Squeezing the Aether

As I attempt to get to 1906 in terms of what Planck and Lorentz and everybody except Einstein thought was going on in the universe in terms of quantum events, I find myself puzzling again about why the aether remained a “scientific object” that just kept recurring over and over in the work of the time.  It’s never defined or used consistently and it never goes away.  It’s very lack of definition makes it extremely useful when everything is in flux (for example, the aether was considered as a possible source for the energy released in radioactive decay), but that also ensures that a large part of its apparent usefulness is that it allows for continuation of illusions of coherence and continuity as images of the universe began to change radically.   As usual in 1906 the aether is used continually by everyone (except Einstein) for a huge range of problems: to hold light waves and electromagnetic fields and energies of all kinds as needed.

But then, by around 1925, the aether begins to very rapid disappear from constructive scientific use and/or what Buchwald calls “modern physics.”  As Buchwald notes in a footnote in “How the Ether Spawned the Microworld” (In Lorraine Daston (ed.) Biographies of Scientific Objects, U. Chicago Press, 2000), “By ‘modern physics’ I have in mind the admittedly loose assertion that dominant elements in the physics community since, at the latest, the mid-1930s have believed that fundamental physics is identical with the physics of particles at high energy that all other physical processes are the results solely of fundamental interactions…”  Anyway, by the mid-1930s, at the latest, the aether is gone from “modern physics.”  But “loose” as Buchwald’s assertion is, it sums up the fundamental shift in how the world is imagined in terms of “modern physics”;  the focus in “modern physics” is on interactions and particles with definite and localizable energies and trajectories rather than on indeterminate, infinitesimal interactions with immense reservoirs of energy full of vortices or tubes wobbling over indefinite subdomains of a sort of thing that is resting in a celestially (or even supercelestially) based, stable (and more or less infinite) imponderable fluid (ie the aether).  What forces of the human imagination loosely squeezed that imponderable fluid out of existence in the 1920s and 1930s?

Let’s note again that, after 1905, the aether always functioned as an alternative to just about anything Einstein was working on – for example, the light quantum.  Einstein was able to get the theory of specific heats on the quantum track in 1906.  People could accept quantum events within metals and crystals but not light quanta moving through what they imagined to be empty, aetherial space.  Why?  And even stranger, why does the light quantum become imaginable and thereupon the aether rapidly vanish?  Was the Compton Effect, where X-rays can be shown acting like particles enough to make the light quantum imaginable and also cause the aether to seem unimaginable or be squeezed into an unimaginable corner?

Or to put it another way, it looks like no simple logic applied to the contradictory and indefinite characteristics would have been enough for it to seem implausible.  The fact that Drude (in 1900) demonstrates that the absolute coordinates of the aether don’t help in working out the optical Doppler Effect doesn’t even make Drude himself wonder (or one of his translators – as we will see – Millikan) or doubt for one second that there is such a thing as the aether – that should make anyone wonder, but apparently only after Einstein worked out special relativity did that difficulty with the optical Doppler Effect even seem to be a problem for the aether.  Another case – the use of the aether to explain the energy released in radioactive decay – wherein the aether would have to have tremendous energetic potentials all over the entire universe only to know where to release some of that energy at some points – doesn’t seem to cause anyone to find anything questionable about using the aether for containing such vast energies.  The supposed problems with electrons “knowing” their transitions in the Bohr atomic model are nothing compared to the aether’s “knowing” where and when to release just the right amount of decay energy from its immense reserves all over the universe.  Anyway, the aether cannot have logically disappeared precisely because it never made all that much sense, I guess.

And, of course, as we have seen, the non-observability of the aether could be used to suggest that it must have some special useful characteristics (rather than simply not being there at all) – for example – to keep it from allowing the generation of vast amounts of energy in any situation where it would otherwise be observable or it might be different close to the Earth and vastly similar to itself elsewhere.

So no logic or observation alone could have made it seem completely implausible.

Some suggestions about how the aether became unimaginable or at least hard to picture have come up in this blog:

1) Voices can be imagined traveling in the radio-aetherial void but not faces in a Television Aether.

2) All the microphysical details as described by Buchwald and Miller

3) Less hope for a “modernity” saved from a mechanistic world.

But it seems at least worth considering that a cluster of not particularly rational or logical changes in how people thought about the universe – particularly the interrelations of stars and spectra and microphysics happened to come together to squeeze the aether rapidly out of all plausibility from all sides – a squeezing that would come simultaneously from changes in the imagery of the interstellar and  supercelestial realms and from the underworlds of sublimated lust and microphysics.  So the aether doesn’t fade but is squeezed out of the world of the imagination pretty quickly.  The other forces in changing the imagination to squeeze out the aether could be:

  1. some shift in the structure of the desires and modes of sublimation involved in picturing the universe.  The end of any overall opposition between the supercelestial (disappearing from the stars as they become part of the ordinary world so that stars can be part of the same imageries of desire that include the Earth) and the solar system as Lacan suggests on page 152 of Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis
  2. And this squeezing of the aether “from above” continues with the determination of the redshift in galaxies leaving less and less room for any quintessential processes – Earthly elements are the same as celestial elements by the 1920s
  3. Squeezing “from below” with the development of “modern physics” (Special Relativity) – ion tracks in cloud chambers from 1911 on
  4. And the signs of the very last squeezes — in 1939 – Hans Bethe works out “Energy Production in Stars” and in the Wizard of Oz movie even the Munchkins are urged to “See a young lady who fell from a star” (Lyrics by Yip Harburg who also wrote “Paper Moon” among other memorable songs.)