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

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,


Roberto Martins Searching for the Ether DIO 17

3. Courvoisier's did not build a comprehensive theory that could be regarded as an alternative to the theory of relativity. He used a strange combination of classical physics together with the hypothesis of Lorentz’s contraction, and never published a detailed derivation of his equations.43

4. The observed effects were very small (usually a few tenths of arc-second) and there were always large relative fluctuations of the measurements. Any single measurement published by Courvoisier could be regarded as the result of random or unknown systematic errors. The agreement between different measurements could be regarded as due to chance, or to a process of “cooking” the results.

Notice, however, that several of Courvoisier’s computations were grounded upon published data obtained by other observers. Whenever Courvoisier himself made the observations, he published the data used for his computations. Anyone wishing to check his calculations could have used the available data to do so. It was not too difficult to repeat some of his observations, either.44 It is difficult to understand why the physicists and astronomers of that time did not care to do that.

Some historical circumstances may explain, in part, the neglect of Courvoisier’s researches. After the end of World War I there was a strong opposition, in Germany, to Einstein and relativity theory.45 Everything that could be used against the theory of relativity was used - from serious scientific arguments to empty rhetoric. In this historical context, one could think that Courvoisier’s work was just a biased piece of anti-Einstein propaganda, and had no scientific value. One might think that he was not a honest scientist: perhaps he falsified his data, described experiments he never made, “cooked” his results, and so on. Or maybe he was a careless scientist and just observed what he wanted to observe.

It is therefore relevant to elucidate that Courvoisier did not belong to the strong anti-relativist and anti-Einstein group of the early 1920’s. He was never personally associated to Philipp Lenard and Ernst Gehrcke, for

regardless of their scientific merit. This journal published, for instance, the works of Thomas Jefferson Jackson See, that were not accepted in any other journal. Cf. Thomas J. Sherrill, “A career of controversy: the anomaly of T. J. J. See”, Journal for the history of astronomy, xxx (1999), 25-50.

43 Notice that Courvoisier’s work was incompatible with Lorentz’s mature ether theory, that incorporated the principle of relativity.

44 Nowadays, it would be possible to check the reality of Courvoisier's effects using more precise routine experimental data available, and using better (computer) numerical methods. Several of his experiments could also be repeated using automatic instruments with a higher precision and in improved controlled conditions.

45 David E. Rowe, “Einstein’s allies and enemies: debating relativity in Germany, 1916-1920”, in Vincent F. Hendricks, et. al. (eds.), Interactions: mathematics, physics and philosophy, 1860-1930 (Dordrecht, 2006), 231-280; Hubert Goenner, “The reaction to relativity theory I: the anti-Einstein campaign in Germany in 1920”, Science in context, vi (1993), 107-33; idem, “The reaction to relativity theory in Germany III. Hundred authors against Einstein”, Einstein studies, v (1993), 248-73.

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