SCIENCE - AETHER AND EINSTEIN
from everywhere to nowhere
Age, 19 February 2005
we must not forget that, apart from the general prejudices against
materialism common to all educated philistines, the most outstanding
theoreticians are handicapped by a complete ignorance of dialectics.
V. I. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1908.
New Yorker cartoon showed a television news reader reporting from
the annual meeting of the American Physical Society where participants
had just agreed that everything they knew about the nature of the
universe was “wrongedy, wrongedy wrong”. That a joke in the New
Yorker is no laughing matter received further confirmation last July
when Stephen Hawking renounced his belief that information could not
escape from Black Holes.
facing mathematical physicists today had their parallels100 years ago
when the laws of mechanics did not fit with those of electrodynamics. In
1905, a 26-year old clerk in the Swiss Patents Office, Albert Einstein,
published the first of his papers that would overturn our picture of the
world. Atop Einstein’s list of discards was the aether.
abhorred a vacuum, seemingly empty space had to be filled with something
or other, to which the ancients had given the name “aether”, derived
from the Greek for aethereal fire. Einstein’s dismissal of aether as
“obsolete” justifies the older spelling, rather than “ether”,
which invokes a different mind-numbing substance.
aether had been a useful construct but ended its days as a label for
collective confusion. Its longevity offers insights into why scientists
will cling to speculative ideas. Its prolonged death is the dark side of
the story of Relativity, making it the unwelcome guest at this year’s
celebration of how brilliant physicists can be. Aether is also forgotten
because its half-life is a reminder of how many such geniuses have been
in thrall to mysticism.
for aether had valid underpinnings since the alternative had been to
allow for “action-at-a-distance”, which threatened a return to all
manner of mumbo-jumbo. Scientists had marginalised any notion of aether
as divine. But if aether were not angels in motion, what was it? A jelly
metaphor introduced in 1838 gained support.
As any kind
of solid, aether would act as a drag on the velocity of light passing
through it. In the early 1880s, investigators in Ohio, Albert A.
Michelson (1852-1931) and Edward Morley (18
- ) wanted to
measure that effect. Michelson explained his experiment to his children:
beams of light race against each other, like two swimmers, one
struggling upstream and back, while the other, covering the same
distance, just crosses the river and returns. The second swimmer will
always win, if there is any current in the river.
measurements resulted in a dead heat – a “Null”. Could it be that
there was no current - that is, no aether - for the light to swim
was now on to preserve the aether. Well into the 1920s, experimenters
tried to overturn the Michelson-Morley results. Others proposed that the
earth dragged aether along with it. If so, aether need not alter the
velocity of light crossing its path.
challenges to the nature and functions attributable to aether were
spreading from discoveries in electro-magnetism. From 1864, and working
from the research of Michael Faraday (1791-1867), the mathematical
physicist, James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), supplied mathematical proofs
that light was a “mutual embrace” of magnetism and electricity.
think through metaphors as well as with data. For instance, Faraday’s
version of Christianity had led him to believe that God’s creation
moved in circles, rather than lines, as in Newtonian mechanics.
Faraday’s theology encouraged Clerk Maxwell towards field theory.
mathematical genius, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), spent his declining
decades chasing after an alternative to Maxwell’s field theory,
determined to establish a mathematical model of the aether. Kelvin gave
up on jelly only to promote what one friend called “froth”. In
desperation, Kelvin proposed that aether occupied the same space as the
objects moving through it without their affecting each other.
Giving up the
aether would have been easier had some alternative been proposed. Oxygen
and germs had taken over from phlogiston and miasmas. By contrast, the
loss of aether suggested no tangible substitute. Several researchers
hoped to retain aether as an electro-magnetic field. Beyond that,
doubters were offered pure mathematics which Kelvin called “merely the
aetherialisation of common sense”. Unfortunately, common sense was the
escaped from this quagmire by leaping over aether as an article of
faith. One version of how he revolutionized physics would have us
believe that he had built on experiments, such as Michelson-Morley’s,
to arrive at a more coherent picture of the whole. On the contrary,
despair at resolving the contradictions that had built up from
experiments drove him to postulate conclusions from principles. The
concomitant was to eliminate concepts that added nothing to this
understanding. Hence, he dismissed aether as “superfluous”.
three tests that Einstein proposed for his picture of the world, the
best known became the measurement of the effect of gravitation on light.
The sun was so massive that its deflection of light passing from a star
would be big enough to be calculated from an eclipse. The eclipse itself
had no effect on this difference but merely allowed any impact to be
The first opportunity to test this hypothesis came on 29 May 1919. The experimenters had to photograph the eclipsed sun in a patch of sky with lots of stars. They then imposed these plates on ones taken of the same patch when the sun was elsewhere. The shots from Brazil registered that the stars were further out of alignment when the sun was nearby than when it was far away.
calculations from this sighting were perhaps no more than 50% accurate,
not everyone was converted. In addition, critics wondered whether other
solar effects had caused the shift.
accounts from London of the Royal Society’s discussion of the results
from the 1919 eclipse had “flashed through the daily papers like a
nine-days’ wonder”. The Melbourne Argus
accompanied its report with an explanatory essay stressing that the
challenge to conventional views threatened more than the replacement of
one arcane orthodoxy by another. Henceforth, the article continued,
nothing could be accepted as absolute. The circularity of a circle might
well be no more than the congruence of an ellipse with a similarly
warped measuring device. Every measure was relative to its frame of
aspect of Einstein’s universe to amaze the public was challenge to
Newton’s law of gravity. Like the aether, gravity had offered a sense
of security. The budding poet Kenneth Slessor was “morbidly anxious to
know … did (ah, DID the
reporting that the world had been turned inside out, the Argus reprinted an explanation which could not shake off the past:
in a layer of jelly you inscribed a perfect circle, and that you proved
its perfection by measuring the radii with a two-foot rule made of the
same jelly. Assume now that a state of strain in the jelly stretched it
in one direction. The circle would be deformed into an ellipse, but when
you measured it with your jelly rule, all the radii would still appear
to be the same length, because the rule itself, being subject to the
same strain, would vary in dimension from radius to radius.
view became even more apparent in the summation: “Things placed in the
aether stream have one length; placed across it they have another”.
Einstein had done away with an aether stream in which to lay rulers,
whether made of jelly or fairy floss.
interest remained high. In October 1920, the lecturer in Mathematics at
Ormond College at the University of Melbourne, C. E. Weatherburn,
compared the craze with “the appreciation of Omar Khayyam by the
general public ten years ago … Some have been attracted by the
psychological aspect of the blending of space and time … while others
take it up because, like the Athenians contemporary with St Paul, they
delight in spending their time either in telling or hearing some new
In the effort
to confirm the 1919 eclipse results, Australia became the cynosure of
the Einstein revolution because the next total eclipse would be visible
from Ballina across towards Broome on 21 September 1922. The largest
party came from the Lick Observatory outside San Francisco, bringing a
15-foot telescope with photographic attachments fashioned for the
occasion. The Americans arrived in Melbourne in July to a Civic
Reception before heading for Wallal, 300 km south of Broome, where the
eclipse would last five minutes nineteen seconds.
researchers set up sites, one on Christmas Island and two more on the
mainland. After the photographs from Cordello Downs in South Australia
– close to where Burke and Wills had died - went to Britain for
analysis, the Astronomer Royal thanked the team for its efforts, but
concluded that their images’ “close agreement with Einstein’s
value is a matter of luck.” By contrast, in April 1923, the Lick
Observatory announced that its Wallal images had proved so conclusive
that its astronomers would not to bother to test Einstein’s theory at
the coming eclipse in Mexico. Having confirmed that the universe had no
observation paid Wallal, it too disappeared from history.
popular journals went on publishing articles, mostly in favour of
Einstein. Weatherburn was the exception, criticising Einstein’s
theories for being too abstruse, and wanting in confirmation. This
reluctance to endorse Einstein’s picture of the world was not a mark
of antipodean backwardness. When Einstein finally got a Nobel Prize in
1921 it was not for work on Relativity, but on the photo-electric
effect. Resident skeptics were abreast of European objections.
By 1932, the same could not be said in mitigation of the Victorian-educated polymath, Arthur Lynch (1861-1934), who, in The Case Against Einstein, argued that the Theory of Relativity had added nothing to science beyond replacing aether with a “mathematical expression” of doubtful accuracy.
In case the
shocks from relativity had not sunk into Melbourne’s respectable
classes, the Argus confirmed
their worst fears during a time of world war, revolution and the
Influenza Pandemic: “Nothing is absolute, unalterable, all things are
in accord with their environment and with all other things, changing if
those other things and the environment change”. Did relativism extend
to loyalty to the King-Emperor, the sanctity of marriage and the arts?
The gaps between appearances and actuality were widening as the wireless
and electricity entered the domestic sphere. To appreciate the responses
to Einstein requires recognition of how these disturbances reinforced
each other. No wonder the public and many experts stuck to the
insubstantial aether as a link to the certainties of religion.
the Perth Chamber of Commerce Journal
in 1920 called aether “Nature’s conductor” and feared that
Einstein’s disproof of aether disrupted the connectedness of the
universe. Another Western Australian author would inform that State’s
grocers in 1925 that the aether was necessary to demonstrate a “Divine
Plan of Evolution”.
alarms persisted. In December 1924, a Sydney monthly, The
Triad, reported the results of its “Great People Competition”.
Thomas Edison and Benito Mussolini shared first place, followed by
Giuglielmo Marconi and Henry Ford, with Einstein running last.
Technological applications, it seemed, could be welcomed if kept under
an iron fist.
attitudes were not the preserve of cranks. The Managing-Director of
Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd, E. T. Fisk, founded the monthly Sea,
Land and Air to promote wireless, electricity and aviation. In June
1920, an anonymous contributor concocted an interview with “An
Oriental” about Einstein. Parallels between social and physical
disorders indicate why a journal promoting technological innovation
could chase reassurance from the Wisdom of the East.
interlocutor opened by noting that during “the present age a terrible
bombardment is made on the brain-cells of men, and only those by nature
extremely lethargic escape the constant stimulus which modern education,
business and social life creates”. The inertia that gravitation
imposed on our bodies softened this social maelstrom. Without this
cushion we would be “resolved into the chaos whence we came”. On
being told that space and motion were one and the same, the questioner
pleaded: “What has become the Aether?” The sage replied: “How can
you be deprived of what you have never had?”
While the world’s scientists had been preparing for the 1922 eclipse, Fisk’s co-founder of the Wireless Institute, Oswald F. Mingay, contributed an article on “The Electron Theory” to the Australasian Electrical Times. Electrons, he claimed, “produce vibrations or waves in the aether”:
Aether is not
matter, because matter is made up of electrons … in certain respects
aether appears to be similar to a semi-rigid jelly-like substance.
Not only did technical experts go on
talking as if aether was real, they clung to the jelly metaphor, rather
than an electro-magnetic field.
Wireless transmission is now so old-hat
that its mystical and mysterious dimensions have disappeared along with
the aether through which many people assumed the sounds were moving.
Static was a “demon” according to the Wireless Weekly in 1929, as if another life form inhabited the air
waves. This metaphor overlapped with the hope that Spiritualists
entertained of using the “Unseen Voice” of radio to contact young
men killed the Great War who were said to be present, but through a
veil. Alternatively, they were suspended in Einstein’s spacetime.
In 1916, the sometime President of the
British Association for the Advancement of Science, Sir Oliver Lodge,
had reported conversations with his dead son, Raymond. This loss carried
Lodge beyond any of the scientific efforts to retain the aether. Indeed,
he went further than those scientists who adapted the New Physics to let
God back into their equations. Lodge’s 1925 popular exposition, Ether
and Reality, proclaimed aether to be the connecting link between the
material and spiritual worlds, though “in ways which at present we can
only surmise”. The joke going around was that a bishopric rather than
a knighthood had become the apt honour for a physicist.
Newspapers reported in June 1930 that the
AWA’s Fisk expected to use wireless to contact the departed. Whether
or not Fisk held that opinion, he knew that such speculations gave his
many critics a chance to ridicule his fitness to dominate the industry.
Hence, he issued a correction. He claimed to have been answering a
question about using radio waves to contact Mars; in reply, he had joked
that such communication was about as likely as with the dead, who would
at least understand what we were saying. Fisk’s loss of a son in the
Second World War revived his interest in wireless as a medium for
The philosopher and mathematician Alfred
North Whitehead is reported to have warned: “A science which hesitates
to forget its founders is lost”. That maxim is true in as much as
reputation has no rights against evidence or better explanations. The
brilliance of a Kelvin and a Lorentz was never an argument in favour of
Researchers, however, forget one strand
from their discipline’s past at their peril. It is a truth, not
universally acknowledged, that no picture of the world is in possession
of the final word. Tsunami are
now understood in terms of continental drift, a view considered
ridiculous until the mid-1960s before acceptance of movement in tectonic
Awareness of the refutation of past
conjectures is essential in keeping the society of scientists open to
discovery. Researchers who forget the reverence that their predecessors
granted to phantoms such as aether risk repeating such dogmatics.
Without the half-life of humility, investigators in every domain leave
ourselves open to the joke against cosmologists who, while never in
doubt, are frequently in error.
genius who was not Einstein
Until 1911, the Special Theory of
Relativity was known as the Lorentz-Einstein theory because a 1904 paper
by Lorentz was formally equivalent to Einstein’s 1905 account. Yet,
Lorentz never accepted Einstein’s Special Theory. For him, an aether
frame of reference held out the prospect of reaching absolute measures
for time, length and the velocity of light.
Historians wonder whether Lorentz would
have been Einstein had he been able to surrender his attachment to
aether, which he kept as a silent partner in every area where he made
breakthroughs. Indeed, no one had done more to renovate views about
aether. Lorentz seemed ready to abandon any of the pillars of physics,
bar that “world-spirit”. By 1892, he had declared that the aether-ion
was outside Newtonian mechanics. Three years later, he let go of
Newton’s law of action and reaction because aether had to be immobile.
In 1902, Lorentz suggested that aether
was not just in between the atoms and electrons but inside them. Going
further, he imagined matter as a local modification of aether. Shortly
afterwards, he considered that aether could “be the seat of an
electro-magnetic field with its energy and its vibrations”.
Nonetheless, he still regarded aether “as endowed with a certain
degree of substantiality, however different it may be from all ordinary
Lorentz appreciated that Einstein would
never have reached either of his Theories of Relativity had he clung to
aether, remarking, with typical grace, how we were lucky that Einstein
had given it up.
Aether – reading
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A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation, Macmillan,
London, 2000. [Bodanis manages to mention neither aether nor Lorentz.]
Browne, Edgar, A
Short History of Goondiwindi and the Macinityre, Goondiwindi Argus,
Cantor, G. N. and M. J. S. Hodge, Conceptions
of Ether, Studies in the
history of ether theories, 1740-1900, Cambridge University Press,
New York, 1981.
Coleman, James A., Relativity
for the Layman, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1959.
Dorling, Jon, “Einstein’s Methodology
of Discovery was Newtonian Deduction form the Phenomena”, Leplin,
Jarrett (ed), Creation of ideas in
physics: studies for a methodology of theory construction, Dordrecht,
London, 1995, pp. 97-112.
Engels, Frederick, Dialectics
of nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1964.
Gould, Stephen Jay, Time’s
Arrow, Time’s Cycle, Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological
Time, Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1987.
Graham, Loren R., Science
and Philosophy in the Soviet Union, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1972,
especially Chapter 4.
Grogin, R. C., The
Bergsonian Controversy in France, 1900-1914, University of Calgary
Press, Calgary, 1988.
Harrow, Benjamin, From
Newton to Einstein, Constable, London, 1920.
Holton, Gerald, “Einstein, Michelson
and the ‘Crucial’ Experiment”, Isis,
60 (2), Summer 1969, no. 202, pp. 133-97.
Kox, A. J., “Hendrik Antoon Lorentz,
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Statchel (eds), Einstein and the history of General Relativity, 1986, pp. 201-12.
Krementsov, Nikolai, Stalinist
Science, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1997, esp. pp.
275-79 on the Soviet bomb.
Lenin, V. I., “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism”,
chapter five, Collected Works,
volume 14, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1972, pp. 250-313.
Lindley, David, Degrees
Kelvin, A tale of Genius, Invention and Tragedy, Joseph Henry Press,
Washington, D. C., 2004.
Nersessian, Nancy J., “Why wasn’t
Lorentz Einstein? An Examination of the Scientific Method of H. A.
Lorentz”, Centaurus, 19 (
3), 1986, pp. 205-42.
Nugayev, R. N., “Special Relativity as
a Step in the Development of the Quantum Programme: Revolution in a
Revolution”, Centaurus, 19
(2), 1986, pp. 100-09.
Schaffner, Kenneth F., Nineteenth-century
aether theories, Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1972.
Stewart, John A., Drifting
Continents & Colliding Paradigms, Perspectives on the Geoscience
Revolution, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1990.
Swenson, Loyd S., Ethereal
aether: a history of the Michelson-Morley-Miller aether-drift
experiments, 1880-1930, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1972.
Whittaker, E. T., A
History of the Theory of Aether and Electricity, 2 volumes, Nelson,
relativity – Australian bibliography
Lynch, Arthur, The
Case Against Einstein, Philip Alan,
Ross, A. D., Popular
introduction to Einstein’s theory of relativity with an account of the
tests made by Wallal Solar Eclipse Expedition, E.S. Wiff & Son,
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Thompson, R.D., “Solar Eclipse of
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“A Tutor”, on lecture,
C. F. Fyer, [Philosopher], “The Nature
of the Physical World”,
W. Ryan, “Where Ignorance is Wisdom”,
Reprint of New
Times attack on Einstein re World Government,
E. D., “Science, Scepticism and
“Juggling with the Cosmos”,
G.H. Knibbs, ‘Science and its service
Land and Air
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“Men of mark Einstein the Seeker”,
“The New Understanding of the Einstein
Theory”, [a reprint of J.W.N. Sullivan’s article from the The
“What is Einstein’s theory of
“Music – and that Einstein Theory”,
See also: Einstein and the FBI