ether (in physics and astronomy)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

ether (in physics and astronomy)

ether or aether, in physics and astronomy, a hypothetical medium for transmitting light and heat (radiation), filling all unoccupied space; it is also called luminiferous ether. In Newtonian physics all waves are propagated through a medium, e.g., water waves through water, sound waves through air. When James Clerk Maxwell developed his electromagnetic theory of light, Newtonian physicists postulated ether as the medium that transmitted electromagnetic waves. Ether was held to be invisible, without odor, and of such a nature that it did not interfere with the motions of bodies through space. The concept was intended to connect the Newtonian mechanistic wave theory with Maxwell's field theory. However, all attempts to demonstrate its existence, most notably the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887, produced negative results and stimulated a vigorous debate among physicists that was not ended until the special theory of relativity, proposed by Albert Einstein in 1905, became accepted. The theory of relativity eliminated the need for a light-transmitting medium, so that today the term ether is used only in a historical context.

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