Everyone has heard of Einstein; his name is synonymous with genius and his Theory of Relativity not only gave us a completely new branch of physics, it also solved the mystery of the missing planet ‘Vulcan’ that scientists and astronomers had been searching for. The story though begins much earlier.
In 1687 Isaac Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica or Principia which described how particles attract using the force of gravity. This seminal book defined classical mechanics that allowed scientists to understand and even predict the movement of the planets around the sun. Noticing that there were anomalies in the orbit of Saturn, Urbain Le Verrier using the mathematics in the equations that Newton developed, managed to predict that there was a planet outside of Saturn. This discovery by Verrier and visual verification of the planet Neptune by Johann Gottfried Galle was a remarkable demonstration of celestial mechanics, and made their reputations in scientific discovery.
One thing that had puzzled astronomers for years was that there was an anomaly in the orbit of Mercury. Aiming to reproduce his success in the discovery of Neptune, Verrier worked through the calculations and claimed that there was a planet closer to the sun. People all over the world scoured the heavens looking for this planet, even claiming to see it at times.
But there was just one minor problem; it didn’t exist.
It took another fifty 50 years for the former assistant at the Swiss patent office to understand the errors in Newton’s work, and formulate his new simple theories that revolutionised our understanding of physics.
Levenson has drawn together all these fascinating characters into a story that is not only interesting to read, but reveals the way that we have come to understand our Solar System. Occasionally he drifts of into fairly complex science, but this is a great example of bringing alive a science story that most have forgotten, as you’d expect from the head of MIT’s Science Writing. Well worth reading, even for those who haven’t thought about physics since they left school.