Aether – what is it?

Aether. It’s a common enough phrase; emails are always crossing ‘in the aether’. But what is it? Is it anything at all? It’s a subject that has challenged scientists for millennia and started the careers of some of the most famous names in scientific research. It has also defined others’, and not necessarily in a good way.

According to the classical science, aether is the material that ‘fills the region of the universe beyond the terrestrial sphere’. Roughly translated from the Homeric Greek, aether means ‘pure, fresh air’ or ‘clear sky’ and it was what the Greek gods breathed as opposed to the air that mere mortals could inhale. Plato and Aristotle wrestled with the concept, with the latter considering it the fifth element after earth, water, air and fire, giving rise to its also being known as ‘quintessence’. Clearly much intrigued by it, Aristotle’s work led him to state that celestial spheres made of aether held the stars and planets in perfectly circular motion.

By the Middle Ages, aether had gained further enigmatic importance. Widespread mediaeval elementary theory was based on the four classic elements, along with aether as the fifth, and the two chemical metallic representatives: sulphur – ‘the stone that burns’ – and mercury, or quicksilver given its liquid state at room temperature. The inclusion of aether led alchemists to search for the elixir of Life that could treat all illnesses, thus inviting immortality to those lucky enough to drink it. And drink it they did; alcohol distilled seven times could ‘create’ this elixir and many were prescribed it for any number of ailments.

Other mediaeval alchemists thought aether was the secret to finding the philosophers’ stone which could turn base metals into gold. The German alchemist Hennig Brand thought he had got there when he created a solid which continued to glow a pale green long after he had contained it in a sealed jar. But the discovery of this philosophers’ stone, made after boiling down urine over many hours, proved to be false. What Brand had actually discovered was the chemical element phosphorous.

Brand’s endeavours occurred at the beginning of what became known as the Age of Enlightenment and here again, scientists were obsessed with working out precisely what aether was. Classical theories of the air of the Gods were forgotten as new ‘aether theories’ permeated through ideas and experiments on electromagnetic and gravitational forces. Newton used aether when considering his new rules for physics, while Huygens used luminiferous aether, then considered medium that allows light to propagate, in his ground-breaking wave theory.

The theory remained an active part of physics for another couple of centuries before the notorious Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887. To much fanfare, American physicists Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley set about proving the existence of luminiferous aether by measuring the speed of light in the direction of the presumed ‘aether wind’ and comparing it to the speed of light passing at right angles through the same medium. Subsequently dubbed ‘the most famous failed experiment’ in history, and with Michelson himself describing it as a “decidedly negative result” against the-then prevailing aether theory, there was, however a silver lining to this particular physics cloud. 

With aether suddenly proven to not exist, the Michelson-Morley results established a branch of scientific research that ultimately led in 1905 to one of the most famous scientists of all, Albert Einstein, expounding his special theory of relativity regarding the relationship between time and space in a new ‘non-aether’ context. Today, special relativity is still considered the most accurate model of motion at any speed when gravitational and quantum effects are negligible. Yet when Einstein himself refused to deny the existence of “an ether”, further experiments continued. As recently as 2009, optical resonator experiments have concluded the absence of any aether wind to a level of 10-17. 

Why then name a new scientific publication after a theory that has been millennia in the making and proved conclusively to not actually exist after all? Well, in our modern world, useful discoveries are failing to escape the closed scientific communications, and the rest of the world is unaware.

Politicians write policies to mitigate climate change without understanding recent advances in atmospheric modelling, industry manufactures goods without the latest materials and technologies, and the lessons we teach our children are based on knowledge we had generations ago.

In spring 2022, our team realised a new medium was required, but this time the light propagating through our Aether is from the brightest minds of the scientific community and you are its destination. We are not the first popular science publishing service available to scientists, but Aether will be the first ethically driven team that will value our readers as much as the teams paying us to produce their content.

Discoveries must be read and not just published. Aether is the medium through which we will make that happen.