About Imogen


The unfashionable ether

I gave a talk on the ether in Oxford in February and here I’ve attempted to cut it down to a length that a normal person might want to read but obviously I’ve failed miserably. There’s an even longer version here.


In Lord Rayleigh’s 1942 biography of J. J. Thomson (1856 – 1940), he noted that the esteemed physicist had not taken the ‘fashionable view about ether’. Instead, Thomson continued to see this mysterious medium as a fundamental part of the physical world. He believed that everything was connected, that nature was ultimately continuous, while his more fashionable peers promoted discontinuity of matter and energy. Thomson’s view certainly does seem unfashionable now, and, to some, pretty stupid. Wasn’t this several decades after the ether had been definitively disproved by the 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment? (No, not really, this was how it was discussed much later, but at the time it was very much open to interpretation, and even Einstein didn’t reference it in his famous 1905 relativity paper. It was only after a few physicists had decided, for whatever reason, to abandon the ether, that suddenly the experiment became a lot more important.) Of course, there were other issues in the early twentieth century – relativity and quantum theory and increasing evidence suggesting that the world was just a load of particles separated by empty space. But a lot of physicists (and wireless technologists) were reluctant to immediately abandon a theory they really rather liked, and debates about the ether continued throughout the early decades of the twentieth century. Furthermore, these debates were related to other stuff going on at that time, other challenges to long-held beliefs (more on that later), which made a defence of the ether more valuable than it perhaps seems now.

Some guys talking about the ether c.1913

In 1909, Thomson described study of the ether as ‘perhaps the most fascinating and important duty of the physicist’, while Oliver Lodge declared that ‘matter acts on matter only through the ether’. (Lodge later thought he could talk to his dead son through the ether, but it’s a nice idea, don’t knock it.) Their views were entirely at odds with those of Norman Campbell, an experimental physicist at the prestigious Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, then under the directorship of Thomson. Campbell didn’t seem too worried about what his boss thought, and made no secret of his desire to ultimately remove all unobservables, particularly the ether, from physics. He relished Niels Bohr’s development of quantum theory in 1913, as both a lovely example of an experimentally verified theory (take that ether) and a big push for discontinuity. (Campbell thought that continuity was a bit last century.) Campbell was joined in his support for discontinuity by another Cambridge physicist, James Jeans, who was generally happy to take on board new ideas so long as they had a firm empirical backing. (Incidentally, Lodge privately described Jeans as ‘a difficult rude man’ and suggested that this was a consequence of him being ‘too well off’.) Jeans led a discussion on radiation at the 1913 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and framed the debate in terms of continuity versus discontinuity, placing himself firmly on the side of discontinuity. He proposed not just abandoning the ether, but also relying on a purely descriptive principle (like relativity).

Lodge fought back against this view at that very same meeting. He didn’t say anything during Jeans’ radiation discussion, although he did invite the committee to continue the debate at his house the following Sunday. But he had a much larger platform anyway – the presidential address. For an hour and a half Lodge criticised what he called ‘modern tendencies’ in science, including the current ‘irresistible impulse to atomise everything’, which he saw as not only a problem in physics, with subatomic particles and quantum radiation, but also in biology with the emergence of Mendelian heredity. He also accused modern science of denying the existence of anything which could not be readily sensed or measured (take note, Jeans and Campbell). And he complained that ancient postulates were being pulled up from the roots. To make his point absolutely clear, Lodge titled his talk ‘Continuity’, here referring to continuity of matter and energy, but also continuity of thought, a link between the past and the present, a physics that would hold onto the ether and Newton’s laws.

An artist’s rendition of Oliver Lodge as a Pokémon catcher. (I’ve found no evidence to suggest that the Pokémon universe is incompatible with the ether)

An artist’s rendition of Oliver Lodge as a Pokémon catcher. (I’ve found no evidence to suggest that the Pokémon universe is incompatible with the ether)


A commitment to the ether was in some ways a commitment to the past, an aversion to revolution. Look at Frederick Soddy, the chemist who had worked with Rutherford on radioactivity. He reviewed the 1913 edition of Campbell’s book Modern Electrical Theory (which argued against the need for an ether in physical theories) and suggested that it didn’t go far enough and a more drastic reconsideration of physics was needed. Soddy was a chemist, so longheld physical theories were perhaps less important to him than they were to a theoretical physicist. He was also not one to bow down in the face of tradition more generally. In the 1920s and 1930s Soddy campaigned for economic, social and institutional reform. There was perhaps here a connection between his attitude towards rejection of long held theories in physics, and rejection of tradition more generally. For Soddy, where a system was no longer working, be it economical, social or scientific, the answer often lay in dramatic reform.

This very brief characterisation of Soddy is hopefully not too tenuous a link to my next point, which is . . .

It’s not just physics that was apparently having a revolution.

This period saw revolutions in Mexico and China, the Agadir crisis of 1911, and the (less extreme but closer to home) 1911 Parliament Act. At the same time, there was a more vague move towards the modern, with technology causing people’s lives to change at unprecedented speed. It seemed like the present was becoming disconnected from the past. And this was reflected in art and literature of the period, in the writers who abandoned linear narrative, and the painters who abandoned our basic idea of, for example, what a face looks like. Everywhere, it seemed like longheld ideas were being discarded and authority was under threat.

'A Face', Picasso

‘A Face’, Picasso

And the connection between physics and everything else was made explicit by one of Oliver Lodge’s colleagues at Birmingham University, the mathematics lecturer Samuel Bruce McLaren. In 1913, McLaren had written an article in the Philosophical Magazine, a well-respected (although this is debatable at this point) physics journal edited by Lodge. In it, he accused ‘Einstein’s idea of the Quantum’ of being ‘destructive of the continuous medium and all that was built upon it in the nineteenth century’. McLaren’s desire to retain the continuous medium of the ether was more than simply a commitment to a physical principle. He began his article by declaring that ‘the unrest of our time has invaded even the world of Physics, where scarcely one of the principles long accepted as fundamental passes unchallenged by all’. The problem was not simply the discontinuity of energy, but rather the discontinuity of progress, of physics proceeding not by gradually building upon the work of those who had gone before, but by tossing old theories aside and replacing them with wildly different ones. And this predicament was not exclusive to physics. Indeed, quite the opposite: McLaren believed that a more general ‘unrest of our time’ had infected physics, and he referred to a ‘spirit of revolution’. He was relating the developments in physics to a broader cultural and social shift, tying together ‘modern’ physics with modernity in general.

So that was the state of affairs around 1913. The ether’s future was uncertain and for a select few physicists this was a big deal. But there wasn’t a great deal of wider awareness at this point. This was to change, and the change happened quite soon after everybody’s fears about revolution had been realised, with the First World War. And for physicists, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was published in 1916, extending his earlier theory to encompass gravitation. It now posed more of a threat to the ether, and there was also the possibility of providing experimental verification of the theory. This was achieved in 1919, with the expeditions to look at an eclipse, which resulted in The Times declaring a ‘Revolution in Science’, and a speedy attempt at damage control by those physicists who didn’t want to be associated with revolution. (I’ve already written about this once so that’ll do – but if you plan on reading the rest of this post, you might need to look at that other one for some details)

The astronomer and eclipse expeditioner, A. C. D. Crommelin, quickly leapt to the ether’s defence, assuring people that of course they could keep it, they just had to accept that it didn’t have any effect on the motion of bodies, or anything really. Arthur Stanley Eddington, mastermind of the expedition, supported a similarly diplomatic ether, one that could quietly slot into modern physics without causing a fuss. Unsurprisingly, Campbell saw this as a bit of a cop out, accusing Eddington’s ether of being so different from the old one as to be unrecognisable. Lodge, meanwhile, stubbornly clung not just to an ether, but to the ether of the nineteenth century. He even went so far as to suggest that this ether contained enormous amounts of energy locked up inside of it, and that while ‘extraordinary and expensive means’ would be needed to detect the movement of the ether at all, he saw no reason why such an experiment shouldn’t be undertaken and publicly funded.

Some grew tired of the constant arguments about this mysterious substance and its role in modern physics. At the 1920 meeting of the British Association (the first since the eclipse results), Eddington chose to talk not about relativity, but the internal constitution of stars – a far more innocuous subject. The astronomical journal the Observatory noted an absence of relativity at the meeting, suggesting this was ‘because those chiefly concerned had become a little jaded with the strenuous conflict’. Lodge, however, was clearly still enjoying the conflict, and contributed a ‘controversial note on relativity’, in which he suggested that relativists should perhaps ‘be regarded as Bolsheviks and pulled up’. Oh thanks Lodge, thought Eddington (presumably) as he desperately tried to downplay connections between relativity and revolution.

Sneaky sneaky Oliver Lodge

Lodge was also confusing non-physicists, implying consensus where there really wasn’t any. Using his considerable public presence, he spent much of the 1920s writing about modern physics and the ether as if it was only a handful of extreme revolutionaries who disagreed with him. His 1924 book Atoms and Rays described the ether as the fundamental ‘cementing substance’ that held everything together and was responsible for the transmission of. His 1927 book Modern Scientific Ideas (which first appeared as a radio broadcast) insisted that continuity remained ‘the fundamental idea to which scientific philosophy will in the last resort return’. Here his discussion of quantum energy was centred on an exploration of how this new phenomena could explain interactions between matter and the ether.

Lodge wasn’t just an old hack writing books that nobody read. People did read them and his physicist peers reviewed them favourably. And in 1924, he was invited to write the introductory article for a book accompanying the ‘Pure Science’ exhibit of the British Empire Exhibition (a massive state-funded celebration of the craftsmanship, agriculture and trading and transport organisations of all of the territories of the British Empire). Lodge was actually appointed Vice-Chair of the Pure Science organising committee (which was otherwise filled with Cambridge types), despite making it very clear that he really didn’t have time to attend any meetings at all. But that didn’t matter, as he was only there to write his book contribution, on ‘Radiation’.

Here, Lodge noted that it was generally accepted that the material universe is composed of atoms, before asking:

‘But is there anything else?’

Lodge wondered if there was a third thing, beyond the two electrical units, and concluded that yes, ‘There certainly is a third thing; and, without the slightest controversy, that third thing is radiation – radiation and all that it implies. The most usual view of radiation is that it consists of waves in a connecting medium, commonly called “the ether,” and that this same unique and only ether is responsible for gravitative attraction, for electric and magnetic attractions, and for cohesion: that is, for all the forces which tend to bring bodies together, while motion tends to keep them apart. This, however, is a fact which may be expressed by different people in different ways: there are some who do not care to use the term “ether,” and are not sure of the nature of the waves, but no one can doubt the fact of radiation.’

That pesky Lodge was sort of saying that of course there was an ether, and most people agreed on this, and those who didn’t agree may have just been calling the ether by another name. (Not true Lodge, you troublemaker.) In Lodge’s defense, he did concede an apparent move away from continuity, saying that ‘radiation is showing signs of becoming atomic or discontinuous. The corpuscular theory of radiation is by no means so dead as we thought it was. And: ‘A definite experiment has proved that the smooth motion of matter as a whole has no grip on the ether.’

At the same time, he continued to push his ether research project (which had somehow not received the massive amounts of funding Lodge was convinced it deserved):

‘Whatever be the truth in this matter, a discussion on radiation will continue for a long time, and the outcome cannot fail to yield a much closer insight into the connexion between ether and matter – a problem of the highest physical and philosophical interest, which may have consequences of the utmost importance to humanity.’

The fashionable view

So Lodge was doing a pretty good job of spreading the unfashionable view far and wide, and Eddington was trying to keep everybody happy. Who was spreading the fashionable view? This job fell mostly (in my opinion) to non-physicists.

Peter Chalmers Mitchell was a highly regarded biologist, but also science writer for The Times. He was the man responsible for The Times’ 1919 ‘Revolution in Science’ article, although presumably not the headline, which doesn’t really match up with a fairly balanced account of the meeting. However, that same paper also featured an editorial by Mitchell, where he revealed his views far more freely, declaring that, based on the eclipse results, ‘the scientific conception of the fabric of the universe must be changed’.While a third prediction of Einstein’s remained in doubt, Mitchell suggested that ‘it is confidently believed by the greatest experts that enough has been done to overthrow the certainty of ages and to require a new philosophy of the universe, a philosophy that will sweep away nearly all that has hitherto been accepted as the axiomatic basis of physical thought’.

Mitchell had already made his views evident in a 1915 book called Evolution and the War. Writing about the separation between mind and reality, he declared that scientific ‘laws’ were of the human mind ‘rather than of the extended world’. This approach has a lot in common with the thoughts of another science writer, J. W. N. Sullivan. Unlike Mitchell, Sullivan wasn’t a practicing scientist, but he had sufficient scientific knowledge to apparently both understand and write about relativity theory – a rare talent. Sullivan viewed science as the result of general beliefs current in any particular age. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the new physics, and wrote endless articles about relativity for publications like the Times Literary Supplement and the literary magazine the Athenaeum. For both Sullivan and Mitchell, revolution was to be expected. And as writers, and not physicists, it was also more exciting than it was threatening.

Sullivan’s views on the ether were made clear in ‘Imagination in Art and Science’, published in the Adelphi magazine in 1924:

‘We are so far from knowing what imaginary entities are admissible that even the most successful acts of the scientific imagination are seen to have been mere approximations to the nature of the reality with which science concerns itself, and approximations precisely because the entities imagined were mythical . . . With the abolition of forces, aethers and the like, and with the advent of the altogether more emancipated kind of imagination that is Einstein’s, science has entered on a new era’.

Furthermore, Sullivan had a lot of influence with fashionable people i.e. not scientists. While Lodge’s work was mostly read by people with at least a moderate pre-existing interest in the subject, Sullivan wrote predominantly in literary magazines, and actively converted the anti-scientific. Sullivan corresponded with modernist writers like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, but his most evident success was Aldous Huxley.

The two men worked together on the Athenaeum after the First World War and became friends. While Huxley originally had little sympathy for the scientific mind, Sullivan was so taken with the changes in physics that he wrote an article on ‘Science and Literature’ in which he considered ‘the serious possibility that literature has lived its day’. And in a letter to John Middleton Murry, editor of the Athenaeum, Sullivan dismissed Murry’s generous review of Ulysses, declaring:

‘The chief reason why present literature is so little important is precisely because the most important thoughts, carrying the most tremendous implications, are not represented in the literature’.

Sullivan’s views certainly had an effect on Huxley, whose 1925 satire Those Barren Leaves, depicted a character, based on Sullivan, celebrating a new ‘exciting age’ where ‘everything’s perfectly provisional and temporary – everything, from social institutions to what we’ve hitherto regarded as the most sacred scientific truths’. Oh thanks Sullivan, thought Eddington (presumably).

The end of the ether

The ether eventually disappeared from physics. It was never really disproved, it just wasn’t needed any more. Modern theoretical physics described what was going on around us using maths, and the maths worked fine without an ether. But in the 1920s, the ether still had a (small) role to play, and there were four main approaches:

1) Lodge’s ether, real and detectable and of not just theoretical, but potentially practical value.

2) Eddington’s ether, so mysterious that it might as well not be there at all. This ether was more of a rhetorical device than anything else, a tool to downplay the destructive effects of intellectual revolution, and to stop Oliver Lodge from calling you a Bolshevik.

3) No ether, a position taken by Campbell and Jeans and Sullivan and Mitchell, by people who either embraced revolution or were at least willing to put up with it.

4) And, finally, there were lots of people who didn’t care one way or another, but I haven’t talked about them, because I’m not sure it’s relevant here, and it takes a lot more research to find out what people didn’t say than what they did.

For those people who did have a mild interest in the ether, many of them would probably get their information from Oliver Lodge. He was famous and prolific, and a trusted scientist. But he wasn’t fashionable. He was an old man with a beard. The fashionable view came from people like Sullivan and his motley crew of writers. It was a view tied in with other forms of modernism, with an excitement about rapid change, about a break with the past. And it’s a view that may have obscured our understanding of the early 20th century, and caused us to forget that the ether didn’t end with the 19th century.


Saving Newton or destroying Newton? Popular and professional physics publishing in the 1920s

The below is based on a paper that I’m going to be giving at the 24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine (iCHSTM). It’s an academic conference, but there are also public events and stuff (if you happen to be in Manchester at the end of July). And there’s a blog, where this post originally appeared.

History is a tricky business. For the majority of those who study it, our main source of information is words. These were written down long ago (or perhaps not so long ago, depending on your preferred time period) and were chosen by particular people for particular purposes. There are endless complications. Is it possible to tell if somebody was speaking from the bottom of their heart or deliberately manipulating their audience? How are we to uncover what happened before, during and after the act of communication? Just what are we supposed to do with all these words?

I suppose we could start by looking at some context. For my paper at ICHSTM, the context is early-twentieth-century British physics. This was a period of quite dramatic change in the discipline – the last few years of the nineteenth century had seen the discovery of X-rays, radioactivity and the electron (disclaimer: J. J. Thomson conceived of this not as the ‘electron’ but as a similar-but-different ‘corpuscle’). This was followed by the quantum and relativity theories, which really shook things up. The atom was broken up, matter was disintegrating, energy was jumping around in tiny packets, and time and space were sort of the same thing. The natural world was no longer as it had first seemed. It was all very exciting.

But when it came to talking about these changes, putting them into words, there were certain difficulties. Depending on how you interpreted the new ideas, there was the suggestion that they overturned a lot of previous knowledge, including Newton’s laws of mechanics. This didn’t sit that well with the idea of science as progressive, building on the work of those who had come before. Physics in particular was supposed to be sturdy, providing the foundations of all other sciences. But instead we had a discipline whose very foundations could seemingly be destroyed at any moment. Just as damaging, physics was apparently breaking ties with the father of modern science himself, Sir Isaac Newton. The implications for public trust in science were rather worrying, and physicists needed to take this into account when they spoke about their work.

In 1930, the physicist James Jeans published a best-selling popular science book, called The Universe Around Us. Here, describing how one can use the speed in orbit and distance from the sun of any planet in order to determine the sun’s gravitational pull, Jeans noted that this ‘provides striking confirmation of the truth of Newton’s law of gravitation’. And while Einstein had ‘recently shewn that the law is not absolutely exact’, this amount of inexactness was only revealed in Mercury’s orbit, ‘and even here it is so exceedingly small that we need not trouble about it for our present purpose’.  In the following few pages, Newton’s law was ‘confirmed’ twice more, and Jeans found himself again levying ‘toll on the mathematical work of Newton’.  When he moved away from celestial space on to notions of time, Jeans yet again found that ‘it is a matter of complete indifference for our present purpose whether we use the law [of gravity] in Newton’s or in Einstein’s form; for stellar problems the two are practically indistinguishable, and there is abundant evidence . . . in favour of either’.  For practical purposes, Jeans noted that he was happy to use either theory, or even any other ‘not entirely dissimilar law’.

But did Jeans really think Newton was still relevant, or was this a deliberate attempt to present physics in a certain way, at a time when it was in danger of losing its precious connections to the beloved 17th century scientist? How do we uncover the true meaning of his words? Perhaps by looking at another aspect of Jeans’ career, his position from 1919 to 1929 as Physical Secretary of the Royal Society. In this capacity, Jeans had a considerable amount of influence over what was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (Section A), one of the most prestigious physics journals in Britain. He decided whether papers should be immediately published, immediately rejected, or sent to a reviewer. And in this capacity, Jeans was no friend to older ideas and methods.

Responding to a paper that tackled atomic structure without incorporating recent ideas in quantum theory, Jeans declared that in such a problem classical mechanics led nowhere at all. This angered the communicator (although not author) of the paper, the Cambridge mathematician and self-styled curmudgeon Joseph Larmor. He confided in his friend Oliver Lodge, declaring that Jeans was now banning Newtonian atomic theory from the journal. While this was certainly an exaggeration, Jeans’ work at the Royal Society does indicate a hefty bias towards ‘modern’ physics. This is evident not just in his comments on papers, but also his choice of referees, with papers being passed on to ‘modern’ reviewers.

While Jeans was writing a popular publication that stressed the continuing importance of Newton, he was using a professional publication to dismiss ‘Newtonian’ contributions to the field. He was helping to establish a new status quo of modern physics, at the same time as obscuring the extent of this change from the wider public. The words he published, and allowed others to publish, were carefully chosen to create two contradictory consensuses (consensi?).

Of course, you might argue that quantum theory was fully accepted by the 1920s, so of course Jeans would choose quantum theorists as referees and reject papers that attempted to bypass now-established theories and practices. And perhaps his popular book was simply a valiant effort to hide certain anti-Newtonian developments from a naïve public that frankly didn’t need to know this stuff. This is one interpretation. An alternative is that we now think quantum theory was accepted by the 1920s because of the very editorial policies employed by Jeans. We might also suggest that Jeans wasn’t helping a confused public, but rather manipulating them to protect his, and his discipline’s, own interests. Words can be powerful tools.

History within the Academy: Ask the Experts

Q & A session hosted by History Lab Plus and Royal Historical Society. Lots of useful information about the REF, open access, publishing, teaching and grant applications. Here’s what I wrote down.

What do employers look for?

  • Good researchers and teachers.
  • Conviction/confidence based on exciting research.
  • Trajectory beyond the thesis – will always have something to say
  • Enthusiasm – an engaging teacher
  • Can convince others that history is interesting

REF – only applies to you once you’ve entered the profession, which means your first research (not teaching-only) post

Post-PhD plan

  • Get articles out of your thesis
  • Write a book in 5 years (so you’re ready for the next REF)
  • The book shouldn’t necessarily be your thesis.
  • Aim for journals rather than edited collections.


Employers are looking for research-led teaching.

Classroom experience is a bonus, but you can also demonstrate teaching ability with:

  • Enthusiasm, clarity and good communication skills
  • Evidence that you can think about your audience
  • Ability to grab the attention of an UG audience

If there aren’t teaching opportunities during PhD, you can get experience by:

  • Tutoring with the OU
  • Teaching history to high-school kids (widening access opportunities from the HEA)
  • Email Heads of Department in your field (check the syllabi is relevant for you) for opportunities


  • Quality better than quantity. Your publications will never die, so be careful what you put out there.
  • Look at book series in which your title might fit. Consider RHS publishing as they work closely with young scholars to prepare their first book.
  • If your article’s been with a journal for more than a year, and you’re having trouble getting any information from them, pull it and send it somewhere else (but don’t send it somewhere else without withdrawing it first)
  • Job applications – if you have one good article, and you’re going against somebody later in their career with 3 mediocre articles, then you’re the better candidate.

Grant Applications

  •  Check out the funders. What have they funded in the past? Structure of the panel? (AHRC = peer review; Leverhulme = governing body, inc. Proctor & Gamble managers)
  • Answer the questions
  • Join up the dots – see all sections as a coherent whole (e.g. the budget needs to relate to things already mentioned)
  • Don’t fill a gap, shift a paradigm (but obviously don’t call it that)
  • Give it some welly – show you believe in your project and think it’s important. How is it going to change everything?
  • Get it read – by anybody (but ideally experienced academics). Have as many people as possible look at it, and give them (and you) lots of time. Remember the coherent whole when editing.
  • Keep trying
  • Remember: there are actually a lot of bad applications submitted, so you stand a chance
  • Start small.

In job interviews, you may be asked about your plans for future funding. Think about what schemes fit your project and why. Be realistic – e.g. start with a small grant or network grant to test feasibility of the project. Don’t be misled by the language of job apps, that suggest ambition = giant grants.

Work with institutions to develop projects/grants.

There’s currently an emphasis on interdisciplinarity (this is not the same as multidisciplinarity) – moving between disciplines, rather than just communicating with other disciplines.

How to come up with research projects 

  • Where is my existing work pointing, and which areas am I most interested in?
  • Talk to individuals in that area to find out what the big questions/ways in are.
  • You should come to them with ideas, but they can be vague.
  • Talk to your peers.
  • Get ideas from archive trips.

Open Access

  •  Don’t really need to worry about it.
  • Always go for green (publishers might try to hide this option for you). This comes with embargos. You can put up earlier publications to bypass embargos, but this isn’t recommended.
  • Make sure you sign a CCBYNCND (not just CCBY) – otherwise you are giving permission for your work to be altered and then republished under your name.
  • Keep a record of all your publications and the terms they were published under, to help with the next review. It’s best if historians continue to publish the way they want to publish, and this can be fed back to the powers that be.
  • Any OA policies won’t be retrospective.

Materialism, vitalism and interdisciplinarity: from Thomas Nagel to 1913

I ended the last post with some vague references to materialism, a threat/promise of primary sources, and a rather abrupt ‘TO BE CONTINUED’. So, let us continue. Here, I use the recent controversy surrounding philosopher Thomas Nagel as an excuse to talk about early-twentieth-century debates on the subjects of materialism and vitalism. Warning – it’s long and it gets pretty historical.

Before I was rudely interrupted by my own self-imposed word count, I’d started talking about the idea of physics as containing foundational theories that underlie all of science (and, some might say, human knowledge). If you extend this to full-blown materialism, then everything in the universe is composed of sub-atomic particles. This doesn’t just include the obvious stuff, like tables and rice krispies, but also thoughts. It has been summed up by Francis Crick, one half of the team that uncovered the double helix structure of DNA:

‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.

More recently, the biologist Jerry Coyne has stated that all sciences are in principle (but not yet in practice) reducible to the law of physics, and this must be true unless you’re religious. This is quite a statement, not least because it fundamentally separates religious scientists (who do exist) from atheist scientists. It seems to suggest that religious scientists can never be truly objective, because their religious commitments won’t allow them to be. This is true. But what is also true is that scientists with immovable commitments to materialism can also never be truly objective. (Nobody can.) They might argue superiority on the grounds of materialism’s basis in evidence but it’s quite a leap from the ‘evidence’ to such an over-arching theory.

And why should opposition to materialism be instantly tied up with religion? This is a problem the philosopher and atheist Thomas Nagel has faced, after publishing a book last year titled Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Unsurprisingly, a lot of scientists and philosophers really didn’t like it very much (although you can’t feel too sorry for Nagel – with a title like that, he was clearly courting controversy). The backlash is very nicely detailed here, with an account of a meeting of a group of staunch materialists (long read, but a good one, from which I have liberated many ideas and examples, in case anybody thinks I’m being original in my research here).

One of Nagel’s main problems with materialism is quite a simple one – it goes against common sense. This is a relatively recent problem for science, which for quite a while was promoted on the basis that its rational common-sense view of nature could be understood by anybody. In the early twentieth-century, relativity theory messed this all up by making absolutely no sense to more than about 6 people in the world. Its incomprehensibility was used as a marketing tool, and the public were now advised to just trust the experts. A little under a century later, at the aforementioned materialism meeting, there was a debate about how much this ‘public’ should be aware of. Should we, the scientists and philosophers wondered, explain the consequences of materialism – that colours and sounds don’t exist, that there’s no such thing as free will when our thoughts and actions are determined by the movement of atoms? Would this lead to the abandonment of personal responsibility, and descent into chaos? Maybe best to leave the truth to minds that can handle it.

The materialist approach is very successful – it works by seeking out things that can be detected and measured, and then it detects and measures them. If something can’t be understood using the laws of physics, then it must not exist. Levelling charges of non-existence against all empirical anomalies is a bold scientific method. And it reminds me of attitudes towards the aether in the early twentieth century. As physicists became more and more focused on quantifying everything, they had no need for such a weird theoretical mechanism. If the numbers worked without it, then it might as well not exist. Some physicists denounced it, most just ignored it, and eventually the theory went away.

This was a time when the notion of materialism was being hotly debated. The philosophy had come into its own in the mid nineteenth century, during defences of Darwin’s theory of evolution. T. H. Huxley (‘Darwin’s bulldog’) ensured that the theory would forever be remembered as an antagonist to religion by engaging in heated debate with the Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. Huxley believed in scientific naturalism, a less extreme form of materialism in that it accepted that events in the mind were real. However, as these mental events could exert no control over the natural world, the actions of nature and man were still determined solely by material laws. A number of scientists responded to scientific naturalism by arguing for the compatibility of science and religion, and the nineteenth century ended with a push by many towards natural theology, a concept of evolution as divinely planned.

Natural theology fit in quite well with the ideas of the French philosopher, Henri Bergson. In 1907, he published Creative Evolution, a book in which he argued that evolution was governed by a creative force, which he named the élan vital. Just like divine plans, the élan vital was situated outside of a purely materialist concept of nature. For those who identified instead as vitalists, it was very appealing. Perhaps for this reason, Bergson became incredibly popular in Britain, with more than 200 articles about him appearing in English publications between 1909 and 1911. By the time he visited the country in 1911, society types were clamouring to see him. You were nobody if you hadn’t been to a Bergson lecture.

At the same time, a fair few (but still a minority of) scientists were studying the ‘supernatural’. The Alchemical Society, founded in London in 1912, saw alchemists in conversation with mainstream chemists, discussing the spiritual implications of new developments in atomic science. Similarly, the Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882, boasted a number of prestigious physicists in senior positions, including J. J. Thomson, William Crookes, Lord Rayleigh and Oliver Lodge. These psychical researchers were using scientific methods to study telepathy and life after death. Oliver Lodge believed the aether could be used to connect the physical and psychical worlds, but other scientists were using newer developments in physics to study the occult. It’s not really that surprising. At the end of the nineteenth century, physicists had discovered a new kind of ray that allowed them to see through flesh. As the twentieth century progressed, theories of atomic structure started to suggest that solid objects were actually mostly empty space. And radioactivity was pretty weird. Why shouldn’t ghosts exist as well?

Understandably, the materialists weren’t too happy about the rise of Bergson fans and spiritualists, and between 1912 and 1914 their grievances were aired in the pages of Bedrock, a short-lived journal that promoted rationality. While situated firmly in the anti-Bergson camp, the editors encouraged lively debate, publishing heated discussions on the topics of vitalism and materialism, telepathy, and Bergson’s evolution. A recurring question asked whether science was progressing in a materialist or vitalist direction. Hugh Elliott, author of Modern Science and the Illusions of Professor Bergson (a book whose highly critical take on the French philosopher received a glowing review in Bedrock), took the former view. It is, he declared, ‘common knowledge that for some centuries past the sphere of mechanical interpretations has been increasing, while the sphere of spiritual interpretations has been decreasing.’

However, there were also arguments that materialism was coming to an end, and this was countered by Elliott’s materialist peers. Bryan Donkin was an editor of Bedrock and physician who would later in life criticise psycho-analysis for not being sufficiently ‘scientific’. In an article on ‘Science and Spiritualism’ he referred to an oft declared view ‘in newspapers as well as from the pulpit and the platform that the “materialistic science” of the nineteenth century has receded before the “scientific philosophy” of such teachers as Professor Bergson in the twentieth’. Donkin countered that, for those ‘who recognise no scientific revolution, nor any victory over the accepted methods of scientific research by any philosophies whatever’, such attempts at reconciliation between science and spiritualism are regarded as ‘mere logomachy’. (← excellent word)

Donkin’s article was published not long before the 1913 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Here, Oliver Lodge delivered a Presidential Address that attacked many aspects of modern physics, including a growing tendency to ignore that which could not be readily measured (an obvious reference to the aether). While he managed to refrain from mentioning ghosts for most of his speech, Lodge couldn’t contain himself and ended with a defence of spiritualist research, noting that there was much evidence in favour of the idea of life after death. The media response that followed this address suggests that Lodge’s spiritualist ideas were extremely popular to the wider public (if frowned upon by many of his colleagues) and there was a lot of support for his unorthodox attempts to marry science and religion. What was ‘logomachy’ for some, for others was a new kind of science, more inclusive and less at odds with spiritual beliefs.

It seemed completely impossible (as it does today) for either side to convince the other of their beliefs. A lot of the problems came from viewing disciplines too rigidly, and dismissing anybody who tried to cross over from one to another. Elliott argued that ‘vital laws’ were simply mechanical laws under a new name. He accused vitalist physicists of being unable to find such laws in their own discipline, and thus turning to biology to find them. When it came to the subject of telepathy, which was being seriously considered by some physicist-members of the Society for Psychical Research, the biologist Ray Lankester declared that no modern biologists believed in this phenomenon, it instead being the preserve of ‘physicists who have strayed into biological fields’.

Such physicists were dismissed as having no training in experimental psychology, resulting in their acceptance of faulty evidence. However a psychical researcher, J. Arthur Hill, levelled the same criticism at mainstream biologists, arguing that they may have read books on psychical research, but had no experimental experience. Hill remarked how curious it was ‘to find how apparently unscientific an educated man can be, even in our modern times, when he goes outside his own particular province’. Conversely, the anti-materialist psychologist, William McDougall, suggested that the materialists actually had too much practical experience, to the detriment of their powers of thinking. He accused them of sloppy reasoning, using statements such as ‘we are compelled to believe’, unaccompanied by ‘any train of reasoning from established premises’. He argued that the `biological materialist is commonly a laboratory specialist’, and subsequently had not developed a truly scientific or philosophical attitude. The message on all sides was clear – stick to your own subject.

This, of course, is Nagel’s great downfall. He’s a philosopher straying into scientific areas, which would be fine if only he agreed with the scientists. (Although there are apparently many scientists on his side – Nagel just didn’t mention any of them in his book.) Materialist scientists seem happy to collaborate with philosophers when they’re in agreement, but any divergence and they’re accused of being ‘armchair’ thinkers. There’s an imbalance in the relationship – science can falsify a philosophy, but philosophy can’t falsify a scientific theory. But, as I think I was trying to say in the previous post, everybody probably has a lot to learn from other disciplines – it should go both ways. I’m aware that I’m not really following this advice – I keep talking about how scientists should listen to people outside of their field, but I haven’t suggested anything that historians (me) can learn from the sciences. Hope to find out more about that tomorrow.

EDIT: An oddly relevant article just appeared on my Twitter feed – why science needs help from metaphysics

Some thoughts on the sciences and the humanities

I’m going to a workshop next week. It’s called ‘HumSci’, and it’s about the connections between the sciences and the humanities. But we’re not going to look at how people in the humanities can study science, or how scientists can communicate to non-scientists, or have another endless conversation about two cultures. HumSci aims to go deeper, asking what academics across all disciplines actually do, and whether they can learn from each other. People are going to talk about creativity and methodology while I nod earnestly, trying to think of something to contribute. I am very much looking forward to it. With all that in mind, this blog post is about me and science. It might not make much sense. It also might sound like I hate science and I think scientists are idiots. I don’t. I don’t even hate 20% of the people on Reddit. I just want us all to get along. Here we go.

My attitude towards science has changed a lot over the years. At university (the first time round) I studied maths and history and philosophy of science. I was awarded a BSc, but I never set foot in a lab. I divided my time between struggling to understand abstract mathematical proofs, and writing essays about dead scientists. Throughout this time I was drawn to a particular ideal of science, as simple and objective and straightforward. I avoided statistics and applied mathematics, essentially doing a degree in abstract number puzzles. I didn’t take any history of technology modules, because technology isn’t ‘pure’ enough. I chose a module that included the word ‘scientific texts’ in the title, imagining it would be a close reading of a scientist’s work, unencumbered by external factors – an ‘internalist’ history of science. Thankfully it wasn’t.

The problem was I always just assumed I was into science. It seemed like my sort of thing. This was despite the fact that I’d chosen to not take any science A-levels for the very simple reason that I didn’t like science (except maths, which doesn’t count). But I thought I did, because I’m sort of a logical person, and I thought science was logical. I also thought it was clear-cut and neat and tidy and pure. Ironically, this misguided belief led me to study history of science, a discipline where you quickly learn that science is actually very subjective and messy and really a lot like everything else. But it took me quite a long time to realise this, and all the while I was still forcing myself to watch science documentaries and buy the New Scientist. When I finally decided to stop this nonsense, I was already doing a history of science PhD, which I did like. But I worried, because while I was fond of my olden-times scientists, I didn’t like reading the details of their work. I’d picked the wrong discipline.

No I hadn’t! Because science isn’t the thing I thought it was long ago, and neither is the history of science. It helps if I think of myself as a historian of scientists instead. And then it’s just people. And I’m down with that. So at the end of it all, I’m trying to reframe myself as a regular historian. Why didn’t I just do that from the start? If I’m perfectly honest, a large motivation for doing a maths degree was to make people think I’m clever (and it worked). In the long run I didn’t really learn anything from it – I might as well have spent three years doing sudokus (and memorising proofs explaining how sudokus work). The ‘humanities’ part of my education was much more important. And while there are lots of people pushing for greater influence for science, and ‘science communicators’ desperately explode things in front of children to make sure a new generation of scientists will keep their discipline going, it’s the humanities that are really suffering.

The problem with the humanities is they don’t build robots or cure cancer or . . . I left this for half an hour and still couldn’t think of a third equivalent example, so I’m just going to let this sentence trail off . . . They just ask and answer questions. But this is exactly what science does as well, and there have always been scientists promoting their work as primarily about answering the fundamental questions. Guys, we’re the same! Except that, when it suits them, scientists can also point at their massive industrial applications (ignoring the fact that the journey from ‘pure science’ to ‘big robot’ is nowhere near as simple and unidirectional as they think). But it’s not just the applications that are used to differentiate science from the humanities, it’s also the idea that scientists have superior powers of logic to other thinkers.

Science has a reputation for being cleverer than other things, when it’s really just a different kind of clever. Scientists are supposed to be critical and objective, but they learn a very different kind of criticism and objectivity from those in the humanities. Last Christmas, during the big Cox/Ince kerfuffle, Brian Cox’s wife got very angry when somebody tried to teach her husband about the practice of physics. Who could have the temerity to tell Brian Cox what physics is? He’s a physicist! But as all good anthropologists know, you need to be an outsider to study communities and practices (Right? Everything I know about anthropology comes from Latour, so there may be enormous gaps in my knowledge). If you’re trying to examine a system that you’re a part of, using the rules dictated within that system, you’re not necessarily going to get anywhere. I’m pretty sure this is all covered by Gödel (thanks maths degree) and thus proven using the language of mathematics, the foundation of all science. So we should all be on the same page. (Correct me if I’m wrong – I’m almost certainly wrong. But I love the interdisciplinarity of this paragraph, so it would be great if I’m right.)

For most disciplines, we generally accept that historians of a subject can bring in additional knowledge that practitioners cannot. Art historians, political historians, literature scholars. I use my brain almost every day, but I’d never suggest that I know more about it than a psychologist. But when you try to explore science from a different perspective, people aren’t so immediately accepting. When I’m asked what my PhD was about, I always carefully pause between the words “history” and “of science”, in order to give people time to digest the former before getting distracted by the latter. I know this sounds really patronising, like nobody’s capable of listening to a simple phrase, but the word science does weird things to many people. Despite this I’m often still asked if that means I’m a scientist, suggesting that for many the subject matter is far more important than the precious methodology.

But for supporters of the Geek Manifesto, and most Reddit users, it is the method that defines science. It’s also the ethos. There is an idea that science is independent and free, and this was the idea that drew me to science, led to me studying the history of science, and subsequently learning that science is in no way independent and free. Science is of course influenced by social and economic factors, at the mercy of funding bodies. And this isn’t the only factor that determines what gets researched and what doesn’t. Scientists have beliefs, just like everybody else, about things they think are important. (As any good feminist will tell you, this is why we know relatively little about the clitoris, but loads about male genitalia. Although anybody who’s sick of feminist sociologists of science will respond that this is because we only study things that are functional. And the feminist will reply, why do we only study the functional, and how do we define function anyway, and the rules of science were invented by the patriarchy so we really need to question them. And hey, what about the appendix? And I will butt in and say that I haven’t done my research on this at all, I just skimread an article about it once, because genitalia looked a lot more interesting than the history of physics I was supposed to be reading. How much do we know about the appendix anyway? It seems like they’re always finding out new stuff, so maybe my fictional feminist has a point.)

And scientists have big philosophical commitments – just as astronomers used to assume that planets move in circles for the sole reason that they just should, physicists are searching for a unified theory, because things just should all follow the same rules. This belief also, conveniently, can work as an analogy for physics itself, as the unified theory underlying all other knowledge (I don’t buy it). And it was going to serve as the perfect opportunity for a nice historical meander into early-twentieth-century conversations about materialism. But I seem to have written too many words. It’s a shame, it was good stuff, I promise. Oliver Lodge was of course involved. And some guys talking about telepathy. I’ll have to write another blog post I suppose.


Why do we call it ‘modern’ physics and why should anybody care about the reasons why?

A rambling mess about my PhD

About 4 years ago, I applied for a PhD to study the transition from classical to modern physics in Britain. I knew relatively little about physics, having dropped it at school because it was boring and I was never able to understand how a fridge works. And I wasn’t really familiar with the categories of ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ physics. But I thought the project sounded interesting, and I really didn’t like my job. Miraculously, I was given money to quit and move to Manchester (which is something I thoroughly recommend doing). And I quickly set about trying to find out what it is I was supposed to be studying. As is so often the case with history, I was given a ‘received interpretation’ and told to look into it.

Here’s how the basic story goes (bear with me):
As the end of the nineteenth century approached, physicists were pretty pleased with themselves. They had the aether, this weird stuff that was everywhere and explained everything (slight oversimplification). They had a nice theoretical framework for important technologies like steam power. They had decided, and mostly convinced everybody else, that their discipline underpinned all others. And they could namedrop Newton whenever they liked. But then, with the twentieth century just round the corner, weird things started happening. Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays. Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity. J. J. Thomson ‘discovered’ the electron (although he called it a ‘corpuscle’ and didn’t conceptually relate it to the electron that his theory-inclined peers had been discussing). It would seem that matter was stranger than we’d first thought. And of course it got stranger. In the early twentieth century, quantum theory emerged, postulating that energy jumped around in little packets. This was a BIG problem for physicists of the Victorian tradition, who liked everything to be continuous and connected. Yes, matter had been discontinuous for some time, and was getting more so, as the atom was split up into little pieces revealing a void of empty space within. But physicists had managed to reconcile continuity with atomism by arguing that all these broken up bits of matter were swimming in the aether. Everything was still connected. But when discontinuity infected energy as well, it got a little bit harder to argue for continuity. And then there was also relativity theory to deal with, messing up time and space irreparably.

At some point after all these developments, people started referring to some types of physics as ‘classical’ and others as ‘modern’. And it stuck. Pretty soon we were looking back at the year 1900, conveniently situated between two centuries, and seeing a revolution in thought. X-rays, radioactivity and subatomic particles were all ‘classical’ – they didn’t defy the laws of Newtonian mechanics. Relativity and quantum theory were too weird – they became ‘modern physics’. Nowadays these categories seem quite obvious. Except that some people don’t really consider relativity theory to be modern physics, but rather an extension of ‘classical’ mechanics. So there’s clearly something of a problem here.

My job (if you can call it that) was to go back to the first few decades of the twentieth century and look at how physicists were actually using these terms, and for what purpose. Why was I doing this? What was the point? Well, that’s what historians do – they look at stuff that happened and say “Hey, this actually occurred slightly differently from what you thought. So? Um, well, you know, nuances.” You have to have some kind of purpose in your life. I do actually occasionally read very good arguments about why history is important, but then I forget them, like I forget everything, because I’m a bad academic in that respect. So I’m pretty sure there’s a fairly good reason for all of this, I just can’t quite remember. Maybe I’ll figure it out. Something to do with helping us think about why we think the things we think about science.
(While I was writing this, Rebekah Higgitt and James Wilsdon were writing something much more important about how history can be used by policy-makers, which answers some of the ‘why’ questions)

Moving beyond whether this is at all important in the larger sense, my research was certainly important for historians of early twentieth century physics (of which there are at least four). Because when you separate an entire discipline into ‘classical’ and ‘modern’, there is the temptation to only look at the ‘modern’ stuff. And then it all gets a bit Whiggish. But classical and modern physics weren’t two separate entities for quite a long time. Our retrospective artificial separation results in an incomplete picture and incorrect characterizations of the people involved. Certain ‘classical’ scientists and institutions get dismissed. We start to see them as obsessed with the ether and continuity, stubbornly clinging to theories that are clearly wrong. We fall into the trap of assuming that people believe ‘wrong’ theories because of stupid philosophical commitments, and that people believe ‘right’ theories purely because they’re correct. Our own biases cause us to only ask certain questions.

Not every historian makes this mistake – in the 70s Paul Forman argued that the development of quantum mechanics in German-speaking countries was directly influenced by the wider intellectual culture of Weimar Germany, which rejected notions of causality and determinism. It was such a good idea, that people now refer to this as the ‘Forman thesis’, which must be pretty cool for Forman. (I met Forman once, in a Chinese restaurant in Washington, but embarrassingly I hadn’t heard of him or his thesis before then. And, more embarrassingly, I fled the restaurant after about two minutes because the humid Washington air was making me miserable. I made excuses about my weak English constitution, went back to my poorly air-conditioned B&B and watched Jersey Shore for 2 hours. It was a high point in my academic career.)

People believe things for all sorts of reasons. And physicists in the early-twentieth century often believed multiple things that, from our current point of view, seem incompatible. It was not unheard of for a physicist to simultaneously praise quantum theory and the aether. So you can’t lump everybody into two categories, particularly if they weren’t even using the categories at the time.

So why did these categories come about? We can find some clues if we look more broadly at other stuff that was going on at the same time. Modernist literature and modern art both emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century. The Church of England had its own modernism, with Anglican Modernists challenging the orthodox view of Christ’s divine status. What these all had in common was a challenging of past authorities and a sense of disconnect with the past. Physics was facing this very problem.

God knows why all these various disciplines all started using the same terms – somebody was definitely copying somebody else. But it’s sort of not surprising that physicists latched on, as these categories are particularly useful for science. Unlike many other disciplines, science is supposed to be progressive, and it tends to make a big deal out of this fact. An artist can quite happily decide to start drawing faces that don’t look like faces, and then get into a philosophical discussion about what art even is, but they sort of get away with it. (Apologies for my description of art – I’m a philistine. Also a lot of modern artists and writers actually did initially struggle with the problem of rejecting old ideas, so what I’ve written isn’t entirely true) But when physicists start devising theories of motion that reject everything that had been believed for the past 200 years, then we have problems. Science had built up a reputation as this great route to knowledge, better than anything else, and physics puts itself at the very centre of this. We’re supposed to trust it. But how can we continue trusting it, when the physicists themselves admit that they’d been wrong all along about the very fundamentals of what they were doing?

We can see the classical / modern divide as a way around this. By designating Newtonian physics as ‘classical’, a word with grand connotations, physicists were able to push him to the side a bit without rejecting him completely. He wasn’t wrong, just different. So they were doing ‘modern’ physics, whilst ignoring ‘classical’ physics, but arguing that they were both physics and they were both good and please don’t lose faith in us, we’re doing our best.

The end.

I was going to put some actual historical evidence in this blog post, but I typed for too long, so never mind. Maybe another time.

P.S. postmodern physics

An ode to Oliver Lodge

Vanity fair portrait of Oliver Lodge

When I was doing my PhD, every now and then I’d finish a chapter draft and send it to my supervisor and then we’d meet up a few weeks later and he’d say: ‘Why have you written another chapter about Oliver Lodge?’ And I wouldn’t really have an answer. There were 3 reasons, I suppose:

  1. Historical laziness. It is a lot easier to research one man (particularly when his life’s correspondence is stored in well-catalogued archives) than a load of them (or, god forbid, a woman). Also . . .
  2. Lodge was sort of everywhere. I was writing about physicists’ efforts to communicate with the ‘public’ (whoever they might be), and Lodge was always talking to the public. He kept popping up all over the place. But then, maybe I was seeing him everywhere because . . .
  3. I just like the guy. Why do I like him? That question shall be answered very shortly, because this post is entitled ‘An ode to Oliver Lodge’ and that’s what it’s going to be (using the very loosest definition of ‘ode’)

I suppose I should begin with a brief explanation of just who this man was. Born in Staffordshire in 1851, Lodge’s first formal entry into science (following a mandatory, and greatly despised, stint in his father’s pottery business) began with a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Science in London, during the winter of 1872-73. He continued his studies at University College, London until his appointment, in 1881, as the first Professor of Physics at the new University College in Liverpool. He stayed there until 1900, when he was appointed principal of another new university, Birmingham, where he would remain until his retirement nearly twenty years later.

In the nineteenth century, Lodge was instrumental in the development of wireless telegraphy, and thus kind of a big deal. On the theoretical side, he was interested in the ‘imponderables’ – light, heat, electricity, and especially the aether. This mysterious all-pervading substance was of central importance to Victorian theoretical physicists, so Lodge was pretty mainstream. As a result his nineteenth century self did very little to attract the attentions of me, Imogen, the sufferer of a lifelong underdog complex. Twentieth century Lodge, however, is a different story. The quantum and relativity theories arrived on the scene and suddenly the aether became less and less important. Lodge himself admitted that he lacked the requisite mathematical training to fully engage with this ‘modern’ physics. And he now appeared to be spending most of his time trying to talk to his dead son through the aether. He was a confused old man that nobody took seriously anymore. My kind of guy.

Or so I thought. Until I looked into it a little bit and found out that this really wasn’t the case at all. Lodge was disappointingly successful in the twentieth century. He did do much less scientific research (although he didn’t stop completely) but he was still prominent in the scientific world. He was a prolific communicator of science, writing books and articles for the general public. Notably he was renowned as an expert populariser of modern physics, despite his strong aether commitments. He was really famous – when the Daily Mail wrote about him, and they did, it was assumed that the readers would already know who he was (no introduction required).  Lodge’s psychical research did expose him to a fair bit of negative attention, but also quite a lot of support. In 1913, he used the opportunity of a widely reported Presidential address to the British  Association for the Advancement of Science to briefly talk about his belief in communications between the living and the dead. This received some criticism but also quite a lot of support, including from religious commentators, despite being a somewhat  unconventional take on Christianity. 

Lodge wasn’t just revered by the general public – other physicists appreciated the work he was doing to communicate their subject more widely. In 1924, he published a popular book on Atoms and Rays, in which he demonstrated a woeful grasp of ‘modern’ physics, confusing X-rays with alpha rays. In typical Lodge fashion he also mentioned the aether constantly. Another physicist, Edward Andrade, reviewed this book for the Observer. He pointed out the mistakes and warned that Lodge was ‘rather unorthodox . . . in his constant reference of everything back to the aether’, but still praised the book considerably. When a committee of scientists organised a display of modern physics at the massive 1924 British Empire Exhibition, they appointed Lodge as Vice-Chair, purely so they could get him to write the introduction to the handbook. Lodge was hardly a pariah of the scientific community. He was even the editor of a very prestigious journal, the Philosophical Magazine (some people complained it had gone downhill by the 1930s, but it was still at least the number two physics journal in Britain).

I’ll be honest – I was fairly disappointed by the revelation that Lodge wasn’t a real life Victor Jakob. How was I to reconcile my love of sad old men with this mainstream popular character? Well I found a way. By jumping forward to the 21st Century, I reached a point where Lodge was no longer famous, or necessarily respected. In fact, the reason I had my first underdog-friendly conception of his twentieth century reputation was because this part of his life had been dismissed or overlooked by most historians of science. By falling prey to the trap of assuming the physics we think is important now was important back then, most historians of twentieth century physics don’t care about Lodge. Of course, Lodge isn’t directly relevant to a history of the development of quantum mechanics (for example), but by ignoring him you end up with a rather incomplete picture of what was going on back then. Context and whatnot.

There’s a gap in the history. And I like to picture Lodge looking down at this gap from his big castle in the aether, and thinking ‘What the hell is going on? Why isn’t anybody talking about me anymore? Don’t you know who I am?!?’ I wave but I don’t think he notices.

Lodge is getting some attention now, although only from a bunch of historians so it’s hardly the fame he was used to. But it means I’ll probably start to like him less and less, because I’m a fickle history of science hipster. Sorry Lodge.

UPDATE (10/02/2014): I’ve written more on Oliver Lodge elsewhere – Looking beyond the ‘modernists’: Sir Oliver Lodge and the public face of 1920s physics

The Great British Publicity Campaign – Einstein, Eddington and a ‘Revolution in Science’

Newton vs. Einstein

Richard Dark (1932): The Hilarious Universe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell)

In 1919, two small teams of physicists and astronomers set out on two expeditions. One team travelled to Principe in Africa, the other to Sobral in Brazil, but both had the same mission in mind – to take photographs of the sky during an eclipse. That November, some months after their return, the results of these expeditions were announced at a joint meeting between the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. The following day, The Times reported this meeting under the dramatic headline, ‘Revolution in Science’. While The Times was not averse to science reporting back then, such a headline was hardly the norm. Furthermore, a number of less ‘science-friendly’ publications also chimed in. The socialist Daily Herald gleefully proclaimed a ‘Bloodless Revolution’, the Daily Express noted that something was ‘Upsetting the Universe’, and the Daily Mail contributed with a cheeky ‘Light Caught Bending’.

As is probably clear by now, there was something more interesting going on than a mere eclipse. The scientists’ plan had been to test Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and it would seem they had been successful. Indeed, the expedition has recently been nominated in the Great British Innovation Vote, a venture to find the most important British innovation in science and technology from the past 100 years. With celebrity endorsements a staple of the Great British genre, the science writer Simon Singh has put his backing behind the eclipse expedition, explaining why he chose a test rather than a theory. He argues that theories are only really taken seriously once they’ve been tested, and that after relativity theory had been tested: ‘Newton’s theory of gravity was dead or at least it was wounded on the cosmic scale and Einstein’s theory became king.’

If you believe the newspaper reports of 1919, then this is certainly true. At the same time as proclaiming revolution, The Times also declared ‘Newtonian Ideas Overthrown’, and the next day followed this up with ‘Newton vs. Einstein’. It would seem that the eclipse expedition had been an overwhelming success and Einstein’s theory of relativity had overthrown the Newtonian foundations of physics. But, of course, neither history nor science are ever that straightforward, and the expedition and its results were by no means perfect. If, however, there’s ever a vote for a Great British Science Publicity Campaign, then the expedition would probably do quite well. It may not have single-handedly confirmed relativity theory, but it was framed and reported as if it had, and the results of this are still being seen today.

The making of a revolution in science

The expedition was organised in part by Arthur Stanley Eddington – physicist, Quaker, and (I like to think) general nice guy. He was also Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge, Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, and one of the first British converts to relativity theory. Einstein had already put forward three consequences of relativity theory that could be proved experimentally. The first, the orbit of Mercury when it’s closest to the sun, had long been a problem for Newtonian mechanics and was resolved with relativity theory. The third, involving gravitational redshift, was a bit trickier and would have to wait until 1959 to be measured in a laboratory setting. The second prediction, however, was ripe for observational confirmation. According to Einstein’s theory, starlight should be deflected by the sun’s gravitational field. So when the sun is near the stars, their position should appear to be slightly different from when the sun is further away. (Newtonian mechanics did also predict a deflection, but it was roughly half the amount of Einstein’s deflection.) Unfortunately, with the sun being notoriously bright, you can’t see starlight when it’s nearby – but there is a way around this. Eddington planned to observe the stars during an eclipse. The only problem now was to find a suitable eclipse, and wait for the First World War to be over.

In 1918, the war ended, a Joint Permanent Eclipse Committee (JPEC) was established with Eddington and the Astronomer Royal (Frank Dyson) at its helm, and the eclipse of May 1919, visible in Principe and Sobral, was chosen. Almost immediately, the publicity machine was underway. As early as January 1919, the plans for the expedition were being reported in The Times, and this coverage would continue in the following months, all the way up to the November ‘revolution’ article. The articles were either written by members of the JPEC themselves, or based on information provided by them. (One such member, the astronomer Henry Park Hollis, was hired as The Times’ astronomical correspondent that same year.) Meanwhile Eddington, whose gifts at public exposition would be confirmed by a best-selling book in roughly a decade’s time, was busy promoting the eclipse to any audience that would listen.

The JPEC were able to ensure not only that the eclipse was covered in the first place, but also the nature of this coverage. They framed the expedition as a crucial experiment by setting up a trichotomy of results. Members of the JPEC discussed the expedition in terms of three possible results: zero deflection, the Newtonian-half deflection and Einstein’s deflection. Of course, this ignores all the other amounts in between and alternative explanations. And it meant that if the deflection measured was a bit more than Newton’s and a bit less than Einstein’s, then Einstein would still be victorious.

In the end, the results obtained weren’t exactly definitive. The Principe skies were cloudy, a lot of the photographs didn’t come out very clear, and the deflection appeared to be somewhere in the middle of the two values. But because the press, the public and other scientists had been primed to expect a crucial experiment, they were happy to accept this as a crucial result. And Eddington’s credibility helped matters considerably. When he announced his results at the November meeting, most people in the audience were pretty sure they’d just witnessed a definitive confirmation of relativity theory. One such audience member was Peter Chalmers Mitchell, a prestigious biologist who was also forging a second career for himself as The Times’ scientific correspondent. He wrote a relatively measured report of the meeting, an enthusiastic sub-editor (presumably) tacked on the dramatic ‘Revolution in Science’ headline, and a media storm was born. While the ‘Revolution in Science’ article did a lot of the work here, it was the earlier articles, carefully fed to The Times by the JPEC, which laid down the foundations. Here we have a master class in public relations, a lesson in how to be both effective and invisible (until a pesky historian unravelled the whole thing 80 years later).

Epilogue: Damage control

But the JPEC publicity campaign can also serve as a warning of the unintended consequences of press attention. Because framing the whole thing as a ‘revolution’ didn’t really fit in with the notion of scientific progress that Eddington and many of his peers were trying to promote. The potential dangers of a rhetoric of revolution were evident even before The Times’ famed headline. In May 1919, an article in the Manchester Guardian noted:

‘It is a useful reminder in this age of enlightenment that however tall and wonderful be the structures that science builds she is all but childishly ignorant still of the bases on which they are reared’
‘The Eclipse of the Sun’, The Manchester Guardian, 26 May 1919, p.6

Physicists had spent a couple of hundred years defining their discipline as the ‘king’ of the sciences, the ultimate route to knowledge. Newton’s fundamental laws of mechanics were central to this, providing the foundations of all natural actions and phenomena. If it now turned out that Newton had been wrong all along, then why should anybody believe a physicist ever again? This was a problem for Eddington – he was eager to promote Einstein’s theory as an exciting new development in physics, but he hadn’t been planning on denouncing Newton. The Times headline maybe went slightly too far. And the situation wasn’t helped by other physicists also shouting ‘revolution’: Oliver Lodge, a vocal sceptic of relativity theory, went so far as to publicly compare relativists to Bolsheviks.

Eddington responded to ‘revolution’ with some damage control. In late November he wrote that it was ‘not necessary to picture scientists as prostrated by the new revelations, feeling that they have got to go back to the beginning and start again. The general course of experimental physics will not be deflected, and only here and there will theory be touched.’ Another JPEC member, the astronomer Andrew Crommelin, responded in a similar fashion, insisting that ‘some newspapers went too far in speaking of the Einstein theory as overthrowing the Newtonian theory’. He pointed out that the practice of astronomers wouldn’t be affected and ‘it would not be necessary to make new planetary tables at all’.

It was a fine line to tread, and it continued to be trod for the next two decades as physicists dealt with the implications of their modern theories. But it seems to have been a success. Today, Newtonian and Einsteinian concepts of the universe happily coexist. The foundations of physics have not been shattered. Eddington got his crucial experiment and exactly the conservative revolution he wanted.


Alistair Sponsel (2002): ‘Constructing a ‘revolution in science’: the campaign to promote a favourable reception for the 1919 solar eclipse experiments’, British Journal for the History of Science 35(4): 439-467

J. Earman and C. Glymour (1980): ‘Relativity and Eclipses: The British Eclipse Expeditions of 1919 and their Predecessors’, Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 11(1): 49-85

Matthew Stanley (2003): ‘An Expedition to Heal the Wounds of War”: The 1919 Eclipse and Eddington as Quaker Adventurer’, Isis 94(1): 57-89