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Monday, June 1, 2020

Albert Einstein to Mr. Spock: "Vulcan does NOT exist!"

To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before

I grew up in the sixties, watching Star Trek, the original series featuring Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Scotty, crew of the Federation Starship, the USS Enterprise, which was on a five year space exploration mission. My favourite character was Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy). He was portrayed as being half-human and half Vulcan, exclusively logical, always calm and absolutely devoid of emotion.

Sometime around the age of 9, it became a personal project for me to determine the location of Vulcan, home of Mr. Spock. I looked up the word in a mini encyclopedia set that we had at home and I learnt that the word 'Vulcan' referred to the Roman god of fire. At the time, this was not an expected discovery and to my mind, somehow, it just did not fit. Spock possessed a character that was as cold as ice so any association with fire seemed misplaced. Unfortunately that was as far as I could take my research at the time.

Stamps from the USA commemorating
the movie series "Star Trek

This post is about a journey. It is a story about a two thousand year quest to understand the rules that govern the movement and motion of the many celestial bodies around us. If we do not understand their motion and dynamic characteristics, we cannot visit these places as we will be unable to accurately predict where these celestial objects will be when we are ready to arrive there.

Initially, the early astronomers used their eyes and their minds. It was only in the early 1600s that Dutchman, Hans Lippershey, assembled a crude telescope. This telescope was improved by Galileo Galile a year later but in essence, it was, and likely will be in the future, mathematics, observation and humankind applying their minds, that will allow us "to boldly go where no man has gone before".

Early Greek Thinking

The Greeks believed that Earth was a sphere from early times as they observed boats disappearing or appearing from below the horizon (the Greek, Eratoshenes, born about 250 BC even empirically calculated the approximate size of a spherical Earth). At the time however, the concept of gravitational forces had not been understood so the bothersome problem for the Greeks was that if Earth is a sphere, then how would those who lived in the southern latitudes remain connected with the planet? Would they not drop off into space?

in their minds at the time, there were two possible answers. Either the southern latitudes were not populated or Earth was at the center of the Universe - the center, in their minds being the point that attracted everything in the Universe.

There were those who contested this line of reasoning, notably Philolaus (of Croton), Heracleides (of Pontus) and Aristarchus (a philosopher, born in 310 BC) who all placed the Sun at the center of the Solar System. Unfortunately, their views were not taken seriously.

Claudius Ptolemy

Claudius Ptolemy was a Roman citizen who lived in Egypt between 100 AD and 170 AD. At the time, Egypt was a Roman province. Whilst history has portrayed Ptolemy as a mathematician, astronomer, geographer and astrologer, his greatest contributions have been in the field of cartography and the many concepts behind the drawing of maps.

As an astronomer, Ptolemy postulated that the Earth was at the center of the Universe, a view that was non-confrontational at the time with the biblical based teachings of the Church. These postulations, made in the early decades of the 1st millennium would subsequently take nearly 1500 years to change.

The Vatican Versus Science (Geocentrism And Heliocentriism)

From the times of Ptolemy and until 1543, it was believed that Earth was at the center of Universe. Before that, there were sporadic reports of alternative views but it was Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish mathematician and astronomer who proposed Heliocentrism (i.e. the Sun being at the center of the Solar System). After a life of studies into the subject, it is reported that at the end of 1542, Copernicus was seized with the twin ailments of apoplexy and paralysis. On 24th May 1543, whilst in a stroke induced coma, Copernicus was presented with the final printed pages of his book - a life's work - in which he announced his ideas and observations which supported a Sun-centric solar system. Legend has it that he awoke from this coma, looked deeply at the final pages of his seminal work and then breathed his last shortly afterwards. Sadly, it appears that the preface of Copernicus' book had been amended. This introductory section contradicted much of the break-through work presented within the main sections of the book and it seems to have been been subject to tampering to placate the theologians.

Nicolaus Copernicus - first to propose Heliocentrism. The stamp  above is from the island 
of the Grenadines, located north of Grenada, an island country in the Caribbean Sea.

Tycho Brahe, a Danish astronomer and astrologer who was born in 1546, combined Copernican and Ptolemaic models, correctly postulating that the moon circled Earth. He also contended that all the planets of the Solar System, with the exception of Earth, orbited the Sun and, that the Sun orbited the Earth. This model was fundamentally flawed.

Tycho Brahe erroneously supported a combined Copernican and Ptolemaic
astronomical model. The stamp above is from Uganda, a country in East Africa.

His student, Johannes Kepler, on the other hand was an advocate of the Copernican model but had the difficult duty of supporting his mentor, Brahe, in public whilst concurrently harbouring an alternative academic view. It was only after the death of Brahe that Kepler was free to use some of Brahe's observational datasets to develop and justify his three laws of planetary motion. Indeed, had it not been for the death of Brahe, Kepler may not have had the unfettered access to data that he so required and which then allowed him to develop his laws of planetary motion.

During this era, the Roman Catholic Church was unmovable in its world view of the Universe. In 1600, Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for proposing the Universe is infinite and that other stars could also have planets in which life could exist. It is clear that at this time, opposition to biblical views would not be tolerated.  Heliocentrism was also not accepted as it challenged some fundamental, deep rooted views of the Vatican. 

Giodano Bruno - An Italian Philosopher who was burnt at the stake in 1600 for
 opposing the view of the Vatican. Considered by some to be the "First Matyr of Modern  Science".

In the decades after Copernicus' publication, one of history's most celebrated and gifted scientist, Galileo Galilei, who supported the astronomical model of a heliocentric Solar System, was also subject to persecution and endured much personal sacrifice. Indeed, a Roman Inquisition, conducted by the Vatican, over a period commencing in 1610 and ending in 1633, concluded that Galileo Galilei was guilty of supporting the emerging scientific view that placed the Sun at the center of the Solar System and also found him ''suspect of heresy". He was forced to recant his belief but a contemporaneous painting and popular local legend report that after recanting his belief that the Earth moved around the Sun, Galileo Galilei allegedly muttered the rebellious phrase, "And yet it moves".

For his beliefs, Galileo Galilei remained under house arrest for nine years, until his death (in 1642), but it was only in October 1992, some three hundred and fifty years later, that Pope John Paul II acknowledged that the Church had erred in its condemnation of the scientist.

This stamp from Lesotho, a country located in the South of Africa honours
Galileo Galilei who was persecuted by the Vatican for heliocentric scientific views.. 

Sir Isaac Newton, on the other hand, did not have to shape scientific hypotheses around traditional religious beliefs. He was born in England in the year of the death of Galileo but by then, King Henry VIII had already separated England from the Roman Catholic Church (in 1533) and the Church of England was an established institution. Against this backdrop, Newton was able to work with an open mind and eventually recorded his work in the book "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica". Here, the laws of motion and universal gravitation that formed the dominant scientific viewpoint of the period, and, other leading edge mathematical techniques were recorded.

In summary, it was Copernicus who rightly observed that the planets within our Solar System revolve around the Sun, Kepler who correctly defined their orbits and Newton who explained why they did so. This process took from 1543 to 1687. The quest for the truth continued but the Vatican was a formidable foe when trying to move the Earth from the center of the Universe.

Neptune and Le Verrier

I started this post by writing about Mr. Spock, who is characterized in the television series as being half human and half Vulcan. In fact, the planet Vulcan was not a fictional creation by the script-writer of the movie, "Star Trek".  Instead, it was proposed as a planet by the prominent French mathematician, Urbain Le Verrier. 

Le Verrier was highly respected, having built a formidable reputation for deeply appreciating the mathematical techniques and rules founded on the widely accepted laws of motion and universal gravitation developed by Sir Isaac Newton. Examining empirical data from the actual motion of Uranus (at that time, the farthest known planet from the Sun, discovered by William Herschel in 1781), Le Verrier predicted that there existed another unknown planet which was affecting the orbit of Uranus.

On the night of 23 -24th September 1846, Johann Galle, a German astronomer at the Berlin Observatory, looked into the sky at about the area predicted by the calculations of Le Verrier to be the position of the undiscovered planet. Using telescopic observational techniques, Galle confirmed the existence of a major planet, igniting a sensational moment for nineteenth century mathematics and Newtonian physics. Shortly afterwards, the British mathematician and astronomer, John Couch Adams, also claimed to have done calculations similar to those produced by Le Verrier but the Royal Society attributed the mathematical discovery of Neptune (as the newly discovered planet was christened), to the French mathematician. To this day, Neptune remains the only planet in the Solar System that has been mathematically discovered.

This stamp issued by the United States of America in 2016 shows Neptune.This planet remains the
only mathematically discovered planet of the Solar System. 

The significance of Urbain Le Verrier within the French scientific community of the day was such that when Gustave Eiffel selected the names of seventy-two French scientists, engineers and mathematicians to be inscribed on the four sides of the Eiffel Tower that was being constructed between 1887 and 1889, the name of Le Verrier found a prominent place.

Vulcan and Le Verrier

In 1840, Le Verrier, being skilled at calculations related to the Newtonian laws of motion and gravitation, was asked to study the orbit of the planet Mercury. Three years later, Le Verrier published his provisional findings. 

Mercury was due to transit the Sun in 1848 and this provided an ideal opportunity to validate the calculations of Le Verrier.  Unfortunately, at the appointed time, Le Verrier's predictions of the movement of Mercury failed to match the empirical observations. As once said by Thomas Huxley, the nineteenth century naturalist: "The tragedy of Science - the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by ugly fact."

Undeterred, Le Verrier continued to apply himself to the problem. In 1859, he published a more thorough study of Mercury's motion. To take into account small differences between theoretical calculations and actual observations, Le Verrier postulated the existence of an undiscovered planet, which he called "Vulcan". He named the planet after the Roman god of fire as this (as of then) invisible planet was expected to have an orbital path inside that of Mercury and would replace Mercury as the first planet from the Sun. Again, all  his predictive work was founded on the mathematics and the principles of Newtonian gravitational physics. 

Urbain Le Verrier 
French Mathematician 

Given his reputation and acknowledged expertise in the field, the International Astronomical Union confidently reserved the name "Vulcan" for this planet (and this remains a reserved designation until today). There were several claims at various times that Vulcan had been sighted but no substantive evidence was ever provided.

Urbain Le Verrier died in Paris in 1877 having mathematically discovered Neptune and mathematically predicted the presence of another planet called Vulcan, which apparently was difficult to sight from Earth. The resolution of the mystery of Vulcan required the intellectual genius of a particular German, one Albert Einstein, who was born two years after the death of Le Verrier.


On the 14th of March 1879, the world was gifted with Albert Einstein. A theoretical physicist, he had, by the age of twenty-six, published four ground-breaking papers concerning;

  • the photoelectric effect;
  • Brownian motion;
  • Special relativity; and

Mass- energy equivalence (E = mc², which asserted that matter could be turned into energy)In late 1915, he wrote a further paper on General Relativity, introducing his theory of gravitation. Einstein's theory challenged the Newtonian gravitational model which had stood supreme for about two hundred years. In Newton’s view, all objects — from the mythical falling apple to the planets and stars — exert a force that attracts other objects. That universal law of gravitation seem to work well for predicting the motion of planets as well as objects on Earth. It also had (and remains to have) other applications. But Newton's view of gravity did not work for some things, like Mercury’s peculiar orbit around the sun. Here was a problem that necessitated the introduction of an imaginary and invisible planet by Le Verrier (named "Vulcan") to close the gap between mathematical theory and empirical observation.

By offering a different model of gravity, Einstein offered an explanation for the orbit of Mercury that did not require the presence of a planetary body inside the orbit of Mercury. Instead of exerting an attractive force, as proposed by Newton, Einstein's General Relativity Theory reasoned that each object curves the fabric of space and time around it, forming a sort of "well" or depression that other objects — and even beams of light — fall into.

Albert Einstein - 1956 First Day Cover 
from Israel. The stamp shows the mass / energy equivalence equation.

This new model also elegantly solved the Mercury problem. Einstein's calculations demonstrated that the sun so curves space that it distorts the orbits of nearby bodies, including that of Mercury. A "Vulcan" was not required and in fact, did not exist!

But Einstein was German and in 1916, World War I between the Allied Powers (France, Russia, Britain and later the United States) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria) was ongoing. This was a war that saw approximately 16 million killed by the time it was over in 1918. Carnage and destruction were immense. Under these circumstances, not many on the side of the Allied Powers were readily willing to validate the groundbreaking hypothesis of a German. However, it was undeniable that several ground breaking benefits could be obtained if empirical proof of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity could be secured. In the first instance, an ever larger understanding of the laws governing the Universe might be obtained and as an added bonus, an answer explaining the apparently disorderly behaviour of the planet Mercury, which did not require the inclusion of the elusive planet Vulcan into the model of the Solar System, would finally have been provided !

Stamps from the Niger, a country in the west of Africa,  showing Einstein at his two passions:
Thinking and playing the violin. Initially he played the piano.


Sir Authur Stanley Eddington was a brilliant English astronomer, physicist and mathematician. As a Cambridge undergraduate, he was the first-ever second year student to be placed as the Senior Wrangler (the top mathematics graduate at Cambridge University - described as the greatest intellectual achievement in Britain). He was also the first to postulate that the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium was the source of stellar energy.

Eddington had pacifist views, which evolved through his Quaker upbringing. He is reported as being objective and prioritized the popularization of science. He appreciated Einstein as an extremely talented physicist and mathematician and did not view him primarily as a German or an enemy of the state. He made it his objective to confirm the General Theory of Relativity so Eddington and Astronomer Royal Frank Watson Dyson organized two expeditions to observe the solar eclipse of 1919 so that the first empirical test of Einstein's theory (i.e. testing for the deflection of light by the Sun's gravitational field) could be conducted.

In pursuit of this objective, Eddington sailed to Principe, a remote island off the west coast of Africa to capture the necessary photographs of the apparent position of certain stars during the eclipse. Simultaneously, a separate team traveled to Brazil to capture similar photographs of the event to ensure at least one set of valid data would be obtained. Einstein's theory predicted that when light rays from the relevant stars passed near the Sun, they would appear slightly shifted because their light would be curved by the the Sun's gravitational field. Einstein had also provided a prediction for the extent of the shift.

Stamp from the island of San Tome & Principe, an island of the
west coast of Africa  honouring Sir Authur Eddington

Both sets of observations, from Principe and Brazil, were analysed over the months following the solar eclipse and Eddington's results were announced during a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society on 6 November 1919. In a tense atmosphere, Eddington presented his findings which validated Einstein's General Relativity theory. As a result, the application of Newton's laws of gravitation were henceforth limited to the realm of low terrestrial gravity where forces are weak. Einstein's theory on the other hand opened a new narrative, being equally applicable in weak and intense gravity environments. This new narrative also elegantly supported Mercury's independent orbit the Sun.

In 1921, Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his explanation of the Photoelectric Effect.

Mr. Spock

Mr. Spock, quoting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in the movie series "Star Trek" was once quoted as saying: "Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

Einstein gifted humanity with many scientific accomplishments and truths. He showed that light does not always travel in straight lines. As for the home of Mr. Spock, the planet Vulcan was shown to be fictional, as are the many star systems and galaxies, many light years away, visited by Captain Kirk and his team of the Federation Starship the USS Enterprise. Having said that, the day is not long in coming when humankind will "boldly go where no man has gone before".


Albert Einstein left this world at 1.15 a.m. in the morning of 18th April at the age of 76. He died at the Princeton University Medical Center after suffering an abdominal aortic aneurysm. He refused surgery, believing that he had lived his life and was content to accept his fate, "elegantly". His last words were spoken in German but the nurse present at his bedside was not conversant in this language. He was cremated later the same day, without funeral rites. These were his wishes.

Such was the level of his intelligence that even after death, his brain was apparently in demand. On the day following his cremation, in a front page article, The New York Times reported that his brain and eyes had been removed by the pathologist on duty at the hospital and that his body was not intact on cremation. The pathologist claimed that he had been authorized to remove Einstein's brain and eyeballs but no permit was ever produced. He was subsequently relieved of his position at the hospital but on leaving, took the preserved organs with him.

Several parties sought to secure Einstein's brain for research and it was eventually sectioned in 240 pieces and embedded into squares of celloidin. Initially, no research seemed to be conducted but some studies relating to Einstein's brain started being published more than three decades after his death.

Currently, the location of Einstein's eyeballs are unknown.
Post Scripts
  • Singaporean readers of this post would be proud to be reminded that your Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was the Senior Wrangler in Cambridge in 1974. 
  • In recent years, researchers have been attempting to invalidate the General Theory of Relativity by testing it at the extreme conditions that prevail close to Black Holes. Others have offered alternative models but so far, to no avail. The General Theory of Relativity continues to stand.
Whilst writing this post there has been one thought which has repeatedly come to my mind and I thought I would share it here, at the very end.  -  Mr. Einstein could really have used the hair stylist of Mr. Spock !

All stamps and the First Day Cover shown above are from my collection.

End of Post 


  1. Super Ken..thoroughly enjoyed the read

  2. Great blog Ken! Keep it up!��

  3. Brilliantly written as always with charm and eloquence, and massive learnings! And Spock has a special place in everyones heart. Interestingly his hand gesture symbolic of Vulcan culture has it's own origin in Nimoy's religion of Judaism, so along with having good hair for Einstein, they shared much. Dont stop writing, Ken.