IX. THE ETHER AND PONDERABLE MATTER

"Whatever difficulties we may have in forming a consistent idea of the constitution of the ether, there can be no doubt that the interplanetary and interstellar spaces are not empty, but are occupied by a material substance or body which is certainly the largest and probably the most uniform body of which we have any knowledge."

Such was the verdict pronounced some thirty years ago by James Clerk-Maxwell, one of the very greatest of nineteenth-century physicists, regarding the existence of an all-pervading plenum in the universe, in which every particle of tangible matter is immersed. And this verdict may be said to express the attitude of the entire philosophical world of our day. Without exception, the authoritative physicists of our time accept this plenum as a verity, and reason about it with something of the same confidence they manifest in speaking of "ponderable" matter or of, energy. It is true there are those among them who are disposed to deny that this all-pervading plenum merits the name of matter. But that it is a something, and a vastly important something at that, all are agreed. Without it, they allege, we should know nothing of light, of radiant heat, of electricity or magnetism; without it there would probably be no such thing as gravitation; nay, they even hint that without this strange something, ether, there would be no such thing as matter in the universe. If these contentions of the modern physicist are justified, then this intangible ether is incomparably the most important as well as the "largest and most uniform substance or body" in the universe. Its discovery may well be looked upon as one of the most important feats of the nineteenth century.

For a discovery of that century it surely is, in the sense that all the known evidences of its existence were gathered in that epoch. True dreamers of all ages have, for metaphysical reasons, imagined the existence of intangible fluids in space—they had, indeed, peopled space several times over with different kinds of ethers, as Maxwell remarks—but such vague dreamings no more constituted the discovery of the modern ether than the dream of some pre-Columbian visionary that land might lie beyond the unknown waters constituted the discovery of America. In justice it must be admitted that Huyghens, the seventeenth-century originator of the undulatory theory of light, caught a glimpse of the true ether; but his contemporaries and some eight generations of his successors were utterly deaf to his claims; so he bears practically the same relation to the nineteenth-century discoverers of ether that the Norseman bears to Columbus.

The true Columbus of the ether was Thomas Young. His discovery was consummated in the early days of the nineteenth century, when he brought forward the first, conclusive proofs of the undulatory theory of light. To say that light consists of undulations is to postulate something that undulates; and this something could not be air, for air exists only in infinitesimal quantity, if at all, in the interstellar spaces, through which light freely penetrates. But if not air, what then? Why, clearly, something more intangible than air; something supersensible, evading all direct efforts to detect it, yet existing everywhere in seemingly vacant space, and also interpenetrating the substance of all transparent liquids and solids, if not, indeed, of all tangible substances. This intangible something Young rechristened the Luminiferous Ether.

In the early days of his discovery Young thought of the undulations which produce light and radiant heat as being longitudinal—a forward and backward pulsation, corresponding to the pulsations of sound—and as such pulsations can be transmitted by a fluid medium with the properties of ordinary fluids, he was justified in thinking of the ether as being like a fluid in its properties, except for its extreme intangibility. But about 1818 the experiments of Fresnel and Arago with polarization of light made it seem very doubtful whether the theory of longitudinal vibrations is sufficient, and it was suggested by Young, and independently conceived and demonstrated by Fresnel, that the luminiferous undulations are not longitudinal, but transverse; and all the more recent experiments have tended to confirm this view. But it happens that ordinary fluids— gases and liquids—cannot transmit lateral vibrations; only rigid bodies are capable of such a vibration. So it became necessary to assume that the luminiferous ether is a body possessing elastic rigidity—a familiar property of tangible solids, but one quite unknown among fluids.

The idea of transverse vibrations carried with it another puzzle. Why does not the ether, when set aquiver with the vibration which gives us the sensation we call light, have produced in its substance subordinate quivers, setting out at right angles from the path of the original quiver? Such perpendicular vibrations seem not to exist, else we might see around a corner; how explain their absence? The physicist could think of but one way: they must assume that the ether is incompressible. It must fill all space—at any rate, all space with which human knowledge deals—perfectly full.

These properties of the ether, incompressibility and elastic rigidity, are quite conceivable by themselves; but difficulties of thought appear when we reflect upon another quality which the ether clearly must possess— namely, frictionlessness. By hypothesis this rigid, incompressible body pervades all space, imbedding every particle of tangible matter; yet it seems not to retard the movements of this matter in the slightest degree. This is undoubtedly the most difficult to comprehend of the alleged properties of the ether. The physicist explains it as due to the perfect elasticity of the ether, in virtue of which it closes in behind a moving particle with a push exactly counterbalancing the stress required to penetrate it in front.