Rationale ( Workshop)

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In 1951, the physicist Paul A.M. Dirac called for the re-introduction of an ether in an oft-quoted letter to Nature. It was an attempt to resuscitate an epistemic object that most scientists at the time, as much as today, thought to be dead and buried. The historical problem with the death of the ether is that it has never been explained. For decades, the received view of the falsification of the ether was the same story that Einstein himself had elaborated in his pedagogical explanations of special relativity. That narrative relied on the negative results of Michelson and Morley's experiments in the 1880s in their quest to determine the absolute speed of the earth in the ether. Certainly, that story, while still popular among physicists, teachers and science popularizers, has long been problematiczed by historians of science. Neither was the Michelson Morley experiment a turning point in experimental or theoretical physics, nor was the ether abandoned by the beginning of the twentieth century, not even by Einstein himself.

The historiography of the ether is a complex one. The classical starting point for historians of science, beyond Edmund T. Whittaker's 1910 A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity and his very problematic and largely criticised second volume of 1953, is the collective work edited by Geoffrey Cantor and Jonathan Hodge in 1981, Conceptions of Ether. That volume contributed to the understanding of the complexities of the ether as not just one but a myriad of concepts changing through time and place. But its structure only stressed the received view that the ether was a relic of history at the beginning of the twentieth century, assuming a largely unproblematic abandonment of the elusive entity with the emergence of the new physics, thus stressing that belief in the ether had to be located in classical physics.

One of the main goals of this workshop is to challenge the long-held association between ether and old or classical physics. As many of the guest speakers will show, the ether was not necessarily regarded as the residue of old-fashioned science, but often as one of the objects of modernity, hand in hand with the electron, radioactivity or X-rays. Instrumental was the emergence of wireless technologies and radio broadcasting, certainly a very modern technology, which brought the ether into social audiences that would otherwise have never heard about such an esoteric entity. Popularized by prestigious scientists like Oliver Lodge and Arthur Eddington, the ether became common currency among the general educated public. Modernism in the arts was also fond of the ether in the early twentieth century: as Gillian Beer showed years ago, the values of modernism found in the complexities and contradictions of modern physics a fertile ground for the development of new artistic languages; in literature as much as in the pictorial and performing arts.

Certainly, the question of what was meant by "ether" (or "aether") in the early twentieth century at the scientific and cultural levels is also central to this workshop. Participants will display a complex array of meanings that will help elucidate the uses of the ether before its purported abandonment (or even as reasons for the demise of the ether). Rather than thinking of the ether as simply a name that remained popular among several publics, we are interested in the complexities of an epistemic object that saw, in the early twentieth century, the last episode in the long tradition of stretching its meaning and uses. Actually, the multiplicity of meanings of the ether was not new in the history of science and philosophy; but the fact that this was the last instance in which this elasticity finally broke may be relevant to explain the ulterior demise and failure in the attempts, like that of Dirac, to resuscitate it. Finally, we want to pay attention to some recent attempts to bring some kind of ether back into physics and the extent and reasons for this new wave of ether-defenders.