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In Search of Planet Vulcan: The Ghost in Newton's Clockwork Universe (Government) Hardcover – January 1, 1997

ISBN-13: 978-0306455674 ISBN-10: 0306455676 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Series: Government
  • Hardcover: 310 pages
  • Publisher: Springer; 1st edition (January 1, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306455676
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306455674
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,392,339 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Today every schoolchild learns that our solar system contains nine planets in orbit around the sun--plus a variety of other bodies such as asteroids--but as Richard Baum and William Sheehan describe in In Search of Planet Vulcan, the discovery of these facts was far from straightforward. In a book rich with historical anecdotes, Baum and Sheehan depict centuries of efforts to enumerate the inhabitants of our solar system. In some cases the successes are stunning proof of the veracity of Newtonian mechanics; in others, such as the quest for a hypothetical planet "Vulcan" orbiting well inside Mercury, the fallacies and failures are equally staggering.

From Booklist

Before it spawned Spock, the "planet" Vulcan was proposed to orbit inside Mercury to account for a chronic deviation in Mercury's predicted orbit. When amateur astronomer Edmond Lescarbault claimed to see the culprit, case closed, right? But try as they might, no one else could observe the fugitive; still, theoretically, its existence suited world-class mathematician Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier, so he offered proof. A curiosity in the history of astronomy, the case demonstrates how a scientific authority can get the whole world barking up the wrong tree. Baum and Sheehan readably recount how Le Verrier made his name by explaining perturbations in Uranus' orbit in terms of an unknown planet, duly discovered as Neptune in 1846. The authors give a merry rendition of astronomers tramping to solar eclipses to glimpse Vulcan, the repeated futility of which finished it off, but the problem of Mercury's orbit persisted. Einstein eventually solved it: a curvature of space-time, not a planet, explained Mercury's orbit. Enjoyable recreational reading for astro-buffs. Gilbert Taylor

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 29, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I know what you're thinking--an entire book about a planet that doesn't even exist? Although Vulcan doesn't exist, fortunately this book does, because it's very good. The early pages tell us a little more than we need to know about Kepler and Newton, who are hardly central to the story, but then it moves to the discovery of new planets--Uranus, Neptune, and then to the heart of the matter: the irregularities in Mercury's motion that seemed to signal the existence of Vulcan, a planet inside Mercury's orbit. The book has plenty of notes and references, but it's also a lively and compelling read. It fits in well with other recent planet books, such as David Grinspoon's VENUS REVEALED, Alan Stern and Jacqueline Mitton's PLUTO AND CHARON, and Ken Croswell's PLANET QUEST. Plus, it's got a cool cover!
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 17, 1999
Format: Hardcover
As an occasional naked eye astronomer I was able to follow Sheehan and Baum's work without difficulty. They provide an accessible history of the development of the concepts that lie behind the discovery of the solar system from Ptolemy to Einstein. They describe observations by astronomers but also pay attention to contributions from mathematicians without presenting the readers with a single equation. There are brief biographical asides on some of the main players (Sheehan's day job is as a psychiatrist) but the main thrust of the book is scientific.
Particular interest is shown in the (serendipitous) discovery of Uranus followed by the (predicted) discovery of Neptune. The discovery of Neptune based on the known perturbations of the orbit of Uranus. This success focussed attention on the erratic orbit of Mercury, which advances seemingly inexplicably. We now know that this apparent motion is caused by the bending of space/time by the Sun's gravity, but the authors leave this for last. At the top of the conceptual staircase we learn that when Einstein explained the advance in Mercury's orbit using Relativity he couldn't sleep for 3 days with the excitement.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Christopher Hivner on May 19, 2005
Format: Paperback
This was a fascinating story, the search for a planet whose orbit was inside Mercury's. So sure were astronomers of the time that it existed they gave it a name, Vulcan. An amateur, Lescarbault, claimed to have seen it pass in front of the Sun, but in the proceeding years, no one else could catch a glimpse of it. So, did it really exist, and if not, how to explain the perturbation in Mercury's orbit? I thought this book was very well written in its depictions of real people and the encounters they had with each other as they raced to become the first to prove the existence of Vulcan. The hard science is written in a way to be understandable even to people like me without a mind for it.
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