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Aether (classical element)

According to ancient and medieval science, aether

(Greek: aithr[1] ), also spelled ther or ether,
also called quintessence, is the material that lls the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere. The concept of aether was used in several theories to explain several natural phenomena, such as the traveling of light and
gravity. In the late 19th century, physicists postulated
that aether permeated all throughout space, providing a
medium through which light could travel in a vacuum,
but evidence for the presence of such a medium was not
found in the MichelsonMorley experiment.[2]

Mythological origins

Main article: Aether (mythology)

The word (aithr) in Homeric Greek means pure,
fresh air or clear sky. In Greek mythology, it was
thought to be the pure essence that the gods breathed,
lling the space where they lived, analogous to the air
breathed by mortals. It is also personied as a deity,
Aether, the son of Erebus and Nyx in traditional Greek
mythology. Aether is related to to incinerate,[3]
and intransitive to burn, to shine (related is the name
Aithiopes (Ethiopians; see Aethiopia), meaning people
with a burnt (black) visage).[4][5] See also Empyrean.

Medieval concept of the cosmos. The innermost spheres are the

terrestrial spheres, while the outer are made of aether and contain the celestial bodies

word that Aristotle had not used.[7]

Aether did not follow Aristotelian physics either. Aether

was also incapable of motion of quality or motion of
quantity. Aether was only capable of local motion.
Aether naturally moved in circles, and had no contrary, or
unnatural, motion.[8] Aristotle also noted that crystalline
spheres made of aether held the celestial bodies. The
2 Fifth element
idea of crystalline spheres and natural circular motion of
aether led to Aristotle's explanation of the observed orIn Plato's Timaeus (58d) speaking about air, Plato menbits of stars and planets in perfectly circular motion in
tions that there is the most translucent kind which is
crystalline aether.
called by the name of aether ()".[6] but otherwise he
adopted the classical system of four elements. Aristotle, Medieval scholastic philosophers granted aether changes
who had been Plato's student at the Akademia, agreed of density, in which the bodies of the planets were conon this point with his former mentor, emphasizing addi- sidered to be more dense than the medium which lled
tionally that re sometimes has been mistaken for aether. the rest of the universe. Robert Fludd stated that the
However, in his Book On the Heavens he introduced a aether was of the character that it was subtler than light.
new rst element to the system of the classical elements Fludd cites the 3rd-century view of Plotinus, concerning
See also
of Ionian philosophy. He noted that the four terrestrial the aether as penetrative and non-material.
classical elements were subject to change and naturally Arche.
moved linearly. The rst element however, located in the
celestial regions and heavenly bodies, moved circularly
and had none of the qualities the terrestrial classical elements had. It was neither hot nor cold, neither wet nor 3 Quintessence
dry. With this addition the system of elements was extended to ve and later commentators started referring to Quintessence is the Latinate name of the fth element
the new rst one as the fth and also called it aether, a used by medieval alchemists for a medium similar or

identical to that thought to make up the heavenly bodies. It was noted that there was very little presence of
quintessence within the terrestrial sphere. Due to the
low presence of quintessence, earth could be aected
by what takes place within the heavenly bodies.[11] This
theory was developed in the 14th century text The testament of Lullius, attributed to Raymond Lull. The use of
quintessence became popular within medieval alchemy.
Quintessence stemmed from the medieval elemental system, which consisted of the four classical elements, and
aether, or quintessence, in addition to two chemical elements representing metals: sulphur, the stone which
burns, which characterized the principle of combustibility, and mercury, which contained the idealized principle
of metallic properties.
This elemental system spread rapidly throughout all of
Europe and became popular with alchemists, especially
in medicinal alchemy. Medicinal alchemy then sought to
isolate quintessence and incorporate it within medicine
and elixirs.[11] Due to quintessences pure and heavenly
quality, it was thought that through consumption one may
rid oneself of any impurities or illnesses. In The book
of Quintessence, a 15th-century English translation of a
continental text, quintessence was used as a medicine
for many of mans illnesses. A process given for the
creation of quintessence is distillation of alcohol seven
times.[12] Over the years, the term quintessence has become synonymous with elixirs, medicinal alchemy, and
the philosophers stone itself.[13]


been named "quintessence" by its proponents, in honor of

the classical element.[17] This idea relates to the hypothecial form of dark energy postulated as an explanation of
observations of an accelerating universe. It has also been
called a fth fundamental force.

4.1 Aether and light

The motion of light was a long-standing investigation in
physics for hundreds of years before the 20th century.
The use of aether to describe this motion was popular
during the 17th and 18th centuries, including a theory
proposed by the less well-known Johann Bernoulli, who
was recognized in 1736 with the prize of the French
Academy. In his theory, all space is permeated by
aether containing excessively small whirlpools. These
whirlpools allow for aether to have a certain elasticity,
transmitting vibrations from the corpuscular packets of
light as they travel through.[18]

This theory of luminiferous aether would inuence the

wave theory of light proposed by Christiaan Huygens, in
which light traveled in the form of longitudinal waves via
an omnipresent, perfectly elastic medium having zero
density, called aether. At the time, it was thought that
in order for light to travel through a vacuum, there must
have been a medium lling the void through which it
could propagate, as sound through air or ripples in a pool.
Later, when it was proved that the nature of light wave is
transverse instead of longitudinal, Huygens theory was
replaced by subsequent theories proposed by Maxwell,
Einstein and de Broglie, which rejected the existence and
4 Legacy
necessity of aether to explain the various optical phenomena. These theories were supported by the results of the
MichelsonMorley experiment in which evidence for the
Main article: Aether theories
presence of aether was conclusively absent. The results
of the experiment inuenced many physicists of the time
With the 18th century physics developments physical and contributed to the eventual development of Einsteins
models known as aether theories made use of a similar theory of special relativity.[19]
concept for the explanation of the propagation of electromagnetic and gravitational forces. As early as the 1670s,
Newton used the idea of aether to help match observa- 4.2 Aether and gravitation
tions to strict mechanical rules of his physics.[14] However, the early modern aether had little in common with Aether has been used in various gravitational theories as a
the aether of classical elements from which the name was medium to help explain gravitation and what causes it. It
borrowed. These aether theories are considered to be sci- was used in one of Sir Isaac Newton's rst published theoentically obsolete, as the development of special rela- ries of gravitation, Philosophi Naturalis Principia Mathtivity showed that Maxwells equations do not require the ematica (the Principia). He based the whole description
aether for the transmission of these forces. However, Ein- of planetary motions on a theoretical law of dynamic instein himself noted that his own model which replaced teractions. He renounced standing attempts at accountthese theories could itself be thought of as an aether, as ing for this particular form of interaction between disit implied that the empty space between objects had its tant bodies by introducing a mechanism of propagation
own physical properties.[15]
through an intervening medium.[20] He calls this interDespite the early modern aether models being superseded
by general relativity, occasionally some physicists have
attempted to reintroduce the concept of aether in an attempt to address perceived deciencies in current physical models.[16] One proposed model of dark energy has

vening medium aether. In his aether model, Newton describes aether as a medium that ows continually downward toward the Earths surface and is partially absorbed
and partially diused. This circulation of aether is
what he associated the force of gravity with to help ex-

Life energy
Light energy
Plane (esotericism)

6 References
[1] ether. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English
Language (4th ed.). Boston: Houghton Miin. 2006.
ISBN 0618701729.
[2] Whittaker, Edmund Taylor (1910). A History of the theories of aether and electricity (1st ed.). Dublin: Longman,
Green and Co.
[3] Pokorny, Julius (1959). Indogermanisches etymologisches Wrterbuch, s.v. ai-dh-.

Sir Isaac Newton

plain the action of gravity in a non-mechanical fashion.[20]

This theory described dierent aether densities, creating
an aether density gradient. His theory also explains that
aether was dense within objects and rare without them.
As particles of denser aether interacted with the rare
aether they were attracted back to the dense aether much
like cooling vapors of water are attracted back to each
other to form water.[21] In the Principia he attempts to
explain the elasticity and movement of aether by relating
aether to his static model of uids. This elastic interaction
is what caused the pull of gravity to take place, according
to this early theory, and allowed an explanation for action at a distance instead of action through direct contact.
Newton also explained this changing rarity and density of
aether in his letter to Robert Boyle in 1679.[21] He illustrated aether and its eld around objects in this letter as
well and used this as a way to inform Robert Boyle about
his theory. Although Newton eventually changed his theory of gravitation to one involving force and the laws of
motion, his starting point for the modern understanding
and explanation of gravity came from his original aether
model on gravitation.

See also
Celestial spheres
Dark Matter

[4] in Liddell, Scott, A GreekEnglish Lexicon:

" , , , fem. , , ( as
fem., A.Fr.328, 329): pl. '' Il.1.423, whence
nom. '' Call.Del.208: (, ): properly, Burnt-face, i.e. Ethiopian, negro, Hom., etc.; prov.,
'to wash a blackamoor white', Luc.Ind.
28. Cf. Etymologicum Genuinum s.v. , Etymologicum Gudianum s.v.v. . "". Etymologicum
Magnum (in Greek). Leipzig. 1818.
[5] Fage, John. A History of Africa. Routledge. pp. 2526.
ISBN 1317797272. Retrieved 20 January 2015.
[6] Plato, Timaeus 58d.
[7] Hahm, David E., The Fifth Element in Aristotles De
Philosophia: A Critical Re-Examination, The Journal of
Hellenic Studies 102 (1982): 60-74.
[8] G. E. R. Lloyd), Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of
his Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1968, pp.
133-139, ISBN 0-521-09456-9.
[9] Grant, Edward (1996). Planets, Stars, & Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200-1687 (1st pbk. ed.). Cambridge
[England]: Cambridge University Press. pp. 322428.
ISBN 0-521-56509-X.
[10] Robert Fludd, Mosaical Philosophy.
Humphrey Moseley, 1659. Pg 221.


[11] The Alchemists, by F. Sherwood Taylor page 95

[12] The book of Quintessence, Early English Text society original series number 16, edited by F. J. Furnivall
[13] The Dictionary of Alchemy, by Mark Haener
[14] Margaret Osler, Reconguring the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press 2010. (155).
[15] Einstein, Albert: Ether and the Theory of Relativity
(1920), republished in Sidelights on Relativity (Methuen,
London, 1922)
[16] Dirac, Paul (1951). Is there an Aether?". Nature 168: 906907. Bibcode:1951Natur.168..906D.

[17] Zlatev, I.; Wang, L.; Steinhardt, P. (1999).

the Cosmological Constant.
Physical Review Letters 82 (5):
[18] Whittaker, Edmund Taylor, A History of the Theories of
Aether and Electricity from the Age of Descartes to the
Close of the 19th Century. pp. 101-02, (1910).
[19] Shankland, R. S. (1964).
J. Phys.
Bibcode:1964AmJPh..32...16S. doi:10.1119/1.1970063.
[20] Rosenfeld, L. Newtons views on Aether and Gravitation. Archive for History of Exact Sciences. 6.1 (1969):
29-37. Web. 4 June. 2013.
[21] Newton, Isaac.Isaac Newton to Robert Boyle, 1679. 28
February 1679.


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