Ether (Magill's Literary Annual 2007)
The odyssey of the idea of the ether is tortuous, permeated with unexpected developments and populated with fascinating characters: charlatans, geniuses, mystics, and “technopagans.” The ether has facilitated such pivotal discoveries as the electromagnetic theory of light (with its subsequent practical applications of the wireless telegraph, radio, and television), but it has also been used by dishonest mediums to prey on the bereaved who seek contact with their loved ones. The ether is an example of a fluid concept because it can be stretched to adapt to a variety of situations. The early history of the ether centered on the cosmological question of the nature of space when it is emptied of all matter. Some scholars see later ideas of the ether as descendants from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s “quintessence,” the element composing heavenly bodies but also latent in all things. In the seventeenth century the French philosopher René Descartes treated the universe as a “plenum,” completely filled with matter of different sizes, whereas in the cosmos of Isaac Newton ethers filled the heavens and the earth, and they mediated gravitational, chemical, electrical, magnetic, and optical phenomena.
Joe Milutis, whose interests are in art, literature, film, and computer technology, is primarily concerned with the modern, extrascientific history of the ether. Indeed, he does not refer to Sir Edmund Whittaker’s monumental work, A...
(The entire section is 1549 words.)
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