Maxwell J.C. “Ether” // Britannica, 9 ed., vol. 8, 1878

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Ether, or Æther (αἰθήρ, probably from αἴθω, I burn, though Plato in his Cratylus (410, b) derives the name from its perpetual motion — ὅτι ἀεὶ θει περὶ τὸν ἀέρα ῥέων, ἀειθεῂρ δικαίως ἂν καλοιτο), a material substance of a more subtle kind than visible bodies, supposed to exist in those parts of space which are apparently empty. {569} The hypothesis of an aether has been maintained by different speculators for very different reasons. To those who maintained the existence of a plenum as a philosophical 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. To Descartes, who made extension the sole essential property of matter, and matter a necessary condition of extension, the bare existence of bodies apparently at a distance was a proof of the existence of a continuous medium between them. But besides these high metaphysical necessities for a medium, there were more mundane uses to be fulfilled by aethers. Aethers were invented for the planets to swim in, to constitute electric atmospheres and magnetic effluvia, to convey sensations from one part of our bodies to another, and so on, till all space had been filled three or four times over with aethers. It is only when we remember the extensive and mischievous influence on science which hypotheses about aethers used formerly to exercise, that we can appreciate the horror of aethers which sober-minded men had during the 18th century, and which, probably as a sort of hereditary prejudice, descended even to the late Mr John Stuart Mill. The disciples of Newton maintained that in the fact of the mutual gravitation of the heavenly bodies, according to Newton's law, they had a complete quantitative account of their motions; and they endeavoured to follow out the path which Newton had opened up by investigating and measuring the attractions and repulsions of electrified and magnetic bodies, and the cohesive forces in the interior of bodies, without attempting to account for these forces. Newton himself, however, endeavoured to account for gravitation by differences of pressure in an aether (see Art. Attraction, Vol. iii. p. 64); but he did not publish his theory, “because he was not able from experiment and observation to give a satisfactory account of this medium, and the manner of its operation in producing the chief phenomena of nature.” On the other hand, those who imagined aethers in order to explain phenomena could not specify the nature of the motion of these media, and could not prove that the media, as imagined by them, would produce the effects they were meant to explain. The only aether which has survived is that which was invented by Huygens to explain the propagation of light. The evidence for the existence of the luminiferous aether has accumulated as additional phenomena of light and other radiations have been discovered; and the properties of this medium, as deduced from the phenomena of light, have been found to be precisely those required to explain electromagnetic phenomena. Function of the aether in the propagation of radiation. The evidence for the undulatory theory of light will be given in full, under the Article on Light, but we may here give a brief summary of it so far as it bears on the existence of the aether. That light is not itself a substance may be proved from the phenomenon of interference. A beam of light from a single source is divided by certain optical methods into two parts, and these, after travelling by different paths, are made to reunite and fall upon a screen. If either half of the beam is stopped, the other falls on the screen and illuminates it, but if both are allowed to pass, the screen in certain places becomes dark, and thus shows that the two portions of light have destroyed each other. Now, we cannot suppose that two bodies when put together can annihilate each other; therefore light cannot be a substance. What we have proved is that one portion of light can be the exact opposite of another portion, just as +a is the exact opposite of –a, whatever a may be. Among physical quantities we find some which are capable of having their signs reversed, and others which are not. Thus a displacement in one direction is the exact opposite of an equal displacement in the opposite direction. Such quantities are the measures, not of substances, but always of processes taking place in a substance. We therefore conclude that light is not a substance but a process going on in a substance, the process going on in the first portion of light being always the exact opposite of the process going on in the other at the same instant, so that when the two portions are combined no process goes on at all. To determine the nature of the process in which the radiation of light consists, we alter the length of the path of one or both of the two portions of the beam, and we find that the light is extinguished when the difference of the length of the paths is an odd multiple of a certain small distance called a half wave-length. In all other cases there is more or less light ; and when the paths are equal, or when their difference is a multiple of a whole wave-length, the screen appears four times as bright as when one portion of the beam falls on it. In the ordinary form of the experiment these different cases are exhibited simultaneously at different points of the screen, so that we see on the screen a set of fringes consisting of dark lines at equal intervals, with bright bands of graduated intensity between them. If we consider what is going on at different points in the axis of a beam of light at the same instant, we shall find that if the distance between the points is a multiple of a wave-length the same process is going on at the two points at the same instant, but if the distance is an odd multiple of half a wave-length the process going on at one point is the exact opposite of the process going on at the other. Now, light is known to be propagated with a certain velocity (3.004 × 1010 centimetres per second in vacuum, according to Cornu). If, therefore, we suppose a movable point to travel along the ray with this velocity, we shall find the same process going on at every point of the ray as the moving point reaches it. If, lastly, we consider a fixed point in the axis of the beam, we shall observe a rapid alternation of these opposite processes, the interval of time between similar processes being the time light takes to travel a wave-length. These phenomena may be summed up in the mathematical expression u = A cos(nt – px + a) which gives u, the phase of the process, at a point whose distance measured from a fixed point in the beam is x, and at a time t. We have determined nothing as to the nature of the process. It may be a displacement, or a rotation, or an electrical disturbance, or indeed any physical quantity which is capable of assuming negative as well as positive values. Whatever be the nature of the process, if it is capable of being expressed by an equation of this form, the process going on at a fixed point is called a vibration; the constant A is called the amplitude; the time 2π/n is called the period; and nt – px + a is the phase. The configuration at a given instant is called a wave, and the distance 2π/p is called the wave-length. The velocity of propagation is n/p. When we contemplate the different parts of the medium as going through the same process in succession, we use the word undulatory to denote this character of the process without in any way restricting its physical nature.