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Publisher's Summary

The captivating, all-but-forgotten story of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and the search for a planet that never existed

For more than 50 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 19th century set the stage for Einstein's monumental breakthrough, the greatest individual intellectual achievement of the 20th 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.

©2015 Thomas Levenson (P)2015 Audible, Inc.

Critic Reviews

"The forgotten story of Vulcan could no longer remain untold. Levenson tells us where it 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)
"This delightful and enlightening drama tells the story of the hunt for a planet that did not exist and how Einstein resolved the mystery with the most beautiful theory in the history of science. The Hunt for Vulcan is an inspiring tale about the quest for discovery and the challenges and joys of understanding our universe." (Walter Isaacson)
"The Hunt for Vulcan is 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. Levenson gives a true picture of the scientific enterprise, with all its good and bad guesses, wishful thinking, passion, human ego, and desire to know and understand this strange and magnificent cosmos we find ourselves in.” (Alan Lightman, author of The Accidental Universe)

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This is great stuff!

This is a book for general audiences interested in the history of science -- more at the underlying thinking behind the math. This is told as a "true" tale, which it is. It is read well, and the performance is captivating. Listen to it by the fire over the holidays; you won't regret it.

23 of 23 people found this review helpful

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Wonderful, Story of the Planet that never was.

Great story about the false Planet Vulcan (Unless you count Star Trek) .. This story shows the tendency of people to wish something so much, they make it true even of it not.

19 of 19 people found this review helpful

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Very humanizing story of science

A from-the-trenches view of scientific enquiry that shows how passion and belief play essential but problematic roles in the process of discovery. And how scientists struggle with self-doubt and frustration and hubris, just like the rest of us. I really enjoyed the clear descriptions of the science, in part because they showed how scientists struggled with the accuracy of their equipment, as well as with the math and with the concepts themselves. Inevitably I struggled with the relativity chapter--maybe someday it will make sense to me...? It bends the mind like a ray of light passing a gravity well.

24 of 25 people found this review helpful

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Surprisingly Interesting : Highly recommended read

Loved it from Chapter 1. Highly recommend it to anyone with even a remote interest in Astronomy.

19 of 20 people found this review helpful

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  • Jean
  • Santa Cruz, CA, United States
  • 07-01-16

Engaging

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 theory of relativity. Einstein applied the theory to the Mercury question and the existence of the phantom planet. Levenson detailed his talk at the Prussian Academy of Science on November 18, 1915 in Berlin, where he destroyed Vulcan and re-imagined the cosmos.

The book is well written and researched. Levenson has the ability to make complex ideas into easy to understand language. Thomas Levenson is the head of MIT’s graduate program in science writing. If you are interested in the history of science and astronomy you will enjoy this short book.

Kevin Pariseau does an excellent job narrating the book. Pariseau is a Broadway stage actor and also has performed in musicals. Like many stage actors Pariseau narrates audiobooks.

8 of 8 people found this review helpful

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The Longing to Behold Pre-Existing Harmony

Dante saw the world as theomorphic—Creation reflecting the mind of its Creator. Now I know that Sir Isaac Newton did, too. Otherwise he would never have posited a comprehensive theory for how our universe works that ran on rigorous mathematical, geometrical certainty. God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Truth is one. What is true for you is true for me.

This book is the story of the gradual, halting, unwilling abandonment of Newton’s satisfying model in the face of more sophisticated scientific instruments and more accurate observation of phenomenon. Along the way, you meet a galaxy of fascinating personalities, from arrogant professional star-gazers in royal observatories to humble, amateurs taking a break from their day jobs. As the subtitle suggests, it’s also the story of the advent of Modern Physics—the Special and General Theories of Relativity, born out of what Einstein called, “the longing to behold pre-existing harmony”—and how a Patent Office clerk with nothing more august than a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics, finally explained the discrepancies in Newton’s model for which so many had, for so many years, tried to compensate.

I’m grateful to Professor Levenson for writing this book and to Audible for making it a Daily Deal in June of last year (yes, I’m that behind in my listening). Levenson teaches “Science Writing” at MIT and he must be very good at it, because his book is (mostly) comprehensible even to someone like me, the least science-minded person I know.

Now, in a vague, general way, I understand this fascinating swathe of scientific history. Now I have a toe-hold on the concept of Relativity. Professor Levenson’s book is peppered with “put simply…” and, “in other words…” and, “what that really means is…”. It’s all very helpful to someone who only bought the book because A) it was on sale and B) it was an opportunity to break away from my usual diet of Augustan and Victorian novels, epic poetry and military history. It would, I felt, be good for me. And I was right.

Having had two children pass through the gauntlet of several years of Science Fairs, perhaps the part I enjoyed most was the professor’s honesty about the Scientific Method. As taught in school, he says, the Scientific Method runs of rails: you have a hypothesis, you test your hypothesis, you adjust your hypothesis in the light of what you have learned. In reality—and this story is a fine example of this—scientists act like normal human beings. They only abandon cherished ideas after much valiant, stubborn resistance. Conversely, I appreciate Professor Levenson’s caution against seeing the past “not just as past, but as less clever than us”. Just because our ancestors were wrong doesn’t man they were stupid.

Still, it leaves me with one question—one beyond the purview of Professor Levenson’s book, though he alludes to it in passing at the very end. That is the impact of Relativity on our broader culture. Just as the senseless slaughter of the First World War was taken, at about the same time, as proof positive that nothing we had believed in before 1914 (God, Truth, etc.) was true, the General Theory of Relativity was seized on as proof positive that not just the motion of physical bodies but everything—faith, morals, truth—was relative. In an odd way, those disenchanted, embittered moderns who emerged from the trenches in 1918 were working on the same assumption as Dante and Newton, only in reverse. Whereas the universe had once modelled the ordered mind of God, where the same phenomenon appeared the same to different observers, now a universe where the same phenomenon appeared differently to different observers reflected an absence of God. Never mind that Einstein himself held that, “while…two observers’ measurements would differ, there was only one sequence of underlying phenomena”. Never mind that the General Theory, though infinitely more complex than Newton’s vision, is still a coherent, unified picture of an ordered universe—that “pre-existing harmony” Einstein spoke of so wistfully. Relativity, as I was told ad nauseum in school, proved to the Lost Generation (and every generation that followed) that God did not exist. Somewhere along the line we forgot that the General Theory of Relativity covered absolutely everything—but only absolutely everything in the physical universe.

Our reader here, Kevin Pariseau, is perfect match for the material. His pacing and diction are so good he even slows down to deliver especially difficult or complex ideas.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • William
  • Fox Chapel, PA, United States
  • 10-28-17

Science story well told and well narrated

This theorized planet is now long forgotten. In Levenson's telling it becomes an object lesson of scientific breakthroughs. Changing paradigms is never easy. Even great thinkers get stuck in their beliefs. Believing in the new paradigm takes courage. But it took courage to stick with the old views even after they became suspect.

There is a great science lesson here. There is also an excellent life lesson. Excellent perspective setting for both. Outstanding writing. Excellent narration as well.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Repetitive

I liked the book, but the author kept repeating things over and over. Everything could have been said in half the book.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY

Thomas Levenson offers a vignette of history on the methodology and adventure of scientific discovery. Scientific discoveries are rarely hit upon in a linear fashion. Discovery comes from study of natural phenomena that frequently reveal the unexpected. None 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 comes 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 revolutionizes Newton’s laws of gravity and motion by discovering the relativity of time, mass, and energy. With theories of special and general relativity, the universe becomes the laboratory of science.

The methodology of science becomes refined by the mathematics of Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation and further defined by Einstein’s laws of relativity. It is Newton’s laws that lead to Le Verrier’s mathematical recognition of Neptune. But, 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 observed and confirmed planet, and one falsely sighted planet. The point being–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 keep pace with earth’s environmental change.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Highly recommended for the layman curious about Physics and Astronomy.

This book was amazing in that it had the most useful and simple explanation of Einstein's work, and specifically the interactions of light, gravity and space-time. The historical look at the scientific process used to 'find Vulcan' was fascinating. Highly recommended

1 of 1 people found this review helpful