The Real Story of Aether
Aether is a term that has existed in human parlance for centuries. A word for an idea that has, at times, ranged from proveable to improbable and back again, aether is a fascinating subject with many twists and turns leading to continuing present-day use.
The following is my very basic break down of where this unusual word and the ideas it has represented came from, presented simply because I find it interesting and hope readers will too.
History of Aether
To understand the ever-changing nature of Aether and its origins, we need to go all the way back to the inception of the concept, with a man named Plato. You may have heard of him.
In one of his many works he discussed the properties of air, including a section describing part of it as being translucent and ephemeral. He named this facet of air ‘αίθηρ’ – aether.
This all happened a long, long time before we as a species discovered fluid dynamics, or that air even is a fluid, so Plato’s incorrect assumptions can easily be forgiven. But matters didn’t stop there, and Plato matters to us most simply for being the man who gave us the word itself.
Plato had a student named Aristotle. You may have heard of him too. He agreed with much of his mentors work and he extended aetheric thinking into the realm of fire, commenting on how flame was sometimes mistaken for aether.
This was no doubt in note of the curious effect heat has on the air around it (known today to be to do with air density). The same phenomena which can cause mirages in deserts and shimmers above the ground would be easily attributable to some stray feature of air, but Aristotle had even bigger ideas in mind.
A proponent of the ‘elements’ age of understanding, Aristotle was keenly away that while earth, fire, wind, and water interplayed in most things, there must be some kind of fifth force at play.
The four earthly elements could be changed at times in ways that did not correspond to each other, such as the way the tide worked. Aristotle therefore theorized the fifth element must exist, and that is was a celestial thing, not a terrestrial one (and with regards to the tides, at least, he was kind of right. In part.)
Aristotle never called this idea of a fifth element ‘aether’, (not least of which because he thought of his idea as the first element), but those who studied his ideas and work did call it just that.
The term stuck and Aristotle went on to theorize about motion in the aether to explain many things including the movement of stars.
By the medieval era, aether was ready for a makeover.
The first change was in the name. Aether became quintessence and a staple of 15th-century treatises, and a thousand different elixirs. With the incorrect theories of the Elements still governing science, Quintessence remained a strong idea in scientific circles for many years. Until a lad named Newton arrived on the scene…
By Newton’s time, aether was on the wane as science found other explanations for the observable phenomena of the world. When Newton got his hands on the idea, though, it was time to change this mutable word and idea to a new field – electromagnetism and gravity.
With aether/quintessence now firmly out of the realm of chemistry and lurking around in physics, it became a go-to explanation for anomalies and ‘problems’ unexplainable at the time by other means. And if there is one field worth hanging around in if you aren’t quite real its physics. And then aether met Einstein.
Once Einstein came along with the Special Theory of Relativity, aether looked like it was to become a mere footnote in history.
As people understood that not all things in the universe need a medium through which to propagate, aether seemed it would become an unnecessary and outdated concept of the less enlightened ages. The work of Michelson and Morley on light and the ‘aether wind’ both confirmed new ideas and debunked old ones, paving the way for Einsteins work on the matter.
Yet, despite the removal of aether from physics of the time, Einstein himself also saved the idea. He is known to have said that some of his own theories could be thought of as aether, at least in terms of quantifying the empty space between objects with physical properties.
As a result, today’s cutting edge quantum mechanics still have access to the term when dealing with the present-day unexplainable mysteries such as dark energy. Some theories even continue to use the word ‘quintessence’ for discussing the fifth fundamental force, which relates to our accelerating and expanding universe.
Overall, aether is a word that has survived from the most ancient of times as we tried to make sense of our world, and continues to shine as a term helping with our questions and thoughts about the still expanding frontiers of science, and the quagmire that is quantum physics.
Always, aether has been there where inquisitiveness and imagination meets method and science, driving human development forward, providing a word where one cannot be found for the newest of theories, decade after decade, century after century.
I can think of no better inspiration for forming the backbone of a world created from nothing, following only those laws as imagined by a single author.
Three cheers for aether!