Bertram Coghill Alan Windle.

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present. What is more, apart altogether from its relations
to the structure of matter, which are to be dealt with in the
following chapter, it interpenetrates all matter, indeed it
would be much more accurate to say that all matter is inter-
penetrated by the ether. It is exceedingly difficult to bring
this relationship before the mind of the reader unaccustomed
to scientific ideas. Perhaps he may obtain an absurdly
rough but approximate idea by thinking of a currant bun

1 See end of this chapter for a note on Space.

2 Lodge, " Ether of Space," Harper, London and New York, 1909,
p. 26. Italics as in original.


where the floury part is the ether and the currants are the
ultimate constituents of the matter itself. It is the very
fact of its omnipresence that makes it so difficult to study,
so hard to detect and to realise, for, as Sir Oliver Lodge
most happily puts it, " The last thing that a deep-sea fish
could discover would be water." 1 When we have to do
with a thing which is absolutely uniform and universally
present, it is obvious that its detection must be a matter of
singular difficulty. It might be urged by one unfamiliar
with the characteristics of ether that the air around us is
for all practical purposes, so far as we are concerned, uniform
and universal ; yet we are able to detect its existence. The
ether is frictionless, as we shall shortly see. Air is not ; and
it is by the friction of its own currents, winds or breezes, or
by our rapid passage through it that we appreciate its
existence. There are other points, but this will suffice.

It is also, as we have seen, called the Luminiferous Ether,
and this name it owes to the fact that it bears the light
across inter-stellar space. It is the transmitter of radiations,
and when we feel the warmth of the sun or the heat of a
flame it is because the radiations are conveyed to us by the
ether. In fact it is through the ether that nearly all the
energy now informing all movable things on this earth
has reached us. The motor-car which rushes along the
road, the train, the steamship, the manufactory — these owe
their energy to that which came to the earth from the
sun in ages long gone by and was stored up to be employed
by us in these later days. How did these sunbeams make
their journey over the 90,000,000 miles which separate us
from the place of their origin ? It is inconceivable that
they could travel, so to speak, through an absolute vacuum :
they must have been transmitted, as the sunbeams of to-
day are being transmitted, by some medium, and that
medium is what we call the ether. Further, we know that
it transmits light, and it may be added all the other in-
fluences which traverse it, at a quite definite rate, namely,
185,000 miles per second. This is a characteristic velocity,
just as the velocity of sound through air, at 1200 feet

1 " Continuity," p. 109.


per second, is the characteristic velocity of the atmosphere
surrounding this earth. " Radiations," says Mr. Soddy, 1
" be they light or heat, whatever their colour or wave-
length, X-rays, the ether-waves employed in wireless
telegraphy, magnetic disturbances, whether they reach us
from the sun as the accompaniment of solar storms, or
whether, lastly, they circulate around the space surrounding
a wire in which a current of electricity is being started or
stopped — all travel through space with the speed of light.
Sound is the vibration of the air, and all the gamut of sounds
and noises are essentially air disturbances of the same type.
Radiation is the vibration of the ether, and all the various
phenomena just enumerated are due to electro-magnetic
changes accompanying the alteration either of the speed
or direction of motion of electrons. The ether, so far as
we know, vibrates only in this one way, and the vibrations
are transmitted only with one velocity." 2

The point with which we are now dealing is further
summed up by Sir Oliver Lodge, 3 whose words may be quoted
in extenso : "Radiation," he says, "conspicuously comes
to us from the sun. If any free or ordinary matter exists
in the intervening space, it must be an exceedingly rare
gas. In other words, it must consist of scattered particles
of matter, some big enough to be called lumps, some so

1 " Matter and Energy," Home University Library, p. 18G.

2 The distinction between transmission by the air and transmission by
the ether may perhaps be made clearer to the general reader by the
following : Many persons will have seen the experiment in which when a
sounding-fork of a certain pitch is struck, its note is echoed by an identical
note in another sounding-fork distant from and in no way connected with
the first but of the same pitch. Or, if they have not seen this experiment,
they can scarcely fail at some time or another to have noticed that a note
sounded on a violin or other musical instrument, even on a wine-glass,
will be echoed by some object capable of vibrating and " tuned " to the
same note as that which has excited it. Perhaps it should be added that
in all these cases the second or excited note is a real note, quite as real as
that which caused it. Such effects are due to vibrations conducted by the
air and travel with the characteristic velocity alluded to above. But
there is another experiment in which, instead of two sounding-forks, two
magnets, which must be identical in character, are suspended at some
distance from one another but in no way connected with one another.
Set one of them swinging. There is no sound and no disturbance of the air,
but the other magnet will also be set swinging to a small extent. Here the
waves which have produced the motion have not travelled through the
air but through a totally different medium, namely, the ether of space.

3 " Ether of Space," p. 22.


small as to be merely atoms, but each with a considerable
gap between it and its neighbour. Such isolated particles
are absolutely incompetent to transmit light. And, paren-
thetically, I may say that no form of ordinary matter, solid,
liquid, or gaseous, is competent to transmit a thing travel-
ling with the speed and subject to the known laws of light.
For the conveyance of radiation or light all ordinary matter
is not only incompetent, but hopelessly and absurdly in-
competent. If this radiation is a thing transmitted by any-
thing at all, it must be by something sui generis. But it is
transmitted, — for it takes time on the journey, travelling
at a well-known and definite speed ; and it is a quivering
or periodic disturbance, falling under the general category
of wave-motion. Nothing is more certain than that."

From all this we may conclude that the ether is a real
entity, not a philosophical creation invented to explain
certain facts, and we may proceed to consider what char-
acters physicists believe it to possess. In detailing these I
shall freely avail myself of quotations from the recent
writings of those most competent to speak on the subject
from long and careful study. This will, I think, convey a
much more adequate idea of the present state of opinion
on the matter than would be conveyed by any attempt on
my part to paraphrase their writings. And I specially rely
on the writings of Sir Oliver Lodge, since in this country
and elsewhere he may be regarded in an especial sense as
the prophet of the ether.

In the first place, then, the ether is exceedingly dense,
by far the densest thing in the universe. It is " massive
and substantial beyond conception. It is turning out to
be by far the most substantial thing — perhaps the only
substantial thing — in the material universe. Compared to
ether the densest matter, such as lead or gold, is a filmy
gossamer structure ; like a comet's tail or a milky way, or
like a salt in very dilute solution." 1 Or again : " As to its
density, it must be far greater than that of any form of
matter, millions of times denser than lead or platinum." 2

Yet it is not infinitely dense — if indeed any real meaning

1 " Ether of Space," p. xiv. * " Continuity," p. 33.


attaches to the word infinite in this connection. " It may
be said, why assume any finite density for the ether at all ?
Why not assume that, as it is infinitely continuous, so it is
infinitely dense, whatever that may mean — and that all
its properties are infinite ? This might be possible were
it not for the velocity of light. By transmitting waves at
a finite and measurable speed, the ether has given itself
away, and has let in all the possibilities of calculation and
numerical statement. Its properties are thereby exhibited
as essentially finite — however infinite the whole extent of
it may turn out to be."

Yet matter moves through the ether with perfect free-
dom ; it is, in other words, quite frictionless. To anyone
unfamiliar with physics this seems a most contradictory
statement, having regard to what has just been said as to
its enormous density, but it appears that " viscosity is not
a function of density ; the two are not necessarily con-
nected." 1 Those who desire to comprehend more fully
the facts upon which this statement are based may be
recommended to study the account of the Ether Machine
given in the " Ether of Space." 2 This, it may be very briefly
stated, consists primarily of a couple of large steel disks a
yard in diameter and so arranged as to be capable of being
spun so fast as to be in danger of flying in pieces. By means
of mirrors beams of light were sent round and round these
whirling disks at times so close as actually to graze them.
It is clear that if the ether were gripped and dragged round
ever so little by the whirling disks, this ought to be shown
to demonstration. The demonstration, it may be added,
would take place through the observation of " interference
bands," to explain which would take us much too far afield.
Suffice it to say that the acceleration, if there, could be
tested by perfectly well-known physical methods. The
experiment, after allowing for spurious results, showed
that the velocity was not affected by so much as one-
tenth per cent of the velocity of the moving matter, so that
practically we may say that the Ether of Space is never
carried forward, presumably not even by a planet. " So

1 " Continuity," p. 34. 2 p. 77.


far as experiment has gone, our conclusion is that the
viscosity or fluid friction of the ether is zero." 1

Finally, so far as we are concerned with it in this chapter,
it is incompressible. " The fundamental medium filling
all space, if there be such, must, in my judgment, be ulti-
mately incompressible ; otherwise it would be composed
of parts, and we should have to seek for something still
more fundamental to fill the interstices." 2

With its relation to what is known as matter I shall
deal in the next chapter, and until the theories there to be
discussed have been passed under review it will also be
convenient to defer any remarks as to the bearing of these
things upon the teachings of the Church or their bearing
upon philosophical ideas. But before concluding it may
be well to summarise what has been stated as to the ether
of space.

It is omnipresent, and fills what might otherwise really
be " empty " space. It transmits the vibrations of light
and other vibrations at a definite velocity. It permeates
all matter than which it is enormously denser. It is per-
fectly frictionless and ultimately incompressible.

To the ordinary reader — indeed to almost any person, not
a professed physicist — these attributes will appear contra-
dictory and even incredible. Yet we are told that we must
believe them and that they are deducible from the one
fact which we know about the ether, the one secret which
it gives away — namely, the rate at which it transmits light.
It is a curious fact, yet there seems to be no doubt about
it, that there are persons who cheerfully and without
difficulty accept the fact of the ether, contradictory as its
attributes are and modest as is the amount of evidence
which we have for its existence, yet who wholly refuse to
believe in the existence of the Creator, or at least proclaim
that there is not sufficient evidence to compel belief in the
existence of One whose attributes appear to them to be so
contradictory. Yet to others it would seem that God
makes Himself much more obvious and undeniable in His
creation than He has made obvious the ether through its
power of transmission of light.

1 " Ether of Space," p. 77. * Ibid., p. 82.


Note to Chapter VI. — The following note on the difficult
question of " Space " in relation to the " Ether " has been
kindly furnished to me by my learned friend Fr. Maher, D. Lit.,
whose useful suggestions here and elsewhere I wish again to
acknowledge. The metaphysics of the conception of Space are
difficult in all philosophies. The chief points in the Scholastic
system are these : We must clearly distinguish between " actual "
or " real " space and " possible " space. The former corresponds
to or is co-extensive with the entire created material universe.
It is, therefore, an actual well-defined area. According to the
current scientific theory it is supposed to be pervaded through-
out by the " Ether." This ether is created, is extended, is not
spirit but some form of matter or material stuff, whether made
of electrons or molecules, gaseous or solid or liquid, and whatever
be its relation to the other coagulated realities immersed in it
which we call " matter " or " bodies."

The whole bun must have been created — dough as well as
currants ! — and most probably all together. That creation
thereby brought into existence " actual " or " real " space.
Now before that creation there was nothing there — and no
" there," for God, being a spirit, does not Himself exist in space
or constitute space by His being.

There was merely the possibility that God might create
extended material body which would carry with it into existence
and determine so much actual or real space — a mental conception,
an ens ideale. Now " outside " the sphere of the created material
universe there is similarly at present nothing — merely the possi-
bility of more material creations and such possibility is in itself
nothing "real" or "actual" — merely an ens ideale. "Real"
or " Actual " space is then finite, not infinite, and was actualised
or received determinate existence by the creation of matter with
its ocean of ether. Our imagination tends to ascribe to possible
space a real actual existence independently of the material
universe and to set it up as an entity distinct from God, indeed
some philosophers have made it such. In reality " possible "
space is not an ens reale — a real being — any more than any other
possibility, such as the possibility of an angel or of a two-headed
horse before an angel or a horse of the kind had been
created. When we say that space is " infinite " we must not
understand the space filled with ether or actualised material
reality in any form : this is as strictly limited as a log of wood or
a cloud of smoke. Only God is actually infinite. But we may say
that possibilities are infinite, and so potential, or possible space.



HAVING thus dealt with the theories of to-day con-
cerning the ether we are in a position to turn our
attention to the highly contentious and difficult question
of the nature of Matter. In this connection it may first be
noted that by far the greater part of that which is now
taught or thought concerning matter and its nature lies
outside the realm of actually ascertained fact and within
that of theory. Moreover, theory in connection with this
subject is of a constantly fluctuating character, so much so
that a good deal of what is now being set down here by the
present writer may very possibly be out of date and dis-
regarded by physicists before it appears in print. Indeed
parts of it may be out of date at this moment with those
who really know, for the present writer has no claim to be
considered a physicist and can only avail himself of ordinary
text-books in making this sketch.

This, however, it will effect : it will teach the lesson that
a scientific theory is not a revelation given once for all
and unchangeable, which is the kind of idea that too many
manuals would like to impress upon their readers. To a
considerable extent this is the lesson of this book, and it
can be learnt from physics as it can from chemistry or from
biology. And it will be still more strikingly evinced if the
views here set down should have become old-fashioned
during the interval which must elapse between the writing
and the publishing of a book.

The fact is that we know — that is, have actual verifiable
knowledge of — practically nothing as to the real nature of
matter. But there are very definite theories which may —



or may not — some day or another come to be demonstrated
as facts. With these we have now to deal, and the very
imperfect historical sketch which it will be necessary to
give will show how fundamental have been some of the
fluctuations in opinion. The scholastic doctrine of Matter
and Form has yet to be dealt with ; so, for the moment, all
that need be said is that during the Middle Ages the prevalent
idea, founded on Aristotle's teaching, was that there existed
— as a concept at any rate — a materia prima or prothyle
which was regarded as a substratum common to all the
forms of matter known to us. This fundamental identity
being allowed, it is clear that it might be possible for human
art to cause the materia existing under the form of one kind
of substance to take upon itself a modification of some other
kind, and be thus converted into a material substance of a
totally different kind. This was the underlying theory of
alchemy — that if lead and gold were fundamentally identical
there was no reason why some method might not be dis-
covered whereby the less could be transmuted into the more
precious metal.

Such was the view disputed by Richard Boyle in his
" Skyptical Chymist " (1661) and abandoned in favour of
that which held sway over the scientific world until yester-
day. According to that theory there were a certain number
of substances known as Elements, amounting in number,
at the time that radio-activity was discovered, to some
eighty or ninety. Of these some are ubiquitous, such as
sodium ; some, like erbium, are exceedingly rare, at least
on our earth. These elements could not be changed into
one another nor further split up.

But even these were not simple or continuous substances.
It was held then, just as it is now, that all matter is discrete
or grained ; the grains were what are called molecules, a
molecule being the smallest amount of any compound which
could exist separately — that is, whilst 1 still possessing the
properties of that compound. It will be observed that the
term compound is used ; with regard to the elements it may
be said that whilst occasionally the molecule and the atom

1 The molecule is the physical unit — what the ancients (and even
Dalton) called " atom."


are the same, such is not usually the case. In all other cases,
and in all compounds, the molecule is made up of atoms,
the atom being conceived as the smallest portion of any
element — the portion beyond which subdivision could not
go ; the ultimate particle of that element.

Let us take the common instance given in all books on the
subject — that of water. A very small amount of imagination
will enable us to see that if we proceeded far enough in the
subdivision of a spoonful of water we should come to a
point where no further subdivision was possible. We
should then have arrived at the molecule of water : but we
should not have arrived at an entity which was indivisible,
for, theoretically of course, if we applied the methods of
electrolysis to our molecule of water we could split it up
into two parts of the gas Hydrogen and one of the gas
Oxygen. Here at length, according to the views with which
we are concerned, we should have arrived at an ultimate
and indivisible entity in the shape of the atom. Dalton, in
1803, formulated what is known as the Atomic Theory,
with which we cannot here concern ourselves. Suffice it to
say that it established an order and method in the com-
binations of various elements with one another so as to
form the various chemical compounds ; and that, though
ideas as to the ultimate nature of the atom have been, as
we shall see, profoundly modified, the Atomic Theory
remains just as useful and valuable to the chemist of to-day
as it was to his predecessor of the days before radioactivity
had been discovered. In 1815 Prout suggested that the
atomic weights of all the elements were integral multiples
of that of Hydrogen (which is usually taken as 1). Subse-
quent experiments have discredited this hypothesis ; yet
the approaches of the atomic weights to whole numbers are
too close and too frequent to be regarded as purely accidental.

Consider the first, i.e. the lightest twenty-five elements. If
the values were chance-distributed, we might expect five
elements in twenty-five to have an atomic weight within
=o*i of an integer. As a matter of fact (prescinding from
H=i or else 0=i6) we have no less than twenty such
elements. In 1865 Newlands proposed the " law of octaves."
He showed that the elements when arranged in the order


of their atomic weights exhibited a regular recurrence of
properties. In 1869 Mendeleeff completely formulated the
famous periodic law : that all the physical properties
(malleability, heat-conductivity and expansion, electro-
chemical character, etc.) are periodic or regularly recurrent
functions of their atomic weights. It is a remarkable fact
that three gaps in Mendeleeff s table have since been rilled
up by newly discovered metals.

It is quite impossible here to give the facts upon which
the statements now to be made are founded : for these,
readers must be referred to the various manuals quoted in
the footnotes. All that can here be done is to give the
barest outline of the chief points which constitute the mar-
vellous conception of the physicists of to-day, the Electrical
Theory of Matter. No doubt philosophers and men of
science were always restive under the idea of such a multi-
plication of entities as the Theory of Elements necessitated,
and facts were gradually brought to light which indubitably
pointed to something common to all the elementary atoms —
that is, that the eighty or ninety substances of which we
have been speaking were not intrinsically, unalterably and
ab initio different from one another, but that there was in
reality only one kind of matter underlying all its mani-
festations. It is only in recent years that we have ob-
tained unequivocal evidence of something common, and,
strange to say, this common constituent turns out to be,
not, as Prout supposed, the atom of Hydrogen, but the atom
of Electricity — the Electron.

Everybody is aware that there are commonly supposed to
be two kinds of electricity commonly called positive and
negative, and represented respectively by the signs + and — .
Whether there are actually two kinds or not is not quite
clear ; what is certain is that up to the present time that
form which most unfortunately came to be named negative
is the only one which has as yet been isolated from the rest
of an atom of matter. " An electron," says Sir Oliver
Lodge, 1 " is the natural unit of negative electricity, and it
may not be long before the natural unit of positive electricity
is found too. But concerning the nature of the positive

1 " Continuity," p. 28.


unit there is at present some division into opposite camps.
One school prefers to regard the unit of positive electricity
as a homogeneous sphere, the size of an atom, in which
electrons revolve in simple harmonic orbits and constitute
nearly the whole effective mass. Another school, while
appreciating the simplicity and ingenuity and beauty of
the details of this conception, and the skill with which it
has been worked out, yet thinks the evidence more in
favour of a minute central positive nucleus, or nucleus-
group, of practically atomic mass ; with electrons, larger —
i.e. less concentrated — and therefore less massive than itself,
revolving round it in astronomical orbits. While from yet

Online LibraryBertram Coghill Alan WindleThe church and science → online text (page 7 of 38)