Luminiferous aether

postulated medium for the propagation of light
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The luminiferous aether, meaning light-bearing aether or ether, was postulated by classical physics theories as a medium for the propagation light though empty space.

CONTENT : A - B, C - D, E - G, H - I, J - K, L - M, N - O, P - S, T - U, V - Z, See also, External links



A - B

  • Ether theories after the middle of the nineteenth century tended to posit that matter was not, in fact, material at all. ...matter was no longer understood as Lucretius had formulated it: as made up of strong and rigid atoms moving through empty space. Instead, physicists now believed that space was filled with the luminiferous ether, and matter, physicists hypothesized, was simply movement within the ether. Matter was thus etherealized.
    • Sarah C. Alexander, Victorian Literature and the Physics of the Imponderable (2015)
  • The spooky ether was persistent. It took an Einstein to remove it from the Universe. ...Gradually, over the last twenty years, the vacuum has turned out to be more unusual, more fluid, less empty, and less intangible than even Einstein could have imagined. Its presence is felt on the very smallest and largest dimensions over which the forces of Nature act.
  • The physicist's concept of nothing—the vacuum... began as empty space—the void... turned into a stagnant ether through which all the motions of the Universe swam, vanished in Einstein's hands, then re-emerged in the twentieth-century quantum picture of how Nature works.
    • John D. Barrow The Book of Nothing (2009) chapter nought "Nothingology—Flying to Nowhere"
  • The difficult surface conditions met with when light passes from one medium to another, including such subjects as ellipticity, total reflection, etc., have been critically discussed among others by Neumann (1835) and Rayleigh (1888) but the discrimination between the Fresnel and the Neumann vector was not accomplished without misgiving before the advent of the work of Hertz.
    It appears... that the elastic theories of light, if Kelvin's gyrostatic adynamic ether be admitted, have not been wholly routed. Nevertheless the great electromagnetic theory of light propounded by Maxwell (1864, 'Treatise,' 1873) has been singularly apt not only in explaining all the phenomena reached by the older theories and in predicting entirely novel results, but in harmoniously uniting as parts of a unique doctrine, both the electric or photographic light vector of Fresnel and Cauchy and the magnetic vector of Neumann and MacCullagh. Its predictions have, moreover, been astonishingly verified by the work of Hertz (1890), and it is to-day acquiring added power in the convection theories of Lorentz (1895) and others.
    • Carl Barus, "The Progress of Physics in the Nineteenth Century," II., Science, (Sept. 29, 1905) Vol. 22, pp.387-388, "Theories."

C - D

  • I hold in fact
    (1) That small portions of space are in fact of a nature analogous to little hills on a surface which is on the average flat; namely, that the ordinary laws of geometry are not valid in them.
    (2) That this property of being curved or distorted is continually being passed on from one portion of space to another after the manner of a wave.
    (3) That this variation of the curvature of space is what really happens in that phenomenon which we call the motion of matter, whether ponderable or etherial.
    (4) That in the physical world nothing else takes place but this variation, subject possibly to the law of continuity.
    • William Kingdon Clifford, "On the Space-Theory of Matter," Abstract (read Feb 21, 1870) from the Cambridge Philosophical Society's Proceedings II (1876) pp. 157-158
  • Einstein's definition... does not differ in spirit from the definitions in classical science; its sole advantage is that it entails a minimum of assumptions, and is susceptible of being realised in a concrete way permitting a high degree of accuracy in our measurements. Einstein's definition, is then, as follows: If we consider a ray of light passing through a Galilean frame, its velocity in the frame will be the same regardless of the relative motion of the luminous source and frame, and regardless of the direction of the ray. ...when it was found that contrary to the anticipations of classical science not the slightest trace of anisotropy could be detected even by ultra-precise experiment, the objections which classical science may might have presented... lost all force. ...ether drift appeared to exert no influence one way or the other. ...
    Isotropy signifies that the velocity of light is the same in all directions. And how can we ascertain the equality of a velocity in all directions when we do not yet know how to measure time? Experimenters solved the difficulty by appealing to the observation of coincidences. ...
    Waves of light leaving the centre of a sphere simultaneously are found to return to the centre also in concidence, after having suffered a reflection against a highly polished inner surface of the sphere. ...the light waves have thus covered equal distances in the same time; whence we conclude that their speed is the same in all directions.
    Inasmuch as this experiment has been performed, yielding the results we have just described, even though the ether drift caused by the earth's motion should have varied in direction and intensity, the isotropy of space to luminous propogations was thus established. (The experiment described constitutes but a schematic form of Michelson's.) It is to be noted that in this experiment the observation of coincidences is alone appealed to (even spatial measurements can be eliminated). This is because in Michelson's experiment it is not necessary to consider a sphere. The two arms of the apparatus may be of different lengths; and all that is observed is the continued coincidence of the interference-bands with markings on the instrument. When it is realised that coincidences constitute the most exact form of observation, we understand why it is that Einstein's definition is justified.
  • These last two equations connote that varying electric and magnetic intensities will be propagated through the ether in wave form with a velocity c... This discovery removed all possibility of action at a distance, since the field perturbations now appeared to be propagated from place to place with a finite velocity. It was... of interest to determine the precise value of c. ...Physicists ...were unable, in Maxwell's day, to devise a means of performing such delicate experiments. ...Maxwell remarked that it would be given by the ratio of the magnitude of any electric charge, measured in terms of electrostatic units (based on electricity), and then of electromagnetic units (based on magnetism).
    If two magnetic poles of equal strength, situated in empty space... one centimetre apart, attract or repel each other with a force of one dyne, either pole is said to represent one unit of magnetic pole strength in the electromagnetic system of units. Owing to the interconnections between magnetism and electricity, we can deduce therefrom the unit of electric charge also in the electromagnetic system. Likewise, if two electric charges of equal strength... in empty space at a distance of one centimetre apart, attract or repel each other with a force of one dyne, either charge is said to represent one unit of electric charge in the electrostatic system of units. From this we can derive the unit of magnetic pole strength in the electrostatic system.
    Precise measurements... then proved that the value of this ratio was about 186,000 miles per second; whence it became necessary to assume that periodic perturbations in the strains and stresses of the field would be propagated in the form of waves moving through the ether with this particular speed. But this velocity was precisely that of light waves propagated through the luminiferous ether.
  • A. D'Abro, The Evolution of Scientific Thought from Newton to Einstein (1927) pp. 126-127
  • The most precise experiments have proved the correctness of the Einsteinian laws of mechanics and...Bucherer's experiment proving the increase in mass of an electron in rapid motion is a case in point.
    Very important differences distinguish the theory of Einstein from that of Lorentz. Lorentz also had deduced from his theory that the mass of the electron should increase and grow infinite when its speed neared that of light; but the speed in question was the speed of the electron through the stagnant ether; whereas in Einstein's theory it is merely the speed with respect to the observer. According to Lorentz, the increase in mass of the moving electron was due to its deformation of Fitzgerald contraction. The contraction modified the lay of the electromagnetic field round the electron; and it was from this modification that the increase in mass observed by Bucherer was assumed to arise. In Einstein's theory, however, the increase in mass is absolutely general and need not be ascribed to the electromagnetic field of the electron in motion. An ordinary unelectrified lump of matter like a grain of sand would have increased in mass in exactly the same proportion; and no knowledge of the microscopic constitution of matter is necessary in order to predict these effects, which result directly from the space and time transformations themselves.
    Furthermore, the fact that this increase in mass of matter in motion is now due to relative motion and not to motion through the stagnant ether, as in Lorentz's theory, changes the entire outlook considerably. According to Lorentz, the electron really increased in mass, since its motion through the ether remained a reality. According to Einstein, the electron increases in mass only in so far as it is in relative motion with respect to the observer. Were the observer to be attached to the flying electron no increase in mass would exist; it would be the electron left behind which would now appear to have suffered the increase. Thus mass follows distance, duration and electromagnetic field in being a relative and having no definite magnitude of itself and being essentially dependent on the conditions of observation.
    Owing to the general validity of the Lorentz-Einstein transformations, it becomes permissible to apply them to all manner of phenomena.. ...temperature, pressure and many other physical magnitudes turned out to be relatives. ...entropy, electric charge and the velocity of light in vacuo were absolutes transcending the observer's motion. ...a number of other entities are found to be absolutes, the most important of which is that abstract mathematical quantity called the Einsteinian interval, which plays so important a part in the fabric of the new objective world of science, the world of four-dimensional space-time.

E - G

  • We may assume the existence of an aether; only we must give up ascribing a definite state of motion to it, i.e. we must by abstraction take from it the last mechanical characteristic which Lorentz had still left it. … But this ether may not be thought of as endowed with the quality characteristic of ponderable media, as consisting of parts which may be tracked through time. The idea of motion may not be applied to it.
    • Albert Einstein, On the Irrelevance of the Luminiferous Aether Hypothesis to Physical Measurements (May 5, 1920) address at the University of Leiden
  • Can we represent the electric field by something more like a temperature, say like the displacement of a piece of jello? Suppose that we were to begin by imagining that the world was filled with thin jello and that the fields represented some distortion—say a stretching or twisting—of the jello. Then we could visualize the field. After we “see” what it is like we could abstract the jello away. For many years that’s what people tried to do. Maxwell, Ampère, Faraday, and others tried to understand electromagnetism this way. (Sometimes they called the abstract jello “ether.”) But it turned out that the attempt to imagine the electromagnetic field in that way was really standing in the way of progress. We are unfortunately limited to abstractions, to using instruments to detect the field, to using mathematical symbols to describe the field, etc. But nevertheless, in some sense the fields are real, because after we are all finished fiddling around with mathematical equations—with or without making pictures and drawings or trying to visualize the thing—we can still make the instruments detect the signals from Mariner II and find out about galaxies a billion miles away, and so on.
  • The strangest explanation [for the Michelson–Morley experiment] was put forth by an Irish physicist, George Francis Fitzgerald. Perhaps, he said, the ether wind puts pressure on a moving object, causing it to shrink a bit in the direction of motion. To determine the length of a moving object, its length at rest must be multiplied by the following simple formula, in which   is the velocity of the object multiplied by itself,   is the velocity of light multiplied by itself:  .
  • Lorentz made an important addition to his original theory. He introduced changes in time. Clocks, he said, would be slowed down by the ether wind, and in just such a way as to make the velocity of light always measure 299,800 meters per second.
    • Martin Gardner, Relativity Simply Explained (1962) Ch. 2 The Michelson-Morley Experiment.
  • Einstein, following the steps of Ernst Mach, took a bolder view. The reason Michelson and Morley were unable to detect an ether wind, Einstein said, is simple: There is no either wind. He did not say that there was no ether; only... [that the ether] is of no value in measuring uniform motion.
  • The ether occupies a highly anomalous position in the world of science. It may be described as a half-discovered entity. would be a great exaggeration of our knowledge if l were to speak of it as a body or even as a substance. When nearly a century ago, Young and Fresnel discovered that the motions of an incandescent particle were conveyed to our eyes by undulation, it followed that between our eyes and the particle there must be something to undulate. In order to furnish that something, the notion of the ether was conceived, and for more than two generations the main, if not the only, function of the word ether has been to furnish a nominative case to the verb "to undulate." Lately, our conception of this entity has received a notable extension. One of the most brilliant of the services which Professor Maxwell has rendered to science has been the discovery that the figure which expressed the velocity light, also expressed the multiplier required to change the measure of static or passive electricity into that dynamic or active electricity. The interpretation reasonably affixed to this discovery is that, as light and the electric impulse move approximately at the same rate through space, it is probable that the undulations which convey them are undulations of the same medium. And as induced electricity penetrates through everything, or nearly everything, it follows that the ether through which its undulations are propagated must pervade all space, whether empty or full, whether occupied by opaque matter or transparent matter, or by no matter at all. The attractive experiments by which the late Professor Herz illustrated the electric vibrations of the ether will only alluded to by me... But the mystery of the ether, though it has been made more fascinating by these discoveries, remains even more inscrutable than before. Of this all-pervading entity we know absolutely nothing except this one fact, that it can be made to undulate. Whether outside the influence of matter on the motion of its waves, ether has any effect on matter or matter upon it, is absolutely unknown. And even [in] its solitary function of undulating ether performs in an abnormal fashion which has caused infinite perplexity. All fluids that we know transmit any blow they have received by waves which undulate backwards and forwards in the path of their own advance. The ether undulates athwart the path of the wave's advance. The genius of Lord Kelvin has recently discovered what he terms a labile state of equilibrium, in which a fluid that is infinite in its extent may exist, and may undulate in this eccentric fashion without outraging the laws of mathematics. I am no mathematician, and l cannot judge whether this reconciliation of the action of the ether with mechanical law is to be looked upon as a permanent solution of the question, or is only what diplomatists call a modus vivendi. In any case it leaves our knowledge of the ether in a very rudimentary condition. It has no known qualities except one, and that quality is in the highest degree anomalous and inscrutable.
    • Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, British Association for the Advancement of Science Inaugural Address of the President, the Most Hon.The Marquis of Salisbury, K.G., D.C.L., F.R.S., Chancellor of the University of Oxford. (August, 1894) as quoted in The Chemical News and Journal of Industrial Science ed., William Crookes, Vol. 69-70 (1894) p. 65, Vol. 70.

H - I

  • The subjects of change in the vibrations are the electric or magnetic polarisations of the medium in which they take place. In order to explain the propagation of light in space between the stars, which is free from all trace of ponderable matter, the electromagnetic theory of light also must assume a medium, which fills the world-space even where no ponderable matter is to be found. It must so far make the same assumption as the undulatory theory (of light); but while the latter has to ascribe the properties of a solidly-elastic body to the ether, no assumption at all need be made by the electromagnetic theory as to the mode of its inner consistence. It is enough, that the ether is capable of being magnetised, and electrified in the fashion of an insulator, that is, in such a way that in its smallest parts a certain electric distribution, a so-called dielectric polarisation, as Faraday named it, is possible.
  • I adopt Mr. Darwin's hypothesis, therefore, subject to the production of proof that physiological species may be produced by selective breeding; just as a physical philosopher may accept the undulatory theory of light, subject to the proof of the existence of the hypothetical ether; or as the chemist adopts the atomic theory, subject to the proof of the existence of atoms; and for exactly the same reasons, namely, that it has an immense amount of primâ facie probability: that it is the only means at present within reach of reducing the chaos of observed facts to order; and lastly, that it is the most powerful instrument of investigation which has been presented to naturalists since the invention of the natural system of classification and the commencement of the systematic study of embryology.
  • The gradual reception of the undulatory theory of light necessitated the assumption of the existence of an 'ether' filling all space. But whether this ether was to be regarded as a strictly material and continuous substance was an undecided point, and hence the revived atomism escaped strangling in its birth. For it is clear, that if the ether is admitted to be a continuous material substance, Democritic atomism is at an end and Cartesian continuity takes its place.
  • The primitive atomic theory, which has served as the scaffolding for the edifice of modern physics and chemistry, has been quietly dismissed. I cannot discover that any contemporary physicist or chemist believes in the real indivisibility of atoms, or in an interatomic matterless vacuum. Atoms appear to be used as mere names for physico-chemical units which have not yet been subdivided, and 'molecules' for physico-chemical units which are aggregates of the former. And these individualised particles are supposed to move in an endless ocean of a vastly more subtle matter—the ether.
    • Thomas Henry Huxley, The Advance of Science in the Last Half-Century (1889)
  • If this ether is a continuous substance... we have got back from the hypothesis of Dalton to that of Descartes. But there is much reason to believe that science is going to make a still further journey, and, in form, if not altogether in substance, to return to the point of view of Aristotle.
    • Thomas Henry Huxley, The Advance of Science in the Last Half-Century (1889)
  • The so called vortex-ring' hypothesis is a very serious and remarkable attempt to deal with material units from a point of view which is consistent with the doctrine of evolution. It supposes the ether to be a uniform substance, and that the 'elementary' units are, broadly speaking, permanent whirlpools, or vortices, of this ether, the properties of which depend on their actual and potential modes of motion. It is curious and highly interesting to remark that this hypothesis reminds us not only of the speculations of Descartes, but of those of Aristotle.
    • Thomas Henry Huxley, The Advance of Science in the Last Half-Century (1889)
  • The resemblance of the 'vortex rings' to the 'tourbillons' of Descartes is little more than nominal; but the correspondence between the modern and the ancient notion of a distinction between primary and derivative matter is, to a certain extent, real. For this ethereal 'Urstoff' of the modern corresponds very closely with the πρώτη ΰλη of Aristotle, the materia prima of his mediæval followers; while matter, differentiated into our elements, is the equivalent of the first stage of progress towards the έσχάτη ΰλη, or finished matter, of the ancient philosophy.

J - K

  • At this time, space was supposed to be filled with an ether, a substance which might well serve, among other functions, to transmit forces across space. So long as such an ether could be called on, the transmission of force to a distance was easy to understand; it was like ringing a distant bell by pulling a bell-rope.
  • Faraday, Maxwell, Larmor and a great number of others tried to explain electromagnetic action on these lines, but all attempts failed, and it began to seem impossible that any properties of ether could explain the observed pattern of events.
    • James Jeans, Physics and Philosophy (1942)
  • Then the theory of relativity came and explained the cause of the failure. Electric action requires time to travel from one point of space to another, the simplest instance of this being the finite speed of travel of light... Thus electromagnetic action may be said to travel through space and time jointly. But by filling space and space alone [excluding time] with an ether, the pictorial representations had all supposed a clear-cut distinction between space and time.
    • James Jeans, Physics and Philosophy (1942)
  • ...when the experiment was attempted by Michelson and Morley it failed, thus showing that space and time assumed in the picture were not true to the facts of nature. ...the pattern of events was the same whether the world stood at rest in the supposed ether, or had an ether wind blowing through it at a million miles an hour. It began to look as though the supposed ether was not very important in the scheme of things... and so might as well be abandoned. But if the bell-rope is to be discarded, what is to ring the bell?
  • When he proved that electromagnetic waves travel with the speed of light, Maxwell concluded that these waves travel in ether, because since Newton's days ether had been accepted as the medium in which light moved. But since electromagnetic waves travel through all substances this means that ether must pervade all substances, including empty space. ...since the waves move with enormous velocity the ether has to be highly rigid, for the more rigid a body the faster the waves travel through it. On the other hand if ether pervades space it must be completely transparent and the planets must move through it with no friction. These conditions... are contradictory. ...We must conclude that it is a fiction, a mere word satisfying only those minds that do not look behind words.
    • Morris Kline, Mathematics and the Physical World (1959) p. 360.

L - M

  • Under the influence of the elastic forces, the electrons can vibrate about their positions of equilibrium. In doing so, and perhaps also on account of other more irregular motions, they become the centres of waves that travel outwards in the surrounding ether and can be observed as light if the frequency is high enough. In this manner we can account for the emission of light and heat.
  • I cannot speak here of the many highly interesting applications which Einstein has made of this principle. His results concerning electromagnetic and optical phenomena ...agree in the main with those which we have obtained... the chief difference being that Einstein simply postulates what we have deduced, with some difficulty and not altogether satisfactorily, from the fundamental equations of the electromagnetic field. By doing so, he may certainly take credit for making us see in the negative result of experiments like those of Michelson, Rayleigh and Brace, not a fortuitous compensation of opposing effects, but the manifestation of a general and fundamental principle.
    Yet, I think, something may also be claimed in favour of the form in which I have presented the theory. I cannot but regard the ether, which can be the seat of an electromagnetic field with its energy and vibrations, as endowed with a certain degree of substantiality, however different it may be from all ordinary matter. seems natural not to assume at starting that it can never make any difference whether a body moves through the ether or not, and to measure distances and lengths of time by means of rods and clocks having a fixed position relatively to the ether.
    It would be unjust not to add that, besides the fascinating boldness of its starting point, Einstein's theory has another marked advantage over mine. Whereas I have not been able to obtain for the equations referred to moving axes exactly the same form as for those which apply to a stationary system, Einstein has accomplished this by means of a system of new variables slightly different from those which I have introduced.
    • Hendrik Lorentz, The Theory of Electrons and Its Applications to the Phenomena of Light and Radiant Heat (1916) Ch. V Optical Phenomena in Moving Bodies.
  • The most obvious mechanical phenomenon in electrical and magnetical experiments is the mutual action by which bodies in certain states set each other in motion while still at a sensible distance from each other. ...mathematical theories of statical electricity, of magnetism, of the mechanical action between conductors carrying currents, and of the induction of currents have been formed. In these theories the force acting between the two bodies is treated with reference only to the condition of the bodies and their relative position, and without any express consideration of the surrounding medium.
    These theories assume, more or less explicitly, the existence of substances the particles of which have the property of acting on one another at a distance by attraction or repulsion. The most complete development of a theory of this kind is that of... MM. W. Weber and C. Neumann...
    The mechanical difficulties, however, which are involved in the assumption of particles acting at a distance with forces which depend on their velocities are such as to prevent me from considering this theory as an ultimate one... I have, therefore, preferred to seek an explanation of the fact in another direction, by supposing them to be produced by actions which go on in the surrounding medium as well as in the excited bodies, and endeavouring to explain the action between distant bodies without assuming the existence of forces capable of acting directly at sensible distances.
  • To those who maintained the existence of a plenum as... principle, nature's abhorrence of a vacuum was a sufficient reason for imagining an all-surrounding aether, even though every other argument should be against it. ...Descartes ...made ...matter a necessary condition of extension... It is only when we remember the extensive and mischievous influence on science... that we can appreciate the horror of aethers which sober-minded men had during the 18th century, and which... descended even to... John Stuart Mill. ...Newton himself... endeavoured to account for gravitation by differences of pressure in an aether... but he did not publish his theory, "because he was not able from experiment and observation to give a satisfactory account..." ...The only aether which has survived is that which was invented by Huygens to explain the propagation of light. The evidence for... the luminiferous aither has accumulated as additional phenomena of light and other radiations have been discovered; and the properties of this medium... have been found to be... those required to explain electromagnetic phenomena. ...the interplanetary and interstellar spaces are not empty, but are occupied by a material substance or body, which is certainly the largest, and probably the most uniform body of which we have any knowledge. ...Whether this vast homogeneous expanse of isotropic matter is fitted not only to be a medium of physical interaction between distant bodies, and to fulfil other physical functions... but also, as the authors [Balfour Stewart and Peter Tait] of the Unseen Universe seem to suggest, to constitute the material organism of beings exercising functions of life and mind as high or higher than ours are at present, is a question far transcending the limits of physical speculation.
  • Suppose that an ether strain corresponds to an electric charge, an ether displacement to the electric current, these ether vortices to the atoms—if we continue these suppositions, we arrive at what may be one of the grandest generalizations of modern science—of which we are tempted to say that it ought to be true even if it is not—namely, that all the phenomena of the physical universe are only different manifestations of the various modes of motions of one all pervading substance—the ether.
  • It may be that ultimately the search for dark matter will turn out to be the most expensive and largest null result experiment since the Michelson-Morely experiment, which failed to detect the ether.
    • John Moffat, Reinventing Gravity (2008) Ch. 4 Dark Matter, p. 77

N - O

  • Were I to assume an hypothesis, it should be this, if propounded more generally, so as not to assume what light is further than that it is something or other capable of exciting vibrations of the ether. First, it is to be assumed that there is an ethereal medium, much of the same constitution as air, but far rarer, subtiller, and more strongly elastic. ...In the second place, it is to be supposed that the ether is a vibrating medium, like air, only the vibrations much more swift and minute; those of air made by a man's ordinary voice succeeding at more than half a foot or a foot distance, but those of ether at a less distance than the hundredth-thousandth part of an inch. And as in air the vibrations are some larger than others, but yet all equally swift... so I suppose the ethereal vibrations differ in bigness but not in swiftness. ...In the fourth place, therefore, I suppose that light is neither ether nor its vibrating motion, but something of a different kind propagated from lucid bodies. They that will may suppose it an aggregate of various peripatetic qualities. Others may suppose it multitudes of unimaginable small and swift corpuscles of various sizes springing from shining bodies at great distances one after the other, but yet without any sensible interval of time. ...To avoid dispute and make this hypothesis general, let every man here take his fancy; only whatever light be, I would suppose it consists of successive rays differing from one another in contingent circumstances, as bigness, force, or vigour, like as the sands on the shore... and, further, I would suppose it diverse from the vibrations of the ether. ...Fifthly, it is to be supposed that light and ether mutually act upon one another. ...æthereal vibrations are therefore the best means by which such a subtile agent as light can shake the gross particles of solid bodies to heat them.
    • Isaac Newton, "Hypothesis explaining the Properties of Light" (1675) Article sent to Henry Oldenburg in 1675 but not published until Thomas Birch, "History of the Royal Society" (1757) Vol.3 pp. 247, 262, 272; as quoted in Nature (1893) Vol.48 p. 536
  • And so, supposing that light impinging on a refracting or reflecting ethereal superficies puts it into a vibrating motion, that physical superficies being by the perpetual applause of rays always kept in a vibrating motion, and the ether therein continually expanded and compressed by turns, if a ray of light impinge on it when it is much compressed, I suppose it is then too dense and stiff to let the ray through, and so reflects it; but the rays that impinge on it at other times, when it is either expanded by the interval between two vibrations or not too much compressed and condensed, go through and are refracted.
    • Isaac Newton, "Hypothesis explaining the Properties of Light" (1675)
  • And now to explain colours. I suppose that as bodies excite sounds of various tones and consequently vibrations, in the air of various bignesses, so when rays of light by impinging on the stiff refracting superficies excite vibrations in the ether, these rays excite vibrations of various bignesses... therefore, the ends of the capillamenta of the optic nerve which front or face the retina being such refracting superficies, when the rays impinge on them they must there excite these vibrations, which vibrations (like those of sound in a trumpet) will run along the pores or crystalline pith of the capillamenta through the optic nerves into the sensorium (which light itself cannot do), and there, I suppose, affect the sense with various colours, according to their bigness and mixture—the biggest with the strongest colours, reds and yellows; the least with the weakest, blues and violets; middle with green; and a confusion of all with white, much after the manner, that in the sense of hearing, nature makes use of aereal vibrations of several bignesses to generate sounds of divers tones; for the analogy of nature is to be observed.
    • Isaac Newton, "Hypothesis explaining the Properties of Light" (1675)
  • To make way for the regular and lasting Motions of the Planets and Comets, it's necessary to empty the Heavens of all Matter, except perhaps some very thin Vapours, Steams or Effluvia, arising from the Atmospheres of the Earth, Planets and Comets, and from such an exceedingly rare Æthereal Medium … A dense Fluid can be of no use for explaining the Phænomena of Nature, the Motions of the Planets and Comets being better explain'd without it. It serves only to disturb and retard the Motions of those great Bodies, and make the frame of Nature languish: And in the Pores of Bodies, it serves only to stop the vibrating Motions of their Parts, wherein their Heat and Activity consists. And as it is of no use, and hinders the Operations of Nature, and makes her languish, so there is no evidence for its Existence, and therefore it ought to be rejected. And if it be rejected, the Hypotheses that Light consists in Pression or Motion propagated through such a Medium, are rejected with it.
    And for rejecting such a Medium, we have the authority of those the oldest and most celebrated philosophers of ancient Greece and Phoenicia, who made a vacuum and atoms and the gravity of atoms the first principles of their philosophy, tacitly attributing Gravity to some other Cause than dense Matter. Later Philosophers banish the Consideration of such a Cause out of natural Philosophy, feigning Hypotheses for explaining all things mechanically, and referring other Causes to Metaphysicks: Whereas the main Business of natural Philosophy is to argue from Phenomena without feigning Hypotheses, and to deduce Causes from Effects, till we come to the very first Cause, which certainly is not mechanical.

P - S

  • Planck ...devised his quanta theory, according to which the exchange of energy between the matter and the ether—or rather between ordinary matter and the small resonators whose vibrations furnish the light of incandescent matter—can take place only intermittently. A resonator can not gain energy or lose it in a continuous manner. It can not gain a fraction of a quantum; it must acquire a whole quantum or none at all.
  • The earth moves—if it does move—so quietly and silently that we feel no jar or engine-beat to tell us of its motion. If the earth were perpetually shrouded by clouds could we find out its motion through space or even its rotation? And do we actually get any proof on this point from observation of the heavenly bodies? ...who knows if the solar system and all the visible stars are not altogether moving off through space at the rate of a mile or a thousand miles a second? How can we tell unless we have something that is still and fixed to measure the motion by?
    It seemed until recently that we had such a fixture, the ether. We know of the sun and stars only from the light that comes from them to us. Light, as we can prove by simple experiments, consists of wave motion. Now, can you have wave motion without something to wave? Sound waves are conveyed by air but there is no air between the earth and the sun. So as nothing could be found to fill this empty space scientists had to invent something to satisfy their sense of the fitness of things. The ether was the product of their excogitations. It was a British invention, devised in the Royal Institution, whence have come so many useful theories and discoveries.
    The ether, as Salisbury, said is simply the nominative of the verb "to undulate." It was conceived of as a sort of transparent jelly filling all space, more rigid than any solid, more frictionless than any fluid, more easily penetrated than any gas. It must be more elastic than steel and yet so rarefied that ordinary matter passes through it without the slightest effort. The ether is supposed to slip between the particles of the rushing earth as the wind blows through the branches of a tree.
  • For many years after its invention the ether had nothing to do except to carry light about from one place to another. But when the electro-magnetic waves of the wireless telegraph were produced something was needed also to carry them and this new task was laid upon the shoulders of the uncomplaining ether. When Röntgen discovered the X-rays, whose waves are 10,000 times shorter than the shortest light waves, these were turned over to the ether to run. In fact, it got so that whenever a physicist found any action that he could not explain by ordinary matter he said: "Let the ether do it," and that hypothetical substance apparently answered every purpose until it came to this question of relative motion.
    • Edwin Emery Slosson, Easy Lessons in Einstein (1920) p. 9.
  • Now whatever we may think about the ether it would seem that if there is any such thing filling all "empty" space we might use it for measuring the motion of the earth through it as we did the air current in the car. If the earth is really revolving around the sun the ether must be whizzing through its pores at the rate of about nineteen miles a second.
    But wait—there is the possibility that the earth carries along with it in its flight through space a sort of atmosphere of ether as it does of air. We must first get rid of this possibility by a preliminary experiment to see if a swiftly moving mass of matter does catch up and carry along with it a little of the ether. This would cause a sort of an eddy or disturbance in the ether in the neighborhood of the moving mass as a boat disturbs the water. For instance a ray of light passing close to a rapidly revolving wheel would be a little deflected and show a distorted image. Sir Oliver Lodge tried this experiment and got negative results. That is, moving matter does not disturb or carry with it the ether. Consequently, it would seem, we are left to the only other logical alternative, that the ether drifts through matter and we should expect to detect this drift by measuring the speed of light in the direction of the earth's motion.

T - U

  • According to an adopted theory, every ponderable atom is differentiated from a tenuous fluid, filling all space merely by spinning motion, as a whirl of water in a calm lake. By being set in movement this fluid, the ether, becomes gross matter. Its movement arrested, the primary substance reverts to its normal state. It appears, then, possible for man through harnessed energy of the medium and suitable agencies for starting and stopping ether whirls to cause matter to form and disappear. At his command, almost without effort on his part, old worlds would vanish and new ones would spring into being. He could alter the size of this planet, control its seasons, adjust its distance from the sun, guide it on its eternal journey along any path he might choose, through the depths of the universe. He could make planets collide and produce his suns and stars, his heat and light; he could originate life in all its infinite forms. To cause at will the birth and death of matter would be man's grandest deed, which would give him the mastery of physical creation, make him fulfill his ultimate destiny.
  • The beauty and clearness of the dynamical theory, which asserts heat and light to be modes of motion, is at present obscured by two clouds. I. The first came into existence with the undulatory theory of light, and was dealt with by Fresnel and Dr. Thomas Young; it involved the question, how could the earth move through an elastic solid, such as essentially is the luminiferous ether? II. The second is the Maxwell–Boltzmann doctrine regarding the partition of energy.
    • William Thomson, “Lord Kelvin, Nineteenth Century Clouds over the Dynamical Theory of Heat and Light” (April 27, 1900) a Royal Institution lecture reproduced in Notices of the Proceedings at the Meetings of the Members of the Royal Institution of Great Britain with Abstracts of the Discourses, Vol. 16, p. 363–397 and Philosophical Magazine, Sixth Series, 2, 1–40 (1901).
  • But if ether is nothing but an hypothesis explanatory of light, air on the other hand, is a thing that is directly felt; and even if it did not enable us to explain the phenomenon of sound, we should nevertheless always be directly aware of it, and above all, of the lack of it in moments of suffocation or air-hunger. And in the same way God Himself, not the idea of God, may become a reality that is immediately felt; and even though the idea of God does not enable us to explain either the existence or essence of the Universe, we have at times the direct feeling of God, above all in moments of spiritual suffocation. And the feeling, mark it well, for all that is tragic in it and the whole tragic sense of life is founded upon this — this feeling is a feeling of hunger for God, of the lack of God. To believe in God is, in the first instance... to wish that there may be a God, to be unable to live without Him.

V - Z

  • The conception of lines of force was introduced by Faraday to form a mental picture of the processes going on in the electric field. To him these lines were not mere mathematical abstractions. He ascribed to them properties that gave them a real physical significance. They terminate on opposite charges, are always in a state of tension, tending to shorten themselves, and are mutually repellent. The direction of a line of force at any point gives the direction of the field at that point. With the help of these properties of lines of force it is possible to obtain an idea of the distribution of the intensity of the field surrounding electrically charged bodies.
    The idea of tubes of force has been introduced to make the method of Faraday metrical rather than merely descriptive. A tube of force is obtained by drawing a number of lines of force through the boundary of any small closed curve. The lines then form a tubular surface, which, it can be proved, will never be cut by any lines of force, and the extremities of which enclose equal and opposite charges. By properly choosing the area of the surface enclosed by the curve through which the lines are drawn the extremities of the tube can be made to enclose unit charge. Such a unit tube is called a Faraday tube. Maxwell and J. J. Thomson have made an exhaustive study of these tubes of force and expressed their properties in mathematical terms. The result that interests us here is that a tube of force behaves as though it had inertia, so that in order to move a tube work must be done. This explains why a charge behaves as if it had mass. It must be remarked that the conception of tubes of forces is used here merely to aid in understanding the phenomena. Whether or not tubes of force, or even the ether, possess any physical significance is a question. Modern developments seem to indicate that this question must be answered in the negative.
  • The absence of effects due to the earth's motion relative to the ether can be explained on the electromagnetic theory if it is supposed that this theory covers all phenomena. This appears to be a strong argument in favor of the purely electrical nature of matter. It will be convenient now to mention the chief electrical theories of atomic structure which have been proposed.
    • H. A. Wilson, The Structure of Atoms, as quoted by Alfred D. Cole, Science (Mar. 29, 1912) Vol. 35, pp. 511-513

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