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Monday, April 04, 2016

Review: The Hunt for Vulcan

The Hunt for Vulcan is a short book about the supplantation of Newtonian Mechanics by the general theory of relativity. Unlike books that are focused on teaching you the details of relativity, it focuses mainly on the people involved, with Newton, Laplace, Le Verrier, and Einstein playing major roles. Along the way, the discovery of Neptune (used by Le Verrier to account for irregularities discovered in the orbit of Saturn and Uranus) and the failure of Newtonian mechanics to properly predict Mercury's orbit are used to discuss how science works.

The thesis of the book is that under the standard model of science, when a theory fails or does not match with observation or experimental evidence, it gets tossed out and a replacement is searched for. In practice, the book demonstrates that while the Newtonian mechanics failed to model accurately the orbit of Venus, the initial response is to try to find an object (in this case, the phantom planet Vulcan), and when that fails (despite numeral false observations that could not be replicated), the problem is ignored until a new paradigm emerges from a completely unrelated area of research. This is an interesting observation, but hardly earth shaking.

Nevertheless, because the book is short, well-written, and does a great job of describing what Einstein went through to go from special relativity to general relativity, it's still worth reading. I also love the package of the book: it's the first physical book I've handled that comes close to matching the convenience and handling of a kindle (though obviously if you need more than a couple of books the Kindle is much better).


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