Sunday, July 29, 2007

Steampunk Science: The Luminiferous Ether

Device used to measure Ether

In the 19th century, light was shown to be a form of wave, like sound or mechanical vibration. But fi there was a wave, physicists reasoned, something had to be waving. For sound, it was air. For mechanical vibrations, it might be any solid material. What was it for light? Light could travel between planets and even between stars, where no matter could be detected, not even air. This led physicists to believe it was carried by some peculiarly tenuous form of matter, so thing that solid planets could pass right through it unhindered. They named this substance the luminiferous ether ("luminiferous" means "carrying light").

USS Eagle cruising the Northwest Territories (ok - I needed another airship photo, and couldn't resist the Space 1889 photo... (lol)!)

Michael Faraday’s experiments and James Clerk Maxwell’s theories showed that electric and magnetic fields could interact to produce a wave. Its speed could be calculated and turned out to be the same as the speed of light. Maxwell modeled electric and magnetic fields as strains in the ether. Heinrich Hertz’z spark gap transmitter seemed to prove that Maxwell was right. Albert Michaelson and Edward Morley’s 1887 experiment cast doubt on the ether’s existence, but scientists only fully rejected it with the advent of the relativity and quantum mechanics in the 20th century. But what if the ether was real? A universe where light and radio were carried by the ether would have some interesting difference from ours.

Stoddard, W.H. (2000) - Gurps Steampunk, pg. 95, SJG:Austin
[edited for removal of game specific content]


Anna said...

John Worrel Keely was the leading ether scientist of the day...please write something about him also.

Dr. Rafael Fabre said...

Dear Miss Anna - Excellent lead, and I shall do so... my thanks for the lead, madam.