MATTER, ETHER, AND EINSTEIN
The supreme synthesis, the crown of all this progressive conquest of nature, would be to discover that the particles of positive and negative electricity, which make up the atoms of matter, are points or centres of disturbances of some kind in a universal ether, and that all our "energies" (light, magnetism, gravitation, etc.) are waves or strains of some kind set up in the ether by these clusters of electrons.
It is a fascinating, tantalising dream. Larmor suggested in 1900 that the electron is a tiny whirlpool, or "vortex," in ether; and, as such a vortex may turn in either of two opposite ways, we seem to see a possibility of explaining positive and negative electricity. But the difficulties have proved very serious, and the nature of the electron is unknown. A recent view is that it is "a ring of negative electricity rotating about its axis at a high speed," though that does not carry us very far. The unit of positive electricity is even less known. We must be content to know the general lines on which thought is moving toward the final unification.
We say "unification," but it would be a grave error to think that ether is the only possible basis for such unity, or to make it an essential part of one's philosophy of the universe. Ether was never more than an imagined entity to which we ascribed the most extraordinary properties, and which seemed then to promise considerable aid. It was conceived as an elastic solid of very great density, stretching from end to end of the universe, transmitting waves from star to star at the rate of 186,000 miles a second; yet it was believed that the most solid matter passed through it as if it did not exist.
Some years ago a delicate experiment was tried for the purpose of detecting the ether. Since the earth, in travelling round the sun, must move through the ether if the ether exists, there ought to be a stream of ether flowing through every laboratory; just as the motion of a ship through a still atmosphere will make "a wind." In 1887 Michelson and Morley tried to detect this. Theoretically, a ray of light in the direction of the stream ought to travel at a different rate from a ray of light against the stream or across it. They found no difference, and scores of other experiments have failed. This does not prove that there is no ether, as there is reason to suppose that our instruments would appear to shrink in precisely the same proportion as the alteration of the light; but the fact remains that we have no proof of the existence of ether. J. H. Jeans says that "nature acts as if no such thing existed." Even the phenomena of light and magnetism, he says, do not imply ether; and he thinks that the hypothesis may be abandoned. The primary reason, of course, for giving up the notion of the ether is that, as Einstein has shown, there is no way of detecting its existence. If there is an ether, then, since the earth is moving through it, there should be some way of detecting this motion. The experiment has been tried, as we have said, but, although the method used was very sensitive, no motion was discovered. It is Einstein who, by revolutionising our conceptions of space and time, showed that no such motion ever could be discovered, whatever means were employed, and that the usual notion of the ether must be abandoned. We shall explain this theory more fully in a later section.