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History of Aether Theories

  1. May 21, 2005 #1
    Heya, I am writing a paper at the moment on aether theories from an historical perspective. I am mostly interested in the mathematical basis of aether theories starting from when Maxwell unified electric and magnetic fields.

    What I would like to know is if anybody has any idea where to start, or how to go about this topic. It seems like everybody (rightly) laughs in the face of aether theories, and forgets where they actually come from.

    Note: This paper is for an assignment in EM class (honours level) so it has to be pretty impressive!

    Opinions? Question? Comments? Insane laughter?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 21, 2005 #2


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  4. May 22, 2005 #3
    Thanking you for your contributions.

    I have read a copy of Whittaker, and also a book by Heilbron on 17th and 18th century electricity. I am wondering if there is anywhere other than these two books that deals with aether theories in a serious way.
  5. May 22, 2005 #4


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    Aether theories have a hard time getting published. Most journal editors consider them about as interesting as flat earth theories.
  6. May 22, 2005 #5
    This is sort of from a different view, with no 'new' theory being investigated. I guess I was just hoping to get more ideas of where to search.
  7. May 22, 2005 #6


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    Have you read Andrew Warwick's "Masters of theory"?
    It isn't as such a history of aether theory, but a study of the evolution of the education&culture in mathematical physics at Cambridge.

    The latter parts, however, dealing with Maxwell and later on, the Cambridge mathematicians' reception of relativity is, at least, relevant historical background material.
    Here's a review of it in "american scientist":
  8. May 22, 2005 #7


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    There was an old book called "Theories of Light, from Fermat to (who? can't recall)" . It was mostly a very careful treatment of Fermat's ideas of light and how he proved Snell's law of refraction. Of course the original "ether theory" was Huygen's, if you except the late Aritotelians' "propagation of species". It's important to recall that Newton criticised Hygen's theory, which he conceived to be based on longitudinal vibrations, as being unable to acount for the double refraction from crystals of Iceland Spar. This is the same argument, modulo only the decimal places of accuracy, that is made today to assert the masslessness of the photon.

    Euler was also an etherist, although almost all other thinkers of the eighteenth century were corpusculists, following (as they thought) Newton. Newton himself notoriously thought that light was carried by corpuscles which "had fits" af wave behavior. Some enthusiasts have interpreted this as showing he had a wave-particle duality in mind. That's over the top, but he really was more subtle than most of the thinkers of that time.
  9. May 22, 2005 #8

    Doc Al

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    Is that "Theories of Light: From Descartes to Newton" by Sabra?
  10. May 22, 2005 #9
    Thanks, I'll have a look at that one... we actually have it in our library...
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