SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog:awalkingdelight)
Website: chetyarbrough.com

The Hunt for Vulcan:…And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the UniverseThe Hunt for Vulcan Written by: Thomas Levenson

Narration by:  Kevin Pariseau

THOMAS LEVENSON (US SCIENCE WRITER AND DOUMENTARY FILM-MAKER--DIRECTOR OF THE GRADUATE PROGRAM IN SCIENCE WRITING AT MIT)
THOMAS LEVENSON (US SCIENCE WRITER AND DOUMENTARY FILM-MAKER–DIRECTOR OF THE GRADUATE PROGRAM IN SCIENCE WRITING AT MIT)
SIR ISAAC NEWTON (1642-1727)
SIR ISAAC NEWTON (1642-1727)

Thomas Levenson offers a vignette of history on the methodology and adventure of scientific discovery.  Scientific discoveries are rarely hit upon in a linear fashion.  Discovery comes from study of natural phenomena that frequently reveal the unexpected.  None can deny the brilliant and insightful discovery of the laws of motion and gravity by Isaac Newton.  Among great science discoverers, none seem to achieve the utilitarian application of science more than Newton.  At least for those who view earth as the primary laboratory of science.

ALBERT EINSTEIN (1879-1955)
ALBERT EINSTEIN (1879-1955)

Then comes Albert Einstein.  Newton’s laws of gravity and motion work beautifully for practical application on earth.  However, Newton’s laws of motion and gravity are error prone when applied to the universe.  Einstein revolutionizes Newton’s laws of gravity and motion by discovering the relativity of time, mass, and energy.  With theories of special and general relativity, the universe becomes the laboratory of science.

URBAIN LE VERRIER (1811-1877, FRENCH MATHEMATICIAN AND DISCOVERER OF NEPTUNE)
URBAIN LE VERRIER (1811-1877, FRENCH MATHEMATICIAN AND DISCOVERER OF NEPTUNE)

A French mathematician named Urbain Le Verrier, using Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation, calculates an odd variation in Mercury’s orbit of the sun in the 1840s.  Because of an infinitesimal statistical variation, Le Verrier concludes there is an unseen object effecting the orbit of Mercury as it travels around the sun.  Le Verrier is right when he notes there is a variation but wrong about its cause.  The variation Le Verrier finds is based on Einstein’s curve of the universe; determined by relativity.

NEPTUNE (8TH AND FARTHEST KNOWN PLANET FROM OUR SUN, 4TH LARGEST DIAMETER IN OUR SOLAR SYSTEM)
NEPTUNE (8TH AND FARTHEST KNOWN PLANET FROM OUR SUN, 4TH LARGEST DIAMETER IN OUR SOLAR SYSTEM)
URANUS (7TH PLANET FROM THE SUN, 3RD LARGEST RADIUS)
URANUS (7TH PLANET FROM THE SUN, 3RD LARGEST RADIUS)

Through a similar Newtonian analysis, Le Verrier had famously predicted the planet Neptune would be found based on a statistical anomaly in the orbit of Uranus.  Neptune is visually discovered in September 1846 by Heinrich d’Arrest, one month after Le Verrier’s published prediction.

After Neptune’s discovery, Le Verrier instantly gains fame as the discover of planets by using Newton’s laws of gravity and motion.  When Le Verrier notes the slight variation in Mercury’s orbit, professional and amateur astronomers begin looking for another unknown planet.  The name of that mysterious unknown planet becomes known as Vulcan.

ARTIST RENDITION OF THE MYTHICAL PLANET VULCAN
ARTIST RENDITION OF THE MYTHICAL PLANET VULCAN, SUPPOSEDLY ORBITING BETWEEN THE SUN AND MERCURY

The myth of this planet is applauded by the press and public after an alleged sighting by an amateur astronomer in rural France.  Though this is not the only astronomer that confirms the sighting, it is popularly accepted because of Le Verrier’s support of the amateur, and his renown for having predicted the discovery of Neptune.  Until Einstein’s discovery of special relativity, Vulcan is presumed to exist.  When Einstein discovers the curve of the universe, the Vulcan planet is figuratively destroyed.

The Kuiper belt /ˈkaɪpər/ or Dutch pronunciation: ['køypǝr],[1] sometimes called the Edgeworth–Kuiper belt, is a circumstellar disc in the Solar System beyond the planets, extending from the orbit of Neptune (at 30 AU) to approximately 50 AU from the Sun.[2] It is similar to the asteroid belt, but it is far larger—20 times as wide and 20 to 200 times as massive.[3][4] Like the asteroid belt, it consists mainly of small bodies, or remnants from the Solar System's formation. Although many asteroids are composed primarily of rock and metal, most Kuiper belt objects are composed largely of frozen volatiles (termed "ices"), such as methane, ammonia and water. The Kuiper belt is home to three officially recognized dwarf planets: Pluto, Haumea, and Makemake. Some of the Solar System's moons, such as Neptune's Triton and Saturn's Phoebe, are also thought to have originated in the region
The Kuiper belt /ˈkaɪpər/ or Dutch pronunciation: [‘køypǝr],[1] sometimes called the Edgeworth–Kuiper belt, is a circumstellar disc in the Solar System beyond the planets, extending from the orbit of Neptune (at 30 AU) to approximately 50 AU from the Sun.[2] It is similar to the asteroid belt, but it is far larger—20 times as wide and 20 to 200 times as massive.[3][4] Like the asteroid belt, it consists mainly of small bodies, or remnants from the Solar System’s formation. Although many asteroids are composed primarily of rock and metal, most Kuiper belt objects are composed largely of frozen volatiles (termed “ices”), such as methane, ammonia and water. The Kuiper belt is home to three officially recognized dwarf planets: Pluto, Haumea, and Makemake. Some of the Solar System’s moons, such as Neptune’s Triton and Saturn’s Phoebe, are also thought to have originated in the region (COURTESY OF WIKIPEDIA)
Searching for undiscovered planets and celestial objects is a perennial obsession of professional and amateur astronomers (note the presumed dwarf planet discovery recently announced by Canada-France-Hawaii’s celestial search of the Kuiper belt).  What Thomas Levenson reveals in his history of Vulcan is how science advances with analysis, missteps, revisions, and new discoveries.

The methodology of science becomes refined by the mathematics of Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation and further defined by Einstein’s laws of relativity.  It is Newton’s laws that lead to Le Verrier’s mathematical recognition of Neptune.  But, it is also Newton’s laws that lead to Le Verrier’s mistake about the planet Vulcan.  The misstep of finding a false planet is confirmed by Einstein’s discovery of a fault in Newton’s laws.  Le Verrier’s statistical analysis leads to one observed and confirmed planet, and one falsely sighted planet.  The point being–Newton’s limited theories of motion and gravity lead to science’s revision and a new avenue of discovery for natural phenomena.

One presumes there is a new Newton or a new Einstein in the world’s future because it is the nature of science to continually renew itself with a more comprehensive understanding of the universes we live in.  There is no foreseeable end to science except in the extinction of humanity.  One hopes human science and evolution keep pace with earth’s environmental change.

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