Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dan Duda
from the September, 2019 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission
The idea of “nothingness” has intrigued me in recent years. Is there such a thing? What is the mathematical significance of zero? Is it really just a place holder for the “real” numbers? Or is there something else going on beyond our ability to comprehend? Zero and infinity share an interesting feature — they’re at opposite ends of a scale, and both ends tend to indicate something beyond our current understanding.
Physics and cosmology are loaded with unsolved mysteries. One that plagued science until the twentieth century was how light from stars, including our Sun, could propagate through the nothingness of empty space. Since light is a wave (in part), what is it waving in that allows us to see celestial objects beyond Earth's atmosphere?
Our colleague Bill Kalin points us to the work of Samuel Tolver Preston — a 19th century engineer and physicist. In 1875 he published Physics of the Aether, in which he actually reasoned out a formula that would become famous in the next century: E=MC^2. He claimed that “energy exists only in the form of motion (i.e., kinetic)." He proceeded from that base to reason “...the existence in space of aether particles moving at the speed of light.” His reasoning continued to propose “...the existence of a vast store of energy in space of a very intense character.” That hypothesis would certainly solve the mystery of the propagation of light through space (which would not be a vacuum).
The next stop on Kalin’s fascinating train of discovery is the famous Michelson-Morley experiment (MM). These two were awarded a Nobel Prize in 1907 for a failed experiment. Their intent was to demonstrate that Earth is moving through the aether of space by measuring the difference in the light traveling through two channels - one longitudinal and the other latitudinal (interferometer). They detected no difference, which took us back to the vacuum of empty space.
But Kalen challenges the analysis of Michelson, Morley and the Nobel committee. He asserts that the findings of the experiment were flawed, and that aether did and does exist. it seems that something else was going on that might have yielded the null result. And, surprisingly, that something else might have been relativity. As Einstein proved years later, flow at or near the speed of light causes contraction of a body along its direction of motion. So, the results of the MM experiment can be explained without a need to empty all of space (nice save).
In the words of Albert Einstein, “While I was thinking of this problem in my student years, I came to know the strange result of Michelson’s experiment. Soon I came to the conclusion that our idea about the motion of the Earth with respect to the aether is incorrect, if we admit Michelson’s null result as a fact. This was the first path which led me to the special theory of relativity.”
Looking back, I guess, like our colleague Bill Kalin, we should have known that something was wrong with the conclusions of the MM Experiment. Nature doesn't just abhor a vacuum; it seems it will go to just about any length to prevent it. So, how could we assume that almost all the universe consists of an empty vacuum?
And, back to the words of Einstein “My feeling is religious insofar as I am imbued with the consciousness of the insufficiency of the human mind to understand more deeply the harmony of the Universe which we try to formulate as 'laws of nature'.”
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this page last updated 7 September 2019
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