Fine Print: No cephalopods were harmed in the making of this post.
Luminiferous Aether, or Light-Bearing Aether was knocked together as a scientific theory in the 1800s. There is a handy Timeline for Luminiferous Aether that tracks its development and subsequent crash as it ran into the unyielding brick wall of reality, much like a besotted pop star strung out on drugs and booze smashes their car into a perfectly stationary building, only this time imagine it as a scientific theory, not some tarted-up bimbo in a Volvo on ludes and too much Chianti. Oh the humanity of it all.
Not a pretty sight is it?
Neither is what has happened to a once gloriously shiny new scientific theory that has now gone totally to crackpot-alley, at least as far as mainstream science and the rest of the world are concerned. You probably wrote it off too. Admit it. You thought this whole Aether-business was over by now, it's like so 1882 all over again. Right?
Look. Here's the deal. Aether is one of those things that just make a lot of sense intuitively. Fish swim in water, we move around in air, and light should propagate through some sort of material or medium that isn't just a sterile, empty vacuum. That's the cuddly and soft version, anyhow. The notion that we're jostling and gyrating about within a very, very thin layer of all too tenuous gasses that are bleeding off into this yawning, cosmic empty blackness--well that's just too darn Lovecraftian, now isn't it? You know it is. Wipe the smirk off of your face. There aren't any tentacles involved with the Luminiferous Aether. At least not many. Not right away.
You can go back to Newton's Opticks (1704), or blame Boyle before him, but really that isn't fair to all the cranky old farts who were messing about with optics all through the so-called Dark Ages. Trithemius and Agrippa were also interested in optics amongst their many other pursuits, as were most scholars of the age. The properties of light fascinated and captivated a lot of people long before Newton came along and wrote the definitive work that has become the accepted canonical and legitimate 'way that it is.'
People like Henry Cornelius Agrippa tend to get overlooked and dropped from such conversations because they were engaged in cryptography, theology, fencing, astrology, philosophy, languages, ciphers, codes, time, physics, feminism? Nope. Agrippa is shoved aside because he investigated and practiced a Christianized form of Cabala, Natural and Practical Magic. Magic=cooties to most established scientists, despite a serious number of them being involved in the stuff themselves. It's Newton who gets the glory and Newton who we conveniently forget was an avid practitioner of Alchemy himself.
But it's not Newton that is the problem. It's the shift away from the Renaissance ideal of being engaged and curious and a student of the world. Science was once something that encompassed myriads of things that it no longer tries to explain, only ignore or drive away. Once, it was not only acceptable to investigate the possibilities that might be found within Alchemy, Astrology, or attempting to hold conversations with wife-swapping angels who spell out their responses backwards with a golden wand as seen within a lump of obsidian brought from the New World. Oh. Yeah. That's John Dee. He's getting impatient. We'll get to him soon enough.
Lynne Thorndike gets into this, to some extent, in the very interesting The Place of Magic in the Intellectual History of
Here are the relevant footnotes to the above quote:
In the Renaissance, the “new” meant the “old,” the very old, uncontaminated by intervening commentators, pedants, and vulgarians of various sorts. And, in truth, writings of considerable age, a few even of some antiquity, were being made newly available, ultimately from Greek (Hermes), Hebrew (Cabala), and Arabic (Picatrix). Such works actually did have a medieval tradition - the latter two were of medieval origin - and had variously reached the Latin West long before early modern times. 15 They were perceived as ancient on the one hand, and as despised and suppressed by the Middle Ages on the other, so that they especially attracted those who regarded themselves as innovators or discoverers of that which was ancient and wonderful and had been forgotten in the deplorable meantime. This sense of discovery united all Renaissance intellectuals, magicians or not, regardless of their native country and the manner in which they approached the “new” knowledge, whether as a purely intellectual, psychological exercise or with the hope of some practical application. 16
Frank L. Borchardt, The Magus as Renaissance Man
15. On medieval hermeticism, see Thorndike, 2: 214-28: Konrad Burdach, Vom Mittelalter zur Reformation 3, no. 1 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1917), 293-94; 325-27; On cabalistic penetration into practical magic well before learned adoption of the tradition, see Johann Hartliebs Buch aller verbotenen Kunst [1456}, Dora Ulm, ed. (Halle: Niemeyer, 1914), 16, 18-19, compare intro. pp. XLVII, LI-LIV; on the Picatrix, also 24 and intro. pp. LIV-LVI, and especially “Picatrix” Das Ziel der Weisen von Pseudo-Magriti, trans. Helmut Ritter and Martin Plessner, Studies of the Warburg Institute 27 (London: Warburg Institute, 1962), xx-xxii.
16. I borrow the distinction from the English generation of the Warburg school: D. P Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Canmpanella, Studies of the Warburg Institute 22 (London: Warburg Institute, 1958), 75-81: Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 104, where Italian contemplative magic is distinguished from “crudely operative” German magic.