Science and Politics of the Aether

Updated 11/12/09


19th century physicists had always assumed that waves need a medium to propagate in; water waves move in water; sound waves move in air. The discovery of light waves resulted in a postulated medium, the aether, in space to allow light transmission.  Most college physics students know of  Albert Michaelson and Edward Morley’s famous interferometer experiment to try to detect this medium.


As Richard Milton notes, every high school physics student has taken down the same notes for more than a century describing the results of that experiment: If the aether exists there should be a minute – but measurable – drag effect on a beam of light that will delay it and show up as ‘interference fringes’ in the interferometer.  The experiment shows a 'null result' -- no matter how the interferometer is orientated with respect to the earth's movement, there is no measurable aether drag.  Milton has pointed out that  the Michaelson Morley experiment did not find a null, but rather found a small positive result. He notes that Dayton C. Miller also found a small positive result. Miller was himself a renown physicist, being a graduate from Princeton University, President of the American Physical Society and Acoustical Society of America, Chairman of the Division of Physical Sciences of the National Research Council, Chairman of the Physics Department of Case School of Applied Science (today Case Western Reserve University), and a Member of the National Academy of Sciences. [1]


The experiments of Michelson, Morley and of Dayton Miller have been repeated and analyzed in modern times by French engineer Maurice Allais,  awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Science in 1988,  and he is largely responsible for bringing  Miller's discoveries to a modern audience.[2]


The National Adcademy of Sciences Biographical Memoir of Dayton Clarence Miller states: "The famous Michelson-morley experiment which was designed to measure the velocity of the earth through ether and which laid the experimental foundation for the theory of relativity was performed in 1887 at Case School. The Millers and the Morleys became warm 1900 they went to Paris to attend the international Science Congress, at which time they met the famous Lord Kelvin. He urged them to repeat the ether-drift experiment, so immediately on their return a series of measurements was started which lasted for several years. A small positive effect was obtained which Miller always insisted was real. The development of the theory or relativity revived and increased the importance of the question, and Miller's conscientiousness made him decide that a repetition of the experiment with improvements was called for. This he did, carrying out much of the work at the observatory on Mount Wilson. Such was his industry that he personally made more than 100,000 readings and obtained a small but definite positive result which in his mind vitiated the postulate of the theory of relativity. "  [3]


Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was gaining in vogue, and the status of Miller’s successor as the Physics Department Chair soared after [4] attacking Miller’s work,  after his death,  as worthless.  This was done not as the result of a critical review and re-analysis, but as a “trawl” through the data looking for possible errors. Dr. James De Meo noted: “'This kind of chronic misrepresentation of the slight positive results of many interferometer experimenters, including Michelson-Morley, Morley-Miller, Sagnac, Michelson-Gale, and Michelson-Pease-Pearson, suggests an extreme bias and deliberate misrepresentation.”[5]


On the other hand, some modern analysis appears to have shown that both the Michaelson Morley, as well as the Miller studies, were in error, primarily because neither of the studies analyzed the variation in systematic error, which in modern reconstruction made all there results statistically insignificant. Miller in particular was apparently unknowingly looking at insignificant patterns in the systematic error that mimicked the appearance of a real signal. [6]

As far as orthodox science is concerned today, special and general relativity have held their ground and are universally accepted. Physicists ask: if light is propagated as a wave in the aether, how does quantization of light and absorption spectra occur? On this basis,  the aether  appears to be dead and buried. [7]

Interestingly however, Glenn Starkman, ironically from Case Western,  and colleagues Tom Zlosnik and Pedro Ferreira of the University of Oxford are now resurrecting the aether concept in a new form in an attempt to solve the puzzle of dark matter, the mysterious substance that was proposed to explain why galaxies seem to contain much more mass than can be accounted for by visible matter. They posit an ether that is a field, rather than a substance, and which pervades space-time. "If you removed everything else in the universe, the ether would still be there," says Zlosnik.[8]

This ether field   is something that boosts the gravitational pull of stars and galaxies, making them seem heavier, says Starkman. It does this by increasing the flexibility of space-time itself. 
"Interestingly, this controversial aspect should make it easy to test for experimentally," according to New Scientist magazine: Sending sensitive clocks into space may be all that's needed to test for the ether's existence. [9]


[1] Richard Milton: Michelson-Morley & the Story of the Aether Theory


[3] p. 63



[6] Special Relativity, the Lumeniferous Aether, and Experiments 4/27/2006



[8] Ether returns in a bid to oust Dark matter :


[9] Tick-tock test : New Scientist magazine, 25 August 2006, page 8-9