Monday, July 20, 2009

"Vulcan's Workshop" by Harl Vincent

From Project Gutenberg comes another story by Harl Vincent, a forgotten pioneer of science fiction. "Vulcan's Workshop" appeared in the June 1932 issue of Astounding Stories magazine, and it has never been reprinted until being uploaded to Project Gutenberg on July 5, 2009.

The Vulcan of "Vulcan's Workshop" is a planet, but not Gene Roddenberry's planet Vulcan. Its origins date back to the mid-nineteenth century, and the orbital calculations of a French mathematical astronomer. Urbain Jean Jospeh Le Verrier (1811 - 1877) specialized in the tedious calculations involved in celestial mechanics -- working out the orbits of bodies in space. In 1846, his calculations of the orbit of Uranus, which was the outermost planet known at the time, showed certain periodic anomolies, which he interpreted as evidence that Uranus' orbit was being affected by a more distant, undiscovered planet. Within a month of Le Verrier's announcement, his calculations led to the discovery of this more distant planet, which was named Neptune. This discovery led to Le Verrier becoming the Big Scientist of his era, with all the intellectual heft that comes with such a position.

By 1859, Le Verrier had completed his calculations of the orbit of Mercury, and again they showed certain periodic anomolies. Again, Le Verrier decided that these anomolies were due to an undiscovered planet, this time one that orbited closer to the sun than Mercury. Le Verrier tentatively named this undiscovered planet Vulcan, and his standing as the Big Scientist of his time meant that other astronomers immediately began searching the skies near the sun for it. An amateur astronomer named Edmond Modeste Lescarbault announced that he had seen Le Verrier's Vulcan transiting the sun earlier that year, and Le Verrier used Lescarbault's data to calculate Vulcan's orbit. However, none of Le Verrier's predicted future transits of the sun by Vulcan were ever observed, and belief in Le Verrier's Vulcan waned. The final blow to the Vulcan hypothesis was delivered by Albert Einstein in 1915, when his General Theory of Relativity was able to explain Mercury's observed orbit without recourse to any undiscovered planets.

Old scientific ideas tend to persist, though, and some science fiction writers continued to set stories on Le Verrier's Vulcan. Vincent's "Vulcan's Workshop" specifically mentions Lescarbault's observation, and in the story, the planet Vulcan is finally discovered in the twenty-first century after interplanetary travel is established. Vincent's Vulcan orbits the sun at a distance of twenty million miles, and is tidally locked to the sun. Although its diameter is a little over 200 miles, Vulcan has a core of solid neutronium which gives it a surface gravity six times that of Earth. "Vulcan's Workshop" tells the story of Luke Fenton, a tough brawler from Earth who gets in trouble with the law on Mars, and who is sentenced by the Martian government to do hard time in a penal colony on Vulcan called Vulcan's Workshop. It's said that no man can escape from Vulcan's Workshop, but Luke Fenton is determined to try.

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