The Planet That Wasn’t There

Thomas Jones

  • The Hunt for Vulcan: How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet and Deciphered the Universe by Thomas Levenson
    Head of Zeus, 229 pp, £7.99, August 2016, ISBN 978 1 78497 398 8

Last January, a pair of scientists at the California Institute of Technology, Konstantin Batygin and Michael Brown, announced that they had discovered compelling evidence of an as-yet-unseen giant planet – Planet X – orbiting the Sun, seven times further out than Neptune.[1] This isn’t the first time that astronomers have believed there may be nine planets in the solar system. From its discovery in 1930 until 2006, Pluto – smaller than our moon, and nearly forty times as far from the Sun as the Earth is – was considered the ninth. And between 1859 and 1915 it was widely believed, for perfectly sound reasons, that a small planet known as Vulcan lurked invisibly close to the Sun, inside the orbit of Mercury. How that belief came about, and how Einstein came to demolish it, is the subject of Thomas Levenson’s eye-opening book.

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[1] Batygin and Brown published their findings in the Astronomical Journal on 20 January 2016.

[2] How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Michael Brown was published in 2010. I wrote about the discovery of Eris – or 2003 UB313 as it was then still known – in the LRB of 18 August 2005.

[3] My Journey at the Nuclear Brink by William J. Perry (Stanford, 234 pp., $24.95, November 2015, 978 0 8047 9681 1).