Thursday, April 14, 2011

Luminiferous Aether

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 Europe (Google Books, or at Archive.org). Frank Borchardt is another scholar to look into, especially his The Magus as Renaissance Man. The concept of Aether arises from a Renaissance mind-set. It is not just some dry theory or mathematical scheme--it is very much an intuitive recognition of something that has suffered terribly for being poorly explained in terms never meant to accommodate it. It has more to do with art than with science as science is now practiced. It isn't necessarily a rational theory, and in science that is a terrible, treasonous crime. Now.

But back in the Renaissance the investigation of such things as the Luminiferous Aether wouldn't raise very many eyebrows. And that is far more interesting than even the theory itself, the several competing theories concerning Aether, really.

Imagine what would have happened if a magnificent breakthrough took place a few hundred years earlier than what we've been stuck with--that Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity didn't get dropped on people's heads in 1905, but instead came about through the mathematical musings of someone like Trithemius in the late 1400's or early 1500's. It would have arisen amidst Alchemy and Opticks, magic squares and ciphers--and Aether--as well as a collective mindset that wouldn't balk at talk of angels and demons and magic. Where would that lead? Would we achieve the same level of mechanistic materialism as Newton ushered in, or would we have seen the development of a far more organic, aether-infused science-as-magic?
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 times15  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
Here are the relevant footnotes to the above quote:
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.
It's not often that you find footnotes to be as loaded with good-stuff as in that essay by Borchardt. It's a great essay. Well worth reading if this sort of thing is at all of any interest to you. It could lead to all manner of new thoughts, fresh ideas and imaginative innovations, especially amongst the grognards. We have yet to fully plumb the depths nor fully mine the rich vein of Medieval, let alone Renaissance history that Gygax, Arneson and their cohorts opened up to us with a simple set of three little booklets back in the Seventies.

A society filled with people like Agrippa, Ficino, Bruno, and their contemporaries, equipped with the mathematical proofs and the elegant solutions of the Special Theory of Relativity might not turn their backs on the Luminiferous Aether. Einstein himself proposed his own Aether Theory. Of course talk of Einstein's Aether Theory tends to get drowned out under a lot of babble about Vector Fields and other such 'more scientific terms' that describe the same phenomena, only in a more palatable (i.e. less understandable) manner. But what if the Aether research had begun in the 1500s under the guidance of someone like Trithemius' prize pupil Agrippa? Where would it have gotten to then? Keep in mind that Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy were spread all over Europe in manuscript form and then as a bound and printed book in the closest equivalent to a best-seller you're going to see come out of that era. Agrippa was a hot author. His book sold handsomely. People read it.

Now imagine if it detailed the workings of Special Relativity and mapped out the dynamics of Luminiferous Aether.

What a wonderful world that might have been. What a world it will be...


  1. Borchadt's article is a really great resource as a kind of resume of scholarship into medieval/early modern magic from the 50's through the 90's. His foot-notes are, in fact, incredibly useful (I know, becuase I used to use them all the time when I was a historian. Thorndike's opus, History of Magic is maybe the only more useful thing I can think of). Some of his analysis is less useful - there wasn't really any wide-spread, "Prospero-moment" for most magicians. He also fails to take into account what actual magicians - the clerical necromancers - were doing in the middle ages.

    But that's just the old, snarky academic in me talking. :)

  2. @Matthew: You're on the money about the "Prospero-moment" being more of a hobby-horse or modern myth than anything provable or factual--but it would be a cool thing to work with within a fictional setting or game. The analysis isn't nearly so much fun, nor as useful as all the wonderful sources, resources, and documents or incidents that he provides. Mining that stuff is a lot of fun.

    The clerical necromancers have been getting a bit more scrutiny by books that have come out since History of Magic, but it's an area that still needs a bit of illumination and examination.

    It is kind of surreal that the footnotes in Borchardt's essay read better than many other whole essays or books. Awesome stuff.

  3. In my misbegotten youth as a grad student, my dissertation director was Richard Kieckhefer, so I am, a bit biased on the whole thing. :)

  4. Fascinating article. You did a great job drawing together a variety of strands.

    People's beliefs are usually alot more complex than any snapshot of their work will show you.

  5. @Matthew: Kieckhefer is an impressive scholar in his own right. You are lucky to have worked with him. What was your dissertation on/about?

  6. @seaofstars: Thanks! We had a lot of fun doing this one. It leads into Gnosiomandus' world, and it's a subject that we've been wanting to do more with for a while now.

    You're right, a person's beliefs are often much, much more complex than the work they produce or tend to get judged by. We like to use the work of historical figures as a fertile matrix from which to grow a fictional proponent of those ideas, someone who really believes this stuff and invest whole-heartedly into it. That takes things into some interesting directions.

    Trithemius is a fascinating historical personality, but it was his student Agrippa who went on to make major waves. If there was another student, or small group of students who were every bit as enthusiastic as Agrippa, and possibly a bit wiser or luckier...that could easily have shifted the course of progress by quite a bit. Depending on what they were after, what they wanted to do, and how they made their discoveries known.

    It's like another sort of sandbox, only you get to manipulate history, beliefs and technologies instead of terrain, rivers and weather. That comes later.


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