I’ve read many a science book which implies that the scientific beliefs of the Ancients were quaint and childlike, and that we smarties of today are very much superior to those backward-thinking knuckle-heads– so cute in their attempts to understand the Cosmos. But I think is a misreading, just as if we tried to apply our modern-day morality to the world that existed even a hundred and fifty years ago. And I think dismissing these old theories without a serious attempt at a deep analysis and understanding and a fundamental refutation– will only stunt the expansion of our knowledge and intellectual powers.
So this post, I’d like to re-visit a few of those ancient scientific conjectures, and offer a little sympathetic spin. I’ll be continuing to use Concepts As Ether, edited by G.N. Cantor and M.J.S. Hodge, as my source material.
My main point of re-connection with the Ancients here will be the concept of Ether. Ether only fell out of favor with mainstream scientists at about the time Relativity hit the scene– and if Relativity is ever shown to be wrong (I can’t wait til I’m prepared to write THAT post!)– then we may very well re-introduce Ether theories into theoretical physics. What I’m saying is: Ether theories are serious, rational, and not illegitimate, and the educated man or woman should not scoff at them or dismiss them out of hand. Thousands of years ago Democritus and Lucretius tried to convince the world that Matter is made-up of atoms– and they NEVER garnered the majority opinion until just about a hundred years ago. Today’s laughingstock is sometimes tomorrow’s genius.
Anaxagoras conjectured that Matter is infinitely divisible and contained the seeds of all things at base. How ridiculous! Right? Not so fast– our modern-day atom-pulverizers are commonly breaking apart matter into ever-smaller bits– with the only limiting factor as to how small we go being the technology. And… do not the current mainstream theories maintain that all Matter is comprised of these very same tiny particles they are slamming into each other?
So basically: modern scientists find they can keep dividing matter into smaller and smaller particles and these particles can form any and every particle in the Universe… Uh, how exactly was Anaxagoras wrong?
Empedocles claimed that Elements work together by Love and Strife… Silly man. If only he had known about modern theories of Magnetism and Electricity and Gravity– Oh wait– What’s that you say? All these theories are based on Attraction and Repulsion? Well, maybe Empedocles wasn’t quite as cracked as he appears on first perusal.
Heraclitus believed that a pure form of fire is the ordering and animating force of the Cosmos.
Before dismissing this idea, consider this: someone even today, struggling for a way to describe Electricity to someone completely ignorant of it might reasonably speak of it as a sort of fire: it does produce a flashing heat and light, after all.
Now, if we realize that the last and most modern theories of Ether concluded that Ether was the carrier of both Electricity and Light, then it doesn’t take much of a stretch to inject new life into Heraclitus’s old silly theory…
Gravity was for a long time- -and still is by some– considered an Ether phenomenon. If Gravity-causing Ether is also the foundation or medium of electrical and light energies, and these energies are considered as a type of fire, than the “ordering” and “animating” gravitational forces of two bodies coming together doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Add to this that the Electron is supposed to be the particle serving as the carrier of Electric Charge… And Electron-sharing is imagined to be the way that atoms form their strongest bonds with each other… This means that the “ordering” and “animating” of atoms into the molecules that build-up our entire Universe is due to a sort of “fire” particle.
The Stoics believed that the active principle of the Universe is a blend of Fire and Air (called Pneuma)– that’s about as good of a simple description of the Electromagnetic Ether as one could give in yesteryear’s vocabulary.
Aristotle very straightforwardly proposed the existence of an Ether, which he referred to as the Quintessence, or Fifth Element. He saw the Ether as something not so dissimilar to Heraclitus’s view of the most fundamental mover of life: a pure fire. If the light from the Sun is imagined as propagating through an Electromagnetic Ether (as was believed for centuries)– and if we think of the electrical nature of the disturbances of lightning and sparks– one can easily grant that the view of a Fiery Ether as a fundamental force of Nature is not such an outlandish notion.