Something in the Air: Ether, Viruses and the Late Nineteenth-Century Unknown [2/3]

Now this was recognized at the time. In a short note to the journal Mind in 1905 on the relationship between thought and reality, the physicist Oliver Lodge wrote:

One method of constructing a theory is by the use of analogies and working models: of which it is a commonplace to say that, however good they may be, they must fail in representation at some stage, or else they must be no analogy but the thing itself.1

This difference, for Lodge, is important as it maintains the boundary between mind and model and model and reality. But it is also a creative difference, the model allowing new aspects of reality to emerge. Lodge gives the ether as an example of something intangible that we only know theoretically and Maxwell’s theories of electromagnetism as theory that was later proved experimentally. However, despite these fairly well-defined examples, Lodge cautions that in certain cases – ‘in the transcendental, or ultra-mundane, or super-sensual region’ – such models are limited as they lack a definite boundary condition (295). In such cases, he argues, there can only be suspended judgement or ‘a tentative scheme or working hypothesis, to be held undogmatically in an attitude of constant receptiveness of further light, and in full readiness for modification and improvement’ (295). Although he states these are different to scientific theories, their difference is not ontological but related to the subject. Lacking a boundary condition, these theories do not produce the expected results of a well-made scientific theory because they are not defined enough. Rather than approach objectivity, they are within the mind, are non-objectified, and constitute spaces through which unknown things can emerge.

These three scientific objects – the ether, the electromagnetic spectrum (i.e. light), and Maxwell’s equations – are all connected and together they provide an important exemplar of something that is both well-defined and yet so nebulous that it stands between the subject and the nonhuman unconscious. The ether was an elusive substance that arose in order to account for the otherwise empty spaces in the universe. By the late nineteenth century, it had become a fundamental component of wave theory: if sound was transmitted through vibrations in the air, then there must be an equivalent medium to produce light. The work of Helmholtz, Thomson and Maxwell from the 1840s onwards refined the action of the ether and, as Maxwell’s equations set out the mathematical principles behind a unified theory of electromagnetism, it soon became established as the medium through which all such invisible forces could act.

Although objects clearly affected one another in mechanical, physical and chemical ways, the ether brought into being relationships on a stubbornly subvisible level. Conceptions of magnetic and electric fields had already extended the limits of objects beyond their physical edges to the limits of their influence. These limits, however, were not absolute, and rather than distinguishing between different objects, they instead served to demarcate areas of mutual effect. Once the ether was considered the medium for these effects, space was transformed from the thing that separated discrete entities and instead became what connected them: in other words, the ether challenged the autonomy of things, putting into question their boundaries while reaffirming their influence upon one another.

This idea extended the ether into matter. Mid to late nineteenth-century physcists conceived of atoms and molecules as swirling vortices of ether: ether, in other words, made solid by the forces that it carried. Although the emergence of the electron at the turn of the century conceived charge as a particle rather than wave, it further reaffirmed the importance of the ether. As charge and atomic mass were known, the physics of the atomic model suggested that the distance between the nucleus and the orbiting electrons was relatively large: atoms, then, were also mostly empty, constituted by force acting over space rather than matter.

The ether put the world into motion, denying the boundaries of things and insisting on a complex network of unseen effects. The human body, of course, was part of this, and ether theory was easily applied to social relations. For instance, Lodge argued that:

There are those who think that these material bodies represent ourselves, – our personality, our memory, and our character. If they can work out everything by that hypothesis, by all means let them do so. But let them also take the whole of the facts into account. The atoms are not isolated, and we are not isolated. We are members one of another. There is a link between the atoms.1

Lodge was a spiritualist, joining the Society for Psychical Research in 1884 and taking over the Presidency after Myers’s death in 1901. He argued, cautiously, by analogy: if matter affects matter, and we are composed of matter, then so too might mind affect mind. Here the ether becomes the medium for thinking both the world and its organization: once matter is conceived as a system of effects, the boundaries between mind and world disappear.

The ether offers itself as an unrepressed unconscious that is vital for, but resistant to, scientific objectification. Although universal, the ether was not detectable. Rather, its presence was necessary to permit other parts of science – electromagnetic phenomena, atomic structure – to emerge. The ether facilitated relations, between minds, bodies, and things, while also constituting thoughts, force and energy. Its capacity to be both the way in which we become conscious of the world, and the world itself, meant that the ether could never be an object in its own right; rather, it was an interface that permitted the nonhuman to be known.

1 Oliver Lodge, ‘Note Concerning Thought and Reality’, Mind, 14 (1905), 294–95 (295). [back]
Sir Oliver Lodge, The Link Between Matter and Matter (London: British Science Guild, 1925), p. 15. [back]