Completing Modern Physics: Oliver Lodge’s Imperial Science of the Ether

By Richard Noakes

My paper at the second workshop attempted to deepen current understanding of the role of the ether of space in Oliver Lodge’s long-term project to explore the connections between physics and psychical research. It suggests that by the 1890s the nagging problems that physicists faced trying to understand the nature of the ether were seen by Lodge as possible ways of exploring psychical phenomena – phenomena that he believed occupied a ‘borderland of physics and psychology’, of mind and matter, and of science and religion.1 By this time, it was increasingly clear that the ether could no longer be understood in the way it had for decades – as form of ordinary, ponderable matter. The need for the ether to be an electrical and magnetic, as well as a luminiferous, medium required it to be altogether more complex in nature and structure. Experiments by Michelson and Morley in the 1880s and by Lodge in the 1890s gave contradictory results as to the relationship between ether and ponderable matter, and compounded the ether mystery. Yet the ether’s necessarily extraordinary nature excited Lodge. Like so many physicists at the turn of the twentieth century, he recognised the severe limits of Newtonian dynamics and suggested that an electrical or ethereal dynamics was an altogether more satisfactory way of understanding the physical cosmos. But Lodge also thought this constituted the most promising step to date towards physics embracing life and mind – those questions typically eschewed by physicists.

Lodge’s increasing interest in investigating the wider, vital, mental and psychic functions of the ether sprang from at least four concerns. First, the establishment of long-distance wireless telegraphy (including Lodge’s own system of syntonic wireless telegraphy) was perceived as an additional argument for the reality of an ethereal medium that could be indirectly manipulated. Second, after many sittings with spiritualist mediums, Lodge needed an ethereal medium to furnish a possible physical ‘vehicle’ by which the personalities of the dead could commune with the living, a belief in which he first publicly declared conviction in 1902. Third, he needed an ether to explain the apparent capacity of the body to exert intelligent or directed forces beyond its material limits. In 1894-5 he had attended seances with the spiritualist medium Eusapia Palladino and was convinced that she displayed genuine ‘telekinetic’ powers, despite later agreeing that she often resorted to fraud. Fourth and finally, Lodge’s close friendship with Frederic W. H. Myers, the classicist, poet and psychical researcher, encouraged an altogether more creative approach to physical and psychical analogies (especially those of ethereal and psychological/spiritual ‘spaces’) and a greater boldness in using physics to intervene in wider debates about the implications of the sciences for Christian belief.

Lodge’s ambitions for exploring the ether, and in particular its psychic functions, were frustrated by the heavy administrative duties he had to fulfill after 1900, when he became first Principal of Birmingham University. This position left him little time for any original scientific research, let alone the potentially time-consuming and expensive experimental investigations into the ether. However, he was able to explore the ether question using the literary skills that were already helping his reputation and income. From the 1900s onward he had a much more ambitious view of the domain of his scientific authority and addressed his interpretations of physical and psychical researches to audiences of theologians, philosophers, spiritualists, statesmen, educationalists, and wireless operators, as well as the physicists, electrical engineers and psychical researchers who constituted his main audiences in the late nineteenth century. While the ether was being increasingly marginalised in specialist physics publications, it enjoyed a remarkable ‘post-relativistic’ afterlife in precisely these wider scientific, technical, philosophical and religious circles. Not surprisingly, it was in a 1919 number of the Hibbert Journal, a leading forum of theological and philosophical debate, that Lodge first detailed his most elaborate exploration of the ether’s psychic function: the concept of the ‘ethereal body’.2 This was the idea that since all matter is held together by ether, then all matter has an ethereal counterpart. Since animate matter had an obvious psychic significance, then its ethereal counterpart was at least as likely to have one since it wasn’t materially constrained. Moreover since the ether didn’t suffer from friction, radioactive decay or other ‘temporal disabilities’ then it was possible that the ethereal body and its associated psychic function survived bodily death and thereafter enjoyed a ‘livelier existence’ (258). In a plethora of books, articles and broadcasts in the 1920s and ‘30s Lodge made the ethereal body a major aspect of his speculation on the way physics could lend credence to psychical research’s evidence for post-mortem survival and to the Christian idea of the spiritual body.

My paper concluded with some reflections on Lodge’s reputation in the 1920s and ‘30s. In this period his publications stimulated a good deal of debate about the ether, psychical research and the relationship between the sciences and Christianity. Many welcomed his argument that the ether gave unity and physical intelligibility to the cosmos but others failed to see how this outmoded concept could lend credibility to the dubious results of psychical research or how something so ‘material’ could help explain the soul. Historians have often seen Lodge as somebody who never really relinquished the nineteenth century materialism, mechanistic thinking and determinism on which he had been raised. It’s certainly true that Lodge often saw himself as a ‘conservative’ physicist out of step with the approaches and theories of Dirac, Heisenberg and other younger colleagues.3 But Lodge’s conservatism was more complex than this label suggests. It certainly doesn’t mean he was a closet materialist given how strongly he attacked this position and tried to represent the ultimate ethereal reality of the cosmos as something utterly unlike ponderable matter. It’s rather better at capturing his views on mechanism and determinism, but even here caution is necessary. The ethereal and other ‘mechanisms’ that he supposed would eventually explain how life and mind interact with matter were not mechanisms in the Newtonian or ‘classical’ sense, and Lodge often humbly admitted that ‘mechanical’ terms such as inertia and density were only used analogically and ‘apologetically’ where knowledge was so limited.4

Lodge was equally subtle about his ‘determinism’. He agreed with his old scientific mentors John Tyndall, W. K. Clifford and T. H. Huxley that the cosmos was ultimately law-bound and that there was no place in it for caprice and uncertainty. However, he disagreed with their view that the only knowledge that humans could have of the ‘totality of things’ was of matter in motion.5 He agreed that humans could never apprehend this ‘totality’ but insisted that ether physics and psychical research had got them closer to it than a simplistic and restricted ‘materialistic’ determinism. Lodge’s determinism was altogether more comprehensive than this and saw mind and spirit, as well as matter and motion, as parts of the universal chain of causation. For Lodge this was entirely consistent with his underlying belief in an intelligible, continuous and Divinely-guided cosmos and it’s not surprising that he objected so severely to the view, widely associated with the popular writings of Arthur Stanley Eddington, that the indeterministic physics of the quantum made religion possible for the ‘reasonable scientific man’.6 For Lodge, religion been eminently reasonable decades earlier with a superdeterministic cosmos suggested by ether physics and psychical research.

Richard Noakes

1Oliver Lodge, ‘Address’, Report of the Sixty-First Meeting of the British Association of the Advancement of Science Held at Cardiff in 1891 (London: John Murray, 1892), pp. 547-557, p. 553. [back]
2 Oliver Lodge, ‘Ether, Matter and the Soul’, Hibbert Journal 17 (1919), 252-260 [back]
3 Oliver Lodge, Beyond Physics: The Idealisation of Mechanism (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1930), p. 94. [back]
4 Oliver Lodge, My Philosophy: Representing My Views on the Many Functions of the Ether of Space (London: Ernest Benn, 1933), p. 190. [back]
5 Oliver Lodge, Modern Problems (London: Methuen, 1912), p. 4. [back]
6 Arthur Eddington, Nature of the Physical World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928), 350. [back]

One thought on “Completing Modern Physics: Oliver Lodge’s Imperial Science of the Ether

  1. There are a thousand reasons why ether a la lodge was finally dismissed.
    Now in the 21 st century where quantum physics theory has evolved there may be a need to look once again at a firm of ether to facilitate superposition and entanglement.

    I tend the rename ether as “Nothing” and smile with the title of my article
    “NOTHING really matters”!
    If you wish to view this heresy article …all about nothing! Just ask via my e nail address
    And my noble prize will be booked…. Or the straight jacket

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