Modern electromagnetism

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All these theories lead to the conception of a medium…, and if we admit this medium as an hypothesis, I think it ought to occupy a prominent place in our investigations, and that we ought to endeavor to construct a mental representation of all the details of its actions, and this has been my constant aim in this treatise. Some later Maxwellians continued this trend toward abstraction, but most — including Lodge, Thomson, and Fitzgerald — continued to romance the ether.

It may surprise some latter-day etherists, who tend to regard Maxwellians like Fitzgerald as paragons of good down-to-earth common sense, that Fitzgerald was actually an idealist who espoused the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley our perceptions are the only reality. According to Fitzgerald.

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And what is the inner aspect of motion? In the only place where we can hope to answer this question — in our brains — thought is the internal aspect of motion. Is it not reasonable then to hold, with the great and good Bishop Berkeley, that thought underlies all motion? This hypothesis [the vortex sponge ether] explains the differences in Nature as differences of motion.

If it be true, ether, matter, gold, air, wood, brains, are but different motions. Where alone we can know what motion in itself is — that is, in our own brains — we know nothing but thought. Can we resist the conclusion that all motion is thought? That all Nature is the language of One in whom we live, and move, and have our being. Clearly Fitzgerald had invested his vortex sponge with a significance that transcended mere mechanistic explanation. It hardly seems an exaggeration to say that he regarded it as comprising the thoughts of God.


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I have a sort of feeling in my bones that it must be so. I suppose I am a bit of a crank upon it.

Meanwhile, genuine progress in electrodynamics was being made by investigating the actual primitive phenomena, and attempts to represent those phenomena in terms of the higher level entities of mechanics came to be seen as misguided, since it became clear that mechanical entities are based on primitive electrodynamic interactions, so it would be senseless to expect that primitive electrodynamic interactions are attributable to mechanical entities. The parallel fortunes of spiritualism and the luminiferous ether continued until the close of the 19th century, as both of them lost popularity. Her confession is fascinating, explaining how she and her little sister Kate began by making strange noises at bedtime to frighten their mother.

By the spiritualism craze was definitely waning, and Einstein wrote his famous paper on the electrodynamics of moving bodies, arguing that even the highly abstract ether of Lorentz was superfluous for the description of phenomena. Subsequently, in the aftermath of the first world war, there was a re-emergence of spiritualism, sometimes attributed to the grief over loved ones lost in the war, and the yearning to communicate with them. As mentioned above, Sir Oliver Lodge lost his son Raymond in the war, and devoted much time and effort afterwards to trying to communicate with him.

When Lodge himself died in he left behind a sealed message, and instructions for researchers to try to get his spirit to reveal the message; the experiment was not successful.


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Oddly enough, the ether of scientific field theories also re-emerged during the first world war. Einstein later acknowledged to Lorentz that the general theory of relativity completed in , the same year Raymond Lodge was killed is actually more congenial to an ether interpretation than is the special theory of This is because spacetime in the general theory is endowed with properties e.

In the magician Houdini began a campaign to debunk the new spiritualism.

Nevertheless, such was the fascination of spiritualism, that Houdini and his wife made an agreement that whichever of them died first would try to communicate with the survivor. His wife survived him by 17 years, but near the end of her life in she reported that the experiment had failed.

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The concept of an ether in the physical sciences remains problematic and ambiguous. The original debate was between those like Democritus and Newton who believed in atoms moving in an empty void, and those like Aristotle and Descartes who denied the void and believed that substance and extent are identical. On the other hand, quantum mechanics first formulated in the s describes phenomena in the context of a pre-existing space and time, rather than treating spacetime as a dynamical element, so in this sense quantum mechanics follows Democritus.

But quantum mechanics also lends itself to various forms of neo-spiritualism based on the phenomena of quantum entanglement and particle pair production. Modern efforts to reconcile general relativity with quantum field theory may be partly motivated by the old yearning to apprehend the underlying structure and substance of existence and spirit. His interest in psychical phenomena is less well known, but his obituary in reported on an address he had given to the Society for Psychical Research, in which By Masoud Movahhedi and Rasool Keshavarz.

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General Physics: Electromagnetism, Optics, and Modern Physics | Penn Summer

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Great Minds: James Clerk Maxwell, Electromagnetic Hero

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