What is The Aether?

First of all I’m going to come clean and say that the picture at the top of this page has nothing to do with the aether. It’s a picture of the Aurora Borealis, but I can’t show a picture of aether because it isn’t something you can see even if it was real.

The term Aether comes from the ancient Greeks and referred to an air-like substance that acted like air in the realm of the gods. However when people mention Aether in Cog’s world, they are talking about a mysterious substance that fills the entire universe and everything moves through.

In Cog’s world, exotic devices can tap into the motion of the aether to produce power, detect fluctuations, and create strange effects. None of this is true in the real world, but the concept of a mysterious aether filling the universe does come from real history.

Aether and Science

Issac Newton
Issac Newton

The concept of the aether in science can be a little hard to nail down, but it really came into its own with the theories of a great scientist named Isaac Newton around the end of the 1600s. As you may already know, Isaac Newton came up with a set of rules that explained the physics of how objects moved and about how gravity affects things. The rules worked very well, but left some mysteries. One of biggest was how gravity actually worked. Why do things fall to the earth when nothing is pushing them?

To answer this, Newton and others came up with the concept of a substance through with all objects travel called the aether. It gets kinda complex, but the basic idea is the objects cause the aether to flow toward them in proportion to their mass and objects floating in the aether are thus drawn to massive objects like a floating log in a moving river.  While Newton himself moved away from this model later on, the idea of an aether filling the universe stuck around.

The idea of the aether became especially important as scientists in the 1700s and 1800s explored the motion of light. When the concept of light being a wave came about in the 1800s, scientists naturally assumed that there must be some substance that the light traveled through in order to move as a wave. They knew that sound waves move through air or water and when there isn’t anything for sound wave to travel through such as in a vacuum, then the sound stops. That’s why there’s no sound in space. Since light did travel through space or a vacuum, then they figured there must be some substance everywhere that let light waves travel.

It all seemed logical enough, but there was a problem when scientists created experiments to detect the aether in the late 1800s. A very famous one called the Michelson–Morley experiment attempted to detect the aether by essentially measuring the speed of light in perpendicular directions. If the earth was moving through the aether of space, then the speed of a beam of light would have to be a little different in the two different directions.  However they found that the speed of light didn’t change. Other similar experiments confirmed the results of the Michelson-Morley experiments. For awhile these results left scientists a bit stumped.

Albert Einstein

Then Albert Einstein came into the picture. He introduced his theory of special relativity in 1905 and it described the result of these experiments perfectly by stating that the speed of light is a constant, and eliminating any need for an aether. To this day,  Einstein’s theory of special relativity describes the motion of objects at any speed exactly as we observe. Newton’s laws are still very useful since they are plenty accurate enough in everyday situations, but they aren’t universally correct.

Similarly, Einstein’s theory of general relativity explains gravity in a way that eliminates the need for an aether. Like with Newton’s laws of motion, Newton’s laws of gravity are still useful in most situations but aren’t always completely accurate. To get gravity right in all observed cases, you have to use Einstein’s more complex theories.

The Aether in Today’s World

While the need of an aether filling all of space was negated by Einstein’s theories, the idea of something filling space that we can’t see or feel isn’t entirely gone. There is some force pushing galaxies away from each other that scientists call Dark Energy. Nobody knows what it is, but some of the ideas sound similar to the idea of the aether. So while I’ve called the aether something that isn’t real because there’s no current evidence for it, there’s a lot, a whole lot, we don’t know about the Universe. Maybe one day we’ll find out there really is something to this whole aether thing after all. There are a lot of discoveries out there to be made still.