offers a vignette of history about the methodology and adventure of scientific discovery. Scientific discoveries seem rarely hit upon in a linear fashion. Discovery comes from study of natural phenomena that frequently reveal the unexpected. Few can deny the brilliant and insightful discovery of the laws of motion and gravity by Isaac Newton. Among great science discoverers, none seem to achieve the utilitarian application of science more than Newton. At least for those who view earth as the primary laboratory of science.
Then came Albert Einstein. Newton’s laws of gravity and motion work beautifully for practical application on earth. However, Newton’s laws of motion and gravity are error prone when applied to the universe. Einstein expands Newton’s laws of gravity and motion by discovering the relativity of time, mass, and energy. With theories of specific and general relativity, the universe becomes the laboratory of science.
A French mathematician named Urbain Le Verrier, using Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation, calculates an odd variation in Mercury’s orbit of the sun in the 1840s. Because of an infinitesimal statistical variation, Le Verrier concludes there is an unseen object effecting the orbit of Mercury as it travels around the sun. Le Verrier is right when he notes there is a variation but wrong about its cause. The variation Le Verrier finds is based on Newton’s laws as applied to the universe.
Through a similar analysis, Le Verrier had famously predicted the planet Neptune would be found based on a statistical anomaly in the orbit of Uranus. Neptune is visually discovered in September 1846 by Heinrich d’Arrest, one month after Le Verrier’s published prediction. Le Verrier instantly gained fame as the discover of planets by using Newton’s laws of gravity and motion. When Le Verrier notes a slight variation in Mercury’s orbit, professional and amateur astronomers begin looking for another unknown planet. The name of that mysterious unknown planet is Vulcan.
The myth of this planet is applauded by the press and public after an alleged sighting by an amateur astronomer in rural France. Though this is not the only astronomer that confirms the sighting, it is popularly accepted because of Le Verrier’s support of the amateur, and his renown for having predicted the discovery of Neptune. Until Einstein’s discovery of specific relativity, Vulcan is presumed to exist. When Einstein discovers the curve of the universe, the Vulcan planet is figuratively destroyed.
Searching for undiscovered planets and celestial objects is a perennial obsession of professional and amateur astronomers (note the presumed dwarf planet discovery recently announced by Canada-France-Hawaii’s celestial search of the Kuiper belt). What Thomas Levenson reveals in his history of Vulcan is how science advances with analysis, missteps, revisions, and new discoveries.
The methodology of science becomes refined by the mathematics of Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation and further refined by Einstein’s laws of relativity. It is Newton’s laws that lead to Le Verrier’s mathematical recognition of Neptune. It is also Newton’s laws that lead to Le Verrier’s mistake about the planet Vulcan.
The misstep of finding a false planet is confirmed by Einstein’s discovery of a fault in Newton’s laws. Le Verrier’s statistical analysis leads to one observation-ally confirmed planet and one falsely sighted planet but Newton’s limited theories of motion and gravity lead to science’s revision and a new avenue of discovery for natural phenomena.
One presumes there is a new Newton or a new Einstein in the world’s future because it is the nature of science to continually renew itself with a more comprehensive understanding of the universes we live in. There is no foreseeable end to science except in the extinction of humanity. One hopes human science and evolution keeps pace with earth’s environmental change.