After he discovered the planet Neptune using mathematics, French astronomer Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier set his sights on a new discovery: the planet Vulcan.
There’s a reason why we included this book on our list of books that we absolutely loved in 2015: it’s a stunning history of the discovery of the solar system, one that examines the hunt for a planet that never existed.
The Hunt for Vulcan... And How Albert Einstein Destroyed A Planet, Discovered Relativity and Deciphered the Universe, is a deceptively small book: Thomas Levenson covers an incredible amount of material in under 200 pages. This is the best sort of ‘secret history’ narrative: ostensibly, the book is about how astronomers, particularly Verrier, discovered discrepancies in Mercury’s orbit. Their assumption at the time was the existence of another planet, one that orbited the sun closer to Mercury. The truth, however, is quite a bit more complicated. Levenson does an excellent job chronicling the events that led up to the hunt for Vulcan, and the personalities of everyone involved.
Vulcan, of course, never existed, and the discrepancies in Mercury’s orbit had another explanation, one that came years later with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
This could have been a story that mocks early astronomers: look at the mistakes they made! How could they have believed this?! What Levenson does is go back and provide a considerable amount of context for the time, and delves into the personalities that drove the discoveries, and lack thereof.
Along the way, what we really get is a great history of the solar system, and how some of the other bodies were discovered, as well as how figures such as Newton and Einstein helped completely upend everything that we thought we knew.
The Hunt for Vulcan is an excellent work of non-fiction, and it’s a fantastic, accessible entry into how we learned about our home system.