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  • The Royal Society Science Books Prize is an annual £25,000 prize awarded by the Royal Society to celebrate outstanding popular science books from around the world. It is open to authors of science books written for a non-specialist audience, and since it was established in 1988 has championed writers such as Stephen Hawking, Jared Diamond, Stephen Jay Gould and Bill Bryson.
  • 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.
  • Access-restricted-item true Addeddate 2012-05-03 15:16:53 Bookplateleaf 0006 Boxid IA106806 Camera Canon EOS 5D Mark II Donor friendsofthesanfranciscopubliclibrary.

Random House (US); Head of Zeus (UK) 2015

This book is part comedy of errors, part investigation of how science really works, told through the tale of a planet that ought to have existed, but didn’t. The book tells how a deep understanding of the greatest theory in the history of science, Newton’s gravitation, led directly to the discovery of one planet – Neptune – and then seemed equally directly to point to the existence of another new planet very close to the sun, which was given the name Vulcan. Along the way you meet a variety of characters, some major and famous (like Albert Einstein) and some incidental, like that valiant rabbit hunter, Thomas Edison. The incidents of the tale, though, as funny, foolish, ambitious or brilliant as they could be, go to themes behind the book’s plot.

For one: when you have a worldview that is so powerful and works so well, it conditions the way you see the world. There was absolutely every reason Vulcan should exist. It wasn’t a crazy idea at all. These people weren’t crazy. They were doing science the way you expect science to be done. But the internal emotional logic as well as mathematical logic led some astronomers to persuade themselves they’d seen something that wasn’t there. That’s just a straight-up cautionary tale.


The other interesting thing is what happens when some people realized Vulcan wasn’t there. There’s the famous cliché that a single ugly fact can destroy the most beautiful theory. But so as long as Newtonian gravitation was the way to understand the universe, it was hard to understand what the absence of Vulcan meant. It wasn’t until Einstein came along with a theoretical construct that was in conflict with Newtonian gravitation that it became clear: The problem wasn’t the missing planet, the problem was thinking about space and time in the wrong way.

One of the things this book says is that we may know more than the past, but we’re not better at this than they were. They were working on a difficult idea, with difficult observations, at the limit of scientific knowledge of the time, and they got something wrong. But we are not immune to measurement error, and we’re certainly not immune to the capacity for human self-deception. Historians 100 years from now will laugh at us just as we laugh at our friends from 100 years ago.


Hunt for Vulcan was very well received. In 2016, the book was short-listed for the Royal Society’s book prize and it earned widespread praise.

Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz writes “The Hunt for Vulcan is science writing at its best…This book is not just learned, passionate, and witty — it is profoundly wise.'

The Washington Post, declared that “the immediacy, almost romance, of Levenson’s writing makes it almost novelistic.”

For Barbara Kiser in Nature “Thomas Levenson wonderfully tells the story of Vulcan. . . . Looping through science history from Isaac Newton onwards, Levenson elegantly reveals the evolutionary nature of scientific thought, and the marvel of the revolution that Einstein wrought.”

And Alan Lightman, best selling author of Einstein’s Dreams wrote and The Accidental Universe that “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.”


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