Roberto De Andrade Martins. Searching for the Ether: Leopold Courvoiser’s Attempts to Measure the Absolute Velocity of the Solar System // DIO, vol. 17, december 2011

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Roberto Martins Searching for the Ether DIO 17

Earth: there should be an observable anisotropy of the speed of light due to the absolute motion of the Earth. He assumed that this would produce an observable difference in measurements of stellar aberration observed in different directions.34 Using the available data, Courvoisier obtained the following results:

A = 112° ± 20°; D = +47° ± 20°; v = 600 ± 305 km/s Final comments

Courvoisier's measurements of the absolute velocity of the Earth belong to the same group of Dayton Miller’s and Ernest Esclangon’s works.35 However, Courvoisier's work embodied a much wider and impressive group of measurements than those of his contemporaries.

Courvoisier measured the velocity of the Earth relative to the ether using several different methods. The effects he was searching for were very small (second order in v/c) but the results presented were significantly larger than the estimated experimental error. The measured values of the right ascension of the Earth's motion apex varied from 52° to 126°, with a strong concentration of values between 60° and 90°. The measured declination varied between +27° and +55°, most values falling between +34° and +46°. The values obtained for the speed of the Earth varied between 300 km/s and 927 km/s, most results falling between 500 km/s and 810 km/s.

What impact did Courvoisier’s work have? His researches were seldom cited. Miller and Esclangon did refer to some of his researches, because they were also reporting positive effects ascribed to the motion of the Earth through the ether. Besides those citations, there were just a few other references. General Gerold von Gleich, a well-known anti-relativist,36 did refer to Courvoisier’s results in two papers. In a short note, von Gleich mentioned fluctuations of the aberration constant that could be an indirect confirmation of Courvoisier’s results.37 In a second paper, von Gleich presented several independent confirmations of Courvoisier’s measurements of the motion of the solar system.38 He reported that Carl Wilhelm Wirtz and Gustaf Strömberg had evaluated this motion analyzing the velocities of spiral nebulae, obtaining speeds compatible with

34 Leopold Courvoisier, “Bestimmung der absoluten Translation der Erde aus der säkularen Aberration”, Astronomische Nachrichten, ccxli (1932), 201-12.

35 There is a detailed historical study of Miller’s work: Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., The ethereal aether. A history of the Michelson-Morley-Miller aether-drift experiments, 1880-1930 (Austin, 1972).

36 Joseph Wodetsky, “Gerold von Gleich”, Astronomische Nachrichten, cclxvi (1938), 63-4.

37 Gerold von Gleich, “Translation des Fixstemsystems und Aberrationskonstante”,

Astronomische Nachrichten, ccxli (1931), 201-02.

38 Gerold von Gleich, “Bemerkung zur absoluten Translation unseres lokalen Fixsternsystems”, Astronomische Nachrichten, ccxlii (1931), 273-8.


Roberto Martins

Searching for the Ether

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Couvoisier’s results (from 630 to 820 km/s) and directions roughly compatible with his.39 He also described his own analysis of the fluctuation of the aberration constant, and the analysis of circumpolar stars, as compatible with Courvoisier’s results. His conclusion was:

Personally, I have no doubt that the works of Mr Courvoisier, especially those on the fluctuations of the constant of aberration and those on the light speed (Jupiter’s moons) prove the existence of an absolute translation of our local star system with a speed of about 600 km/s towards a point close to the ecliptic, with a longitude of about 110°. [...] Therefore, the foundations of special relativity theory are completely shattered by astronomical



Few astronomers and physicists of that time agreed with this opinion, however. Courvoisier’s researches were neither accepted, nor criticized -they were just ignored by most scientists.

Notice also that Courvoisier was a professional astronomer, and his routine measurements were always accepted and used without further questioning. Why did the scientific community ignore Courvoisier’s anti-relativistic results? Several factors may have contributed to that attitude:

1. In the 1920’s Einstein's theory had been successfully confirmed and most physicists and astronomers were convinced that it was the correct theory. Attempts to bring the ether again to life seemed too old-fashioned and most scientists would not be willing to hear or to read about such attempts41.

2. Many of Courvoisier's papers were published in the Astronomische Nachrichten, a journal that was clearly opposed to Einstein’s theory. Most scientists supporting the theory of relativity would dismiss any antirelativist account published in that journal42.

39 Carl Wilhelm Wirtz, “Einiges zur Statistik der Radialbewegungen von Spiralnebeln und Kugelstemhaufen”, Astronomische Nachrichten, ccxv (1922), 349-54; idem, “Die Trift der Nebelflecke”, Astronomische Nachrichten, cciii (1916), 197-220; idem, “Über die Eigenbewegungen der Nebelflecke”, Astronomische Nachrichten, cciv (1917), 23-30; Gustaf Strömberg, “Analysis of radial velocities of globular clusters and non-galactic nebulae”, Astrophysical journal, lx (1925), 353-62.

40 Von Gleich, “Translation des Fixstemsystems und Aberrationskonstante” (ref. 38), 278.

41 This was also the main reason why Quirino Majorana’s measurements of the absorption of gravitation and Kurt Bottlinger’s explanation of the anomalies of the motion of the moon using the same assumption were dismissed by the scientific community. See Roberto de Andrade Martins, “The search for gravitational absorption in the early 20th century”, in H. Goemmer, J. Renn, and J. Ritter (eds.), The expanding worlds of general relativity (Boston, 1999), 3-44.

42 The editor of Astronomische Nachrichten from 1907 to 1938 was Hermann Kobold, who supported the publication of anti-Einstein and anti-relativistic papers,