Monday, May 16, 2016

The Hunt for Vulcan

The Hunt for Vulcan...and How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered a Universe. Thomas Levenson. 2015. Random House. 229 pages. [Source: Library]

If The Hunt For Vulcan had been a documentary instead of a book, I think it would have been even better for me. It captures what I love about a good documentary: human interest stories and a mystery to be solved.

This reader-friendly astronomy book is about how a planet, Vulcan, came in and out of existence.
This book tells Vulcan's story: its ancestry, its birth, its odd, twilit journey in and out of the grasp of eager would-be discoverers, its time in purgatory, and finally, on the 18th of November, 1915, its decisive end at the hands of Albert Einstein. (xii)
The story of Vulcan suggests something much deeper, an insight that gets to the heart of the way science really advances (as opposed to the way we're taught in school.) The enterprise of making sense of the material world turns on a key question: what happens when something observed in nature doesn't fit within the established framework of existing human knowledge? The standard answer is that scientific ideas are supposed to evolve to accommodate new facts....Ideas, though, are hard to relinquish, none more so than those of Isaac Newton. For decades, the old understanding of gravity was so powerful that observers on multiple continents risked their retinas to gaze at the sun in search of Vulcan. And, contrary to the popular picture of science, a mere fact--Mercury's misplaced motion--wasn't nearly enough to undermine that sturdy edifice. As Vulcan's troubled 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. (xiii)
But that's only one of many options of what the book is about. You could also say the book seeks to answer these questions:
  • how does the universe work?
  • how do we know what we know? and can we be sure of what we know?
  • what is the scientific method? and, How good are scientists at following through with it in their lives and their works?
  • who are some of the key scientists and astronomers since Isaac Newton?
I found this an interesting, relatively-quick read. Because the book was at the very least as equally concerned with human stories and history as it was abstract concepts and theories, I found it to be reader-friendly. It wasn't horribly bogged down with weighty science. That isn't to say it was stripped of all science. Just to say it's written to be understood by the 'average' reader.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

1 comment:

Kailana said...

Maybe they will make a documentary based on this!