The Hunt for Vulcan

I’ve never forgotten the scene in Men in Black, when Jay (Will Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) are sitting on a bench facing the New York City skyline. Jay has gotten a brief but shocking glimpse of the secret alien world Kay is trying to recruit him into, one that few people know about.

“Why the big secret?” Jay asks. “People are smart. They can handle it.”

“A person is smart,” Kay responds, but “people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

This scene came to mind right after I finished reading Thomas Levenson’s new book The Hunt for Vulcan: …And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe. Levenson writes about the now-forgotten period between 1859 and 1915 when scientists believed our solar system had a planet called Vulcan within Mercury’s orbit. An anomaly in Mercury’s orbit affected its gravitational trajectory just enough to suggest another mass was tugging on it. Professional and amateur astronomers alike made several attempts to observe this mystery mass, and some reported doing so. But it wasn’t until decades later, when Einstein applied the principles of his new theory of relativity to the orbital calculations, when those sightings were finally reclassified as misidentified stars and the coulda-woulda-shoulda planet Vulcan was expunged from the solar system.

This same process had happened in the mid-nineteenth century, when the French astronomer Urban Jean Joseph Le Verrier used Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity to discover Neptune, which, like Vulcan decades later, was hiding within a mysterious gravitational blip of a nearby planet. A decade after Neptune’s discovery Le Verrier detected Mercury’s anomaly, so he followed the same reasoning as before, expecting it to reveal the source of the anomaly just as Uranus had done with Neptune. But it didn’t happen. What mathematically should have existed stubbornly refused to reveal itself.

As much as we could interpret this case study as a warning against relying on dogmatic belief over science, fallibility can extend both ways. When Einstein sought to tackle the problem of gravity and relativity, which did not fall in line with Isaac Newton’s time-tested theories, his colleague Max Planck cautioned him against it. It was too hard a problem, he said, and not even other scientists would believe him. Why? Essentially, because they are human: “Science may celebrate the triumph of the better idea,” Levenson writes. “Scientists don’t, not always, not immediately, not when the strangeness involved takes extraordinary effort to embrace.”

If we extrapolate this Case of the Missing Planet to even bigger questions about creation and the universe, it may trigger some challenging questions. Is God just another word for something we haven’t solved yet (or, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has framed it, does God mean more to you than just where science has yet to tread)? Or does the entire system of scientific inquiry shortchange the presence of the divine?

“We know now that Vulcan could never have existed; Einstein has shown us so,” Levenson writes. “But no route to such certainty existed for Le Verrier, nor for any of his successors over the next half century. They lacked not facts, but a framework, some alternate way of seeing through which Vulcan’s absence could be understood.”

What is your framework? How near or far are the boundaries of your view out into the world? What are you failing to see? Or trying too hard to see? “Such insights do not come on command,” Levenson writes. “And until they do, the only way any of us can interpret what we find is through what we already know to be true.”

This book came as close as any other I’ve read to helping my curious but overmatched brain understand how the heck relativity works. I think it’s because Levenson here seems less a scientist-author than a really smart dude at a bar who after a drink can unleash a killer stranger-than-fiction story between swigs. He paints a narrative picture that’s at once sweeping—running from Newton to Einstein and every key figure in between—and intimate, concisely explaining the nub of every junction point in Vulcan’s winding road to nowhere.

Good popular science, at least in my experience with it, really has to hit the why better than the how. It has to relentlessly thresh the wheat from the chaff, making sure every paragraph and every key moment can answer the question “Why does this matter?” within the span of an elevator pitch. People like me who read science-themed books written for a general audience do so because picking up a textbook on the same topic would be as useful as reading something in Aramaic. It just wouldn’t compute. Not in the time it would take to read, anyway.

So I greatly appreciated Levenson’s authoritative voice as much as his humane style. This book was fun. Which, given that the subtitle pretty much spoils the main events, lends even more credence to Levenson’s storytelling savvy. He guides us through some pretty heady stuff with equal parts aplomb and passion, exemplifying an Einstein quote he references when speaking of the driving force behind great work: “The daily effort does not originate from a deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.”

2 responses to “The Hunt for Vulcan”

  1. […] The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson (review) I’m a sucker for concisely written popular histories that uncover forgotten pockets of […]