Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ether

In something like 500 years we’ve replaced a theological with a mathe­matical scholasticism. The old one could be understood by a reasonably educated and diligent person; the new one requires specialized skills few have the patience to master. Furthermore, it has become difficult to check the new theology independently because the experiments that gave rise to the math are difficult (or very expensive) to reconstruct.

I often think that if I had access to the physical facts, I’d reach conclusions quite at variance with those embraced by science. Another thought is that physics posits tangible facts not because they really exist but because the equations come out a certain way. I’ve yet to read a popular book on physics in which the words persuade me. Elementary particles are supposed to be simultaneously waves and objects. A wave requires a medium like water. The water goes up and down. The cause of this motion is an invisible force. On a beach the force drives the water against the land. The damage, if any, or the rearrangement of the sand at least, is directly caused by the medium, not by the force. When a photon arrives at a screen, something tangibly lands.

My Dictionary of Physics (Penguin, 1977, p. 518) defines the wave much as I’ve defined it above, namely as the disturbance of a medium. For elementary particles, the medium itself is “space” generally and its magnetic or electrical properties particularly, the latter registering the disturbance caused by what I call a “force” and my dictionary simply labels as a “quantity.”

Based on this definition, “space” is filled with “properties” of an electro­magnetic character. Now it strikes me as peculiar to dismiss the old idea of the “ether” as nonexistent and yet to assert that “space” is filled with a “property” which has inertial behavior and is subject to ever-so-faint disturbances by light. The mysterious “field” of modern physics thus turns out to be the ether after all. The last shall be the first, the first last. The Michelson-Morely team (the pair that tested for the ether in 1877 and found it not) may someday be found right on whereas, in the not too distant future, Einstein’s relativity may be honorably retired. That sort of thing wouldn’t surprise me.

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