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Ether and Waves

The whole material universe is supposed to be embedded in a vast medium called the ether. It is true that the notion of the ether has been abandoned by some modern physicists, but, whether or not it is ultimately dispensed with, the conception of the ether has entered so deeply into the scientific mind that the science of physics cannot be understood unless we know something about the properties attributed to the ether. The ether was invented to explain the phenomena of light, and to account for the flow of energy across empty space. Light takes time to travel. We see the sun at any moment by the light that left it 8 minutes before. It has taken that 8 minutes for the light from the sun to travel that 93,000,000 miles odd which separates it from our earth. Besides the fact that light takes time to travel, it can be shown that light travels in the form of waves. We know that sound travels in waves; sound consists of waves in the air, or water or wood or whatever medium we hear it through. If an electric bell be put in a glass jar and the air be pumped out of the jar, the sound of the bell becomes feebler and feebler until, when enough air has been taken out, we do not hear the bell at all. Sound cannot travel in a vacuum. We continue to see the bell, however, so that evidently light can travel in a vacuum. The invisible medium through which the waves of light travel is the ether, and this ether permeates all space and all matter. Between us and the stars stretch vast regions empty of all matter. But we see the stars; their light reaches us, even though it may take centuries to do so. We conceive, then, that it is the universal ether which conveys that light. All the energy which has reached the earth from the sun and which, stored for ages in our coal-fields, is now used to propel our trains and steamships, to heat and light our cities, to perform all the multifarious tasks of modern life, was conveyed by the ether. Without that universal carrier of energy we should have nothing but a stagnant, lifeless world.


Photo: Leadbeater.


An electric spark consists of a rush of electrons across the space between the two terminals. A state of tension is established in the ether by the electric charges, and when this tension passes a certain limit the discharge takes place.


From "Scientific Ideas of To-day."


In the left-hand photograph an electric current is passing through the coil, thus producing a magnetic field and transforming the poker into a magnet. The poker is then able to support a pair of scissors. As soon as the electric current is broken off, as in the second photograph, the ether disturbance ceases. The poker loses its magnetism, and the scissors fall.

We have said that light consists of waves. The ether may be considered as resembling, in some respects, a jelly. It can transmit vibrations. The waves of light are really excessively small ripples, measuring from crest to crest. The distance from crest to crest of the ripples in a pond is sometimes no more than an inch or two. This distance is enormously great compared to the longest of the wave-lengths that constitute light. We say the longest, for the waves of light differ in length; the colour depends upon the length of the light. Red light has the longest waves and violet the shortest. The longest waves, the waves of deep-red light, are seven two hundred and fifty thousandths of an inch in length (7/250,000 inch). This is nearly twice the length of deep-violet light-waves, which are 1/67,000 inch. But light-waves, the waves that affect the eye, are not the only waves carried by the ether. Waves too short to affect the eye can affect the photographic plate, and we can discover in this way the existence of waves only half the length of the deep-violet waves. Still shorter waves can be discovered, until we come to those excessively minute rays, the X-rays.

Below the Limits of Visibility

But we can extend our investigations in the other direction; we find that the ether carries many waves longer than light-waves. Special photographic emulsions can reveal the existence of waves five times longer than violet-light waves. Extending below the limits of visibility are waves we detect as heat-waves. Radiant heat, like the heat from a fire, is also a form of wave-motion in the ether, but the waves our senses recognise as heat are longer than light-waves. There are longer waves still, but our senses do not recognise them. But we can detect them by our instruments. These are the waves used in wireless telegraphy, and their length may be, in some cases, measured in miles. These waves are the so-called electro-magnetic waves. Light, radiant heat, and electro-magnetic waves are all of the same nature; they differ only as regards their wave-lengths.