An Essay on the Void and the Ether


Since the dawn of human intelligence mankind has pondered the stars at night, floating high above in a vast sea of darkness. And he has wondered about the darkness. Moses wrote in the Book of Genesis, 2.  And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

People of science, with names like Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein, have continued through the years to wonder about the darkness. Early on it was thought that it could not be nothing. However, as the novitiate Maria sang in “The Sound of Music”: “Nothing comes from Nothing; Nothing ever could.”

Isaac Newton pondered how the gravitational field of one object could affect another with nothing separating them. James Maxwell believed that “empty space” must actually consist of an invisible “ether” which could transmit electric and magnetic forces and waves. The underlying Maxwellian concept seems to be that the void is composed of equal-density distributions of positive and negative electric charge. We can sense such charge only (a) when the charge densities do not sum to zero, or (b) in radiation.

For example, some agent (Maxwell never says what or who) might have displaced small regions of the positive and negative charges into isolated regions of excess positive and negative “displacement” charge, setting up lines of stress in the all-encompassing  ether in the process. Such stresses are known as electric field lines, and by convention they point from the excess positive charge to the excess negative charge. Every time Maxwell’s unidentified agent separates the ether into charged “particles” of opposite sign, the net displaced charge is zero … a result known as the conservation of charge. For every positive quantum of charge in the Universe, there is a negative one.

Combined with magnetic field lines, the electric field lines can also take the form of self-sustaining, transverse waves whose speed through the void Maxwell recognized as the propagation speed of light. It was an enormous leap forward in human understanding, and ushered in the modern world of all things electric.

Now in addition to charged entities, we can also sense uncharged ones (or ones whose net charge is zero). Such entities are often said to be comprised of neutral mass. Before Maxwell, and certainly since Maxwell, men have pondered the attraction of such uncharged bodies toward one another. Newton’s Law of gravitation and Coulomb’s law of electrical interaction are both inverse square laws. A key difference is that like-signed charges repel and opposite-signed charges attract, whereas there is only one sign (positive) of mass in the world as we know it. And two positive masses always attract one another. If there was ever anything such as a negative-sign mass, it would presumably have long since been repulsed to immeasurable distances from the positive, and we would never detect it in the world as we know it.

In order for two masses to attract one another, the gravitational field vectors must be configured like the electric field vectors between two oppositely signed electric charges. In the case of electric charges the energy in the electric field between two like-signed charges (a) Increases as the two are moved closer to one another, and (b) decreases as the two charges are moved further away from one another. The field energies rather elegantly equal the work expended to cause or control the change in separation. The energy in the electrostatic field, proportional to the square of the field, provides a record of the charges’ past movement.

In the case of spatially discrete masses, positive work must be done to make two masses move further apart from one another. But if the field energy is assumed to be proportional to the square of the gravitational field vector, this does not result in more energy in the field! The conventional gravitational field cannot serve as a record of past source movements.

Gravitomagnetic theory has proposed the following solution to this difficulty. Gravitational mass and its associated field are mathematically imaginary. And the gravitational field vector does not point toward its source mass. Rather, as in the case of positive charge, it points away from the mass. The Real force of one mass in the field of another is the product of two imaginary quantities, and the product of two imaginary quantities is negative; the force is attractive.

In general, gravitomagnetic theory states that the equivalent field vector for electromagnetism’s B field is the analogous (but imaginary) gravitomagnetic field vector (symbolized as O). And the theory includes analogues to such electromagnetic vectors as the Poynting vector (and in general the Lorentz force law). Maxwellian equations can be mapped into gravitomagnetic equivalents by substituting the constant G for 1/4peo, m for q, g for E, and  O for B. Among other things gravitomagnetic theory indicates the existence of grav-gravitomagnetic waves.

In gravitomagnetic theory Maxwell’s “ether sea” is overlaid on a sea of mass. As in the case of Maxwell’s positive and negative charge, we can experience this mass only when one portion has been displaced from another. But since positive masses attract (rather than repel) one another, displaced positive and negative masses (if two signs of mass indeed exist) have long separated into “sister universes”, separated for all practical purposes by an infinite expanse of void containing no regions (or particles) of displaced mass.

In Maxwellian theory a displaced charge can have inertia. If the charge is accelerated, a component of self-induced E is engendered right at the charge by the charge’s time-varying B field. In the case of a positive charge this causes the self-induced E field to point opposite to the acceleration. Consequently the charge experiences a component of self-induced electric force opposing the acceleration. (In the case of a negative charge the self-induced field points in the same direction as the acceleration, and the charge again experiences a force opposed to the acceleration.) As a consequence of these self-induced forces, it is sometimes said that electric charge has inertial mass. However it should  be borne in mind that all charged, sub-light speed particles also have gravitational mass. An intriguing, experimentally observed result is that the inertial mass and gravitational mass of such particles are always equal … a result stated in the Equivalence Principle.

What is true for charge is also true for mass. When a mass is accelerated, a self-induced component of g is induced right at the mass. This again causes a real self-induced inertial force to occur. However, both the mass and self-induced g vector are imaginary, and the “inertial” force points in the same direction as the acceleration! At first glance this counter-intuitive result might seem to indicate a fundamental flaw in gravitomagnetic theory. However, it is now believed that many sub-light speed particles, like neutrons and protons, are actually comprised of charged quarks. Consequently the inertia of such particles is, in the final analysis, an electric charge effect.

There appears to be no such thing as a displacement of pure charge. Such displacements are always accompanied by a displacement of mass in the void medium of overlaid distributions of charge and mass. Hence every charged particle has a gravitational field and includes some displaced mass. But the converse is not necessarily true. Photons and neutrinos have no charge but do have mass (or momentum). Since these particles always move at or very nearly equal to the speed of light, they are said to have zero or practically zero rest mass.

After the introduction of Maxwell’s “ether” an excellent question arose: “Is there one unique frame of reference in which the ether … the seas of charge (and mass) … are at rest? To Michelson and Morley, and Trouton and Noble, it seemed that such must be the case. And they did experiments to determine Earth’s motion relative to such a frame. However, modeling moving “atoms” indicates a foreshortening of their width in the direction of motion, and a dilation of their electrons’ orbital periods. As a consequence the Lorentz transformations of space and time indicate that motion relative to a hypothetical ether rest frame cannot be detected by optical effects. In virtually every inertial frame light will be measured to propagate in all directions with the one speed, c!

Transformations of Newton 2 (F=d(mv)/dt, where m(v)=mo/(1-v2/c2)1/2) similarly show why dynamic experiments like Trouton-Noble make it impossible to determine the apparatus’ motion relative to the ether by frame-varying dynamic effects. Poincare reportedly averred that the Lorentz transformations of space, time, charge, force, etc. are accordingly laws of nature. In present times such experimental results have led many physicists to abandon the concept of ether altogether, and to think of material entities as existing in a void of nothing.

The concept of Dark Matter may rekindle the Maxwellian and gravitomagnetic paradigms that “empty” space is actually filled with undetectable seas of mass and charge. Time will tell.