Aether. I use that word a lot because it is what makes Hevna unique. Aether is the fifth ‘form of matter’ for my setting, the source of all ‘magic’ and a great evolutionary pressure on the peoples and life of my world.
But just what the heck is it, and where did it come from?
The Real History of Aether
Yes, it’s real. Well… it was real until we found out it wasn’t.
Aether has a long history right here on planet Earth, so first I shall try to explain what it was as a concept for Earth, before talking about how I use the word.
We can go right back to the time of Plato to find the introduction of Aether. In one of his many works, Plato discussed the properties of air, including a section describing part of air as being translucent and ephemeral, which he called ‘αίθηρ’ – aether.
This was a long time before we as a species discovered fluid dynamics, or that air even is a fluid so we can forgive Plato for assuming the unusual way air works was due to some non-percieved element within it.
Student to Plato, Aristotle agreed with much of his mentors work and spoke on fire sometimes being mistaken for aether – no doubt noting the curious effects heat has on the air around it (which today we know to be to do with air density). The same phenomena which cause desert mirages could indeed be mistaken for some stray feature of air… but Aristotle wasn’t done thinking just yet.
A student and proponent of the ‘elements’ age of understanding, Aristotle was keenly aware that for all earth, fire, wind, and water interplayed in most things, there must be some fifth force at play. The four earthly elements could be changed at times in ways that did not correspond to each other (example: the tides), so he theorized that there was indeed a fifth element and that it was celestial, not terrestrial.
It is worth noting that Aristotle himself did not call this fifth element (which he thought of as the first element) aether… but that those who studied and read his work did.
The term stuck and Aristotle went on to theorize about circular motion in the aether, which helped him to understand and explain the motion of many things, including the stars.
In the medieval era, alchemists gave aether a makeover. Europeans jumped fully on board the elements train and many notable proto-chemists of the time were head over heels for ‘quintessence’ – aether, with a name change.
Aether hadn’t changed at all in its assumed role and presence in the universe, it just had a fancy new title so it could stand up alongside the newest sensations in the science world, sulfur, and mercury.
Quintessence became a staple of 15th-century treatises and a core component of elixirs and remedies… which makes you wonder just what exactly the alchemists had actually distilled considering we now know today that aether, sadly, isn’t real.
By the time Newton hit the scene, aether was beginning to rescind itself from being involved in a little bit of everything, thanks to advances in science and technology. When Newton got his hands on it, aether was confining itself to helping to explain the anomalies and ‘problems’ with electromagnetism and gravity.
No longer an element of chemistry or the elements, aether was lurking around in physics, which is a good place to hide when you aren’t real. Physics is complicated.
Newton used it to help explain some of the unexplainable in his time. But science was really starting to hit its stride…
Aether just about bit the dust when the Special Theory of Relativity came along. Aether was no longer directly needed to explain the unexplainable, as people began to understand that some things do not need mediums in which to propagate.
Yet, Einstein also saved the term, saying that some of his own theories could be thought of as aether, in terms of quantifying the empty space between objects with physical properties.
This leads us to today, where quantum mechanics is at the cutting edge of human understanding… and proponents of some dark energy theories refer to it as ‘quintessence’, a fifth fundamental force to do with our accelerating and expanding universe.
Light was one of the biggest culprits for thoughts about aether lasting as long as they did. For centuries, people had known that you could split light into a spectrum by refracting it through a prism, or through water. It was known that light traveled in waves. And it was also known that other waves needed something to travel through in order to move.
It is little wonder then that people like John Bernoulli and his contemporaries wrote award-winning theories about all ‘blank’ space being filled with aether which allowed light to move. There seemed no other logical explanation.
It wasn’t until James Clerk Maxwell pinned down the fact that electricity, magnetism, and light all come from the same force that things finally started to make sense. Maxwell laid the foundations of what would become quantum physics and inspired Einstein, though the near death of aether should really be attributed to Michelson and Morley.
In 1887, these two scientists performed an experiment to measure the speed of light at perpendicular angles. In the simplest terms, the aim was to measure the changes in speed through the ‘aether wind’… except the measurements persisted in coming back exactly the same on both beams of light, no matter what.
Michelson and Morley were able to conclude from this that there was no medium, no aether, the light was traveling through. Einstein then quantified this discovery with his special theory of relativity.
Goodnight, aether theory.
So where does this leave aether in terms of my setting?
Well, now you have some science history kicking around your head regarding where the term came from, and that it’s gotten very quantum these days. So now we move into the realm of imagination.
When I conceived Hevna, one of the very first keystones of my creativity was the simple thought ‘What if magic came in storms? What if it wasn’t constant?’
At that stage, I was still sitting in the realms of pure fantasy, and not thinking about adding in some delicious Victoriana for flavor and interest.
I was still calling it magic, too.
As the setting developed, and my ideas for what my first few plots would be emerged, I soon came to realize that magic was going to have affected the entire world since the dawn of time.
I also realized people and other life would have learned to monopolize such a source of energy… which immediately made my magic more real, more scientific, and in need of some very serious laws.
It wasn’t just magic anymore, it was more quantified than that. And then it jumped into my settings’ technology.
As the Steam part of my setting began to blossom, I knew my magic was evolving too, and in a way I found entirely pleasing. As I did my research for starting my projects, I came to know the history of aether quite well, especially as it matched elements of my setting so thoroughly.
Invisible, ephemeral force? Check.
Linked to light? Check.
Seems to have something to do with celestial bodies? Double check.
Affects the four ‘standard elements’? Check, check, check and check.
What I had was not magic… it was aether.
And just as it explained the unexplainable to those ancient scientists of Earth, so too does it do so for Hevna. It is raw potential, both here and not here, hiding in the crevices of physics and changing reality.
Whether it’s being used for exothermic reactions, or endothermic or fulgurtheric effects, or even medical uses, aether makes the world go round. And maybe it’s taught you something new, too!