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What Ever Happened to Planet Vulcan?

Thomas Leveson | Random House | April 7, 2016 | 7,305 words

The story of the planet closest to our sun, aptly named Vulcan, which accidentally existed for half a century.

Posted inBooks, Featured, Nonfiction, Story

What Ever Happened to Planet Vulcan?

The story of the planet closest to our sun, aptly named Vulcan, which accidentally existed for half a century.
An orrery, or mechanical model of the solar system. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Leveson | The Hunt for Vulcan: … And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe | Random House | November 2015 | 27 minutes (7,305 words)

The excerpt below is adapted from The Hunt for Vulcan, by Thomas Leveson. In light of recent theorizing about a mysterious new Planet X, this story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

Not everyone follows a straight course to the person they might become.

In the 1830s (and still) number 63 Quai d’Orsay turned an attractive face toward the river. In the guidebooks already being read by that novel nineteenth-century species, the tourist, number 63 is described as a “handsome house”—one, the writers warned, that concealed a much more plebeian reality. Visitors—by appointment only, no more than two at a time, welcome only on Thursdays—would be ushered into a courtyard, and then on to the rooms where workers, mostly women, took bales of raw tobacco through every stage needed to produce the finished stuff of habit: hand-rolled cigars, spun strands of chew that became “the solace of the Havre marin,” gentlemen’s snuff. Most of the campus was turned over to laborers serving the machines—choppers, oscillating funnels, snuff mills, rollers, sifters, cutters, and more. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the works at the Quai d’Orsay would turn out more than 5,600 tons of finished tobacco per year, and was, according to the ubiquitous Baedeker, “worthy of a visit”—though indulging one’s curiosity carried a price: “the pungent smell of the tobacco saturates the clothes and is not easily got rid of.”

A spectacle, certainly, and as an early palace of industry clearly worthy of the guidebooks (themselves novelties). By any stretch of the imagination, though, the Manufacture des Tabacs was an odd place to look for someone who would become the most celebrated mathematical astronomer of his day—but not everyone follows a straight course to the person they might become. Thus it was that in 1833 a young man, freshly minted as a graduate of the celebrated École polytechnique, could be found every working day at the Quai d’Orsay, reporting for duty at the research arm of the factory, France’s École des Tabacs.

No one ever doubted that Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier had potential: he had been a star student in secondary school, winner of second prize in a national mathematics competition, eighth in his class at the polytechnique. But his early career offered no hints to what would follow. Funneled into the tobacco engineering section in university, he was more or less shunted directly toward the Quai d’Orsay and the task of solving French big tobacco’s problems.

It’s not clear whether Le Verrier actively enjoyed the life of a tobacco engineer—or merely tolerated it. Nothing in his later career remotely suggests he was a born chemist. But he was consistent: if given a task, he got down to it. Never mind all that early training in abstract mathematics; if required, he could be as practical as the next man, and so turned himself into a student of the combustion of phosphorus. That was useful research—tobacco monopolists care about matches. But whether or not he relished his job, he certainly got out as soon as he could. A position back at the École polytechnique opened up in 1836 for a répétiteur— assistant—to the professor of chemistry. Le Verrier applied, and as an until-then almost uniformly successful prodigy, had every hope. . . until the post went to someone else.

Le Verrier would prove to be a man who catalogued slights, tallied enemies, and held his grudges close. But he never accepted a check as a measure of his true worth. A second assistantship became available, this time in astronomy. He applied for that too. Never mind his seven years among the tobacco plants; Le Verrier seems to have believed that he could simply ramp up his math chops to the standard required at the highest level of French quantitative science. As he wrote to his father, “I must not only accept but seek out opportunities to extend my knowledge. [. . . ] I have already ascended many ranks, why should I not continue to rise further?” Thus it was that Le Verrier came into orbit around the great body of work left by that giant of French astronomy, Pierre-Simon Laplace.

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