In Search of Planet Vulcan: The Ghost in Newton’s Clockwork Universe

In Search of Planet Vulcan: The Ghost in Newton’s Clockwork UniverseBy Richard Baum and William Sheehan.
Plenum Publishing Corporation, New York, 1997 Click to Buy this Book!

 

On the back flap of the jacket cover, the publisher summarizes this book as one that “will hold you spellbound from beginning to end. An irresistible tale of human eccentricity … destined to become a classic.” Authors Richard Baum, former Vice President of the British Astronomical Association, and Dr. William Sheehan, an amateur astronomer and a psychiatrist by profession, present a highly readable history of astronomy regarding the search for additional planets in the solar system, a search that intensified after William Herschel discovered Uranus in 1781. Attempts to explain observations of Uranus’ “wayward movements” led, through applications of Newton’s laws or “celestial mechanics,” to the sensational discovery of a second new outer planet, later named Neptune. Neptune was discovered in 1846 by the great French mathematician and astronomer Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier (1811–1877), not from observations, but from calculations alone. The new planet was then observed in the exact position of Le Verrier’s calculations by Johann Gottfried Galle and his assistant on September 23, 1846.

The title of the book, the cover art, the photograph of the statue of U.J.J. Le Verrier across from the title page, the emphasis on the name Vulcan, and the publisher’s comments, above, are all somewhat slanted towards the entertainment value of the book (Richard Baum was involved in the Vulcan episode of the television documentary series Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World). The authors, however, do offer clear, informative history, helpful clarifications of astronomical theory and calculus, interesting biographies, and many humorous touches, all leading up to and including the quest for an intra-mercurial planet to explain the “anomalous advance of the perihelion of Mercury.” Searches for trans-Neptunian planets (e.g., the discovery of Pluto) are also described, from the time of Herschel up until the late 20th century. From the Epilogue: “Compared to the substantial gas giants sunwards of it, Pluto is a mere planetary soufflé, a creampuff planet … although it might be argued that Pluto does have a small moon — Charon, discovered only in 1978 — and an atmosphere.”

The central theme and crux of the book, Newton’s clockwork universe, is solidly established by Chapter 10, titled “The Doctor’s Tale — Vulcan!” The country doctor and amateur astronomer, Edmond Modeste Lescarbault, the first to observe a dark spot on the Sun’s disk relevant to the search for an intra-mercurial planet, wins the full support of the famous and arrogant Le Verrier (a blonde called “the lion”), who by 1859 was the distinguished Imperial Astronomer and Director of the Paris Observatory. Interestingly, Lescarbault and Le Verrier are never quoted as referring to the hypothetical planet as Vulcan. “Just when the name Vulcan was first adapted for Lescarbault’s planet is not entirely clear.” The name first appeared in the February 3, 1860 issue of the journal Cosmos, and by the journal’s next issue Vulcan was referred to as the definite name of the planet. Moreover, Le Verrier had determined that “the mass of the new planet (based on the diameter Lescarbault had reported) could only be 1/17 that of Mercury.” Thus, it would take 20 Vulcanized planets to account for the anomalous advance of Mercury’s perihelion. “Le Verrier was apparently unconcerned; he thought that Vulcan [so named by the authors] was probably only the largest of asteroidal bodies making up a ring.” Even in recent times, the possibility of a ring of small bodies around the Sun has not been entirely ruled out by astronomers. However, the most likely causes of the dark spots seen against the surface of the Sun by Lescarbault and many other Vulcan-seekers are believed to be sunspots or comets without tails.

It was Albert Einstein (1879–1955) who solved the problem of the anomalous advance of Mercury’s perihelion. The authors explain that this solution “fell out automatically” from Einstein’s 1915 General Theory of Relativity: “… close to a massive body such as the Sun, there is a significant curvature of … space-time, which produces a non-Newtonian warp in the trajectory of nearby bodies such as Mercury.” “Non-Newtonian warp” puts the cherry on the farewell cake regarding sole reliance on Newton’s clockwork universe.

Another bit of flap on the jacket cover: by way of describing the authors’ biography of the American scientist and astronomer James Craig Watson (1838–1880) — now, perhaps, forever connected with an obsessive search for Vulcan — the publishers exaggerate the account of Professor Watson and other scientists, including Thomas Edison, who gathered for the observance of the solar eclipse on Sunday, July 29, 1878 at Rawlins, Wyoming: “Stranger than fiction, the [search for Vulcan] reaches an exciting climax in the final showdown in the unlikeliest of places: America’s Wild West. Like gunslingers at high noon, determined astronomers of the opposing camps brave Indians and the elements in their attempt to prove once and for all whether the planet exists.” But should a publisher be faulted for wanting to increase book sales? As with Le Verrier, James Craig Watson is not quoted as referring to an additional inferior planet as Vulcan, although a source is given as to a letter he wrote to a journal editor titled “The Problematical Vulcan.” It was his vociferous opponents who repeatedly cried “Vulcan!” A professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor — he had published 15 papers in astronomical journals by the time he was 21 — Watson was lured West by the University of Wisconsin president to take charge of its new Washburn Observatory. While in process of renovating his new house and building an underground observatory, Watson failed to seek timely treatment for pneumonia and, tragically, died at the prime of his life, at the age of 42. The underground observatory — “no more than a folklorish notion really, but a venerable one, traceable all the way back to Aristotle” — later proved unworkable and was torn down in 1946.

The last sentences in the book leave the door wide open: “So the quest continues. The times are not yet fulfilled.” Fulfillment means that spiritual science must take its rightful place alongside the advancements of the physical sciences, for the planets, suns, stars, and cosmos are but the perceived material bodies of living Spiritual Beings. As noted in the last two paragraphs of the review of Rising Fire: Volcanoes and Our Inner Lives, by John Calderazzo, Vulcan is a living Spiritual Being: “This Being has no special planet in the cosmic spaces but lives to this day in the surrounding sphere of the Earth itself, with which he re-united after his return thither from the Sun.” — An Outline of Occult Science. Could Vulcan really have been an “obsession” with such capable scientists and achievers as Le Verrier and Watson, or was an invisible Spirit working within them at levels of which they were not conscious? In the 1921 lecture, A Picture of Earth Evolution in the Future, Rudolf Steiner stated: “Since the eighties of the nineteenth century, super-earthly Beings have been seeking to enter the sphere of earth existence. Just as the Vulcan men were the last to come down to the earth, so now Vulcan Beings are actually coming into the realm of earthly existence …” Both Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier and James Craig Watson died just prior to the above time period, in 1877 and 1880 respectively. Psychiatry or psychology cannot adequately answer the questions raised in a study of the lives of these two scientists, only pneumatology, a genuine spiritual science, can begin to approach such questions. — Review by Martha Keltz

Suggested reading: An Outline of Occult Science, Chapter IV, Part Six, “Man and the Evolution of the World;” and the lecture A Picture of Earth Evolution in the Future.

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