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Notes and Reflections on Books and Media

by Hannah Leitheiser

Hunt for Vulcan

The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle Over General Relativity

Pedro G. Ferreira




I finished The Perfect Theory, a book about nearly a century of grappling with general relativity.

(The image, I think, is an unedited screen-shot of equations from special relativity in a show dealing with time travel. I imagine they teach this in high-school now. Relativity has public appeal.)

The first half of the theory's life has been one of doubt, even by Einstein, of the implications. Early, it became clear that black holes and a non-static universe were predicted, but Einstein considered that accurate math, but inaccurate physics. In both cases it took observation to establish the validity of general relativity.

The author made an interesting analogy. The precession of Mercury's orbit could only be explained in Newtonian physics by the presence of another planet, and so began the hunt for Vulcan. Turned out that while Newtonian physics does a nearly perfect job of explaining things on the scales found on Earth, it's not quite accurate on the scale of the solar system. General relativity explained the precession without Vulcan (which was never found). Now, scientists are hunting for dark matter to explain the orbits of the outer stars in galaxies.

This may be another hunt for Vulcan. This time, though, there's no lack of new theories about gravity. The problem is that there are too many to choose from.