The Aether and Quantun Physics

Natural philosophers in ancient Greece, India, and China all assumed the existence of an aether. The Indians called it Akasha (primary substance), the Chinese spoke of Chi (a medium pervading the universe). They had different conceptions of the aether but all pointed at a similar invisible phenomenon.

The Greeks believed the aether was a substance that filled the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere. Descartes claimed that all forces are transmitted by direct contact and that aether was the “medium” that enabled two forces, pressure and impact, to be transmitted between bodies.

Like Descartes, Newton assumed that forces between bodies not touching each other (like two magnets or the Moon’s effect on the tides of the oceans) must have direct contact through an intermediate, contiguous “matter” like an aether.

Maxwell brought together electricity, magnetism, and light as different manifestations of the same phenomenon, enabling physicists to identify protons, electrons, and neutrons as the building blocks of all existence.

Niels Bohr famously said: “Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.” The distinction between real and unreal fades. Tangible things like wood and water are made up of particles, as are intangible and invisible phenomena like radio waves that can permeate tangible things. Put your hand in front of the remote and the TV will still change the channel.

In 2013, scientists made an image of the inside of an atom. They used a beam of atomic hydrogen and zapped it with two separate lasers that excited the atoms’ electrons. An applied electric field then pushed the excited electrons towards a detector, resulting in an image of a circular blur.

In Vedantic thought, strip everything bare, and what remains is Akasha, a kind of substratum of the electromagnetic spectrum. Making an image of an atom could simply be causing ripples in the aether, like tossing a stone in the water causes ripples on the surface.

A scientific experiment in 1887 failed to detect the aether and when General Relativity could explain away the need for an aether, physicists declared it a remnant of the prescientific age.

Ironically, Bohr, Schrodinger, and other quantum physics pioneers were captivated by Chinese and Vedantic cosmology, two non-scientific worldviews in which the aether plays a key role.

Einstein also refused to give up on the aether. He said that GR does not require an aether, but it does not preclude its existence. Nikolas Tesla was more emphatic. “All perceptible matter comes from a primary substance, or tenuity beyond conception, filling all space, the akasha or luminiferous aether.”

Author of When India Eclipses China Futurist Lawrence H. Taub on the Unexpected 21st Century