Ether and the Nature of Light

Ether and the Nature of Light

One of the most interesting stories in the history of science is ether and the nature of light. Scientists devised the theory of ether to explain the actions of light.

For many years, scientists thought of light as a wave. The reason was that light did wave-like things. It could experience interference when two out-of-phase light waves canceled each other. Light could refract and diffract, which are things waves can do.

The problem was that light also did things that only particles could do. For example, light could knock electrons out of certain materials causing what is known as the photoelectric effect. That means that light has mass. Waves don’t have mass. The problem became more complex when considering how light from the Sun reaches the Earth. Waves can’t go through a vacuum, and yet light gets here from the Sun.

To resolve this issue, scientists proposed that space was not a vacuum but was full of something called ether. They thought ether must be the substance that was being waved so light could travel through it. In 1887, two scientists, Albert Michelson and Edward Morely, built a device that could measure the speed of light. Their actual purpose was to measure the movement of the ether by measuring the speed of light as Earth moved relative to the Sun. Their result showed that the speed of light was the same regardless of Earth’s position or motion. This created more questions about ether and the nature of light.

It was up to Albert Einstein to answer those questions. In simple terms, he explained that light is a substance that moves independently of the observer. The speed of light is a universal constant. Today we know that light has both wave and particle properties and always travels at a constant speed. High school students can duplicate the measuring techniques and see the dual nature of light in the laboratory. Welcome to the wonderful world of relativity.

Ether and the nature of light were no longer so mysterious. Ether did not exist, and it was not necessary. The speed of light is part of virtually every physics equation. It allows us to understand the atomic bomb, measure distances in space, and understand time and the age of the creation. It provides the foundation of quantum theory and even shows up in equations describing thermodynamics and chemistry interactions. Light is two-dimensional, having no thickness in the direction it moves. When light is stopped by a barrier, its energy turns into heat, so the object stopping the light does not gain mass.

Discovering the nature of light is a story of how science works. We can propose a theory and test it with experiments. In that way, we can come to understand things we observe in nature. What science once considered to be factual (like ether) may turn out to be incorrect. The speed of light is a constant in a world that is in continuous change. God’s creation is more strange and wonderful than any of us realize or can imagine.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Alien Life Without Water

Is Alien Life Without Water Possible?
For all of my life, there have been articles, videos, and public presentations claiming that there must be life elsewhere in the universe. Now that we know there are thousands of planets in the creation, we see attempts to maintain that with so many planets there must be life somewhere. Scientists are even speculating alien life without water.

We need to remember that the Bible doesn’t say that this is the only planet where God created life, so this is not a biblical issue. The latest attempts to expand the window of what life is has rejuvenated the need to show the design built into the development of life. Life on Earth is based on carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. The National Science Foundation has just funded a three-year program at Saint Louis University to explore what building blocks might be used to make a different kind of life. The chemicals they are considering are hexane, ethers, and chloroform. There is particular interest in whether these materials can form membranes that could be considered life.

The first problem is the definition of life. Life has traditionally been defined as “that which can move, breathe, respond to outside stimuli and reproduce.” An extraordinary chemistry is necessary to meet all of these criteria. Water is the basic substance of life on Earth. The water molecule is polar, meaning that one end of the molecule is negative and the other end is positive. Oxygen is the negative end. Oxygen’s bonding orbitals allow the attachment of two hydrogen atoms making that end positive. This polarity allows water to dissolve other molecules. Salt, for example, is made up of sodium which is positive and chlorine which is negative. When you put salt in water, the sodium is attracted to the oxygen end of the water molecule, and the chlorine is attracted to the hydrogen end of the molecule because unlike charges attract each other. This pulls the salt molecule apart and allows the salt to dissolve. Alien life without water seems impossible.

Hydrocarbons like methane have four hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon atom symmetrically. That makes the molecule non-polar and unable to dissolve salt. Numerous experiments are underway to circumvent this problem including the use of vinyl cyanide (also called acrylonitrile) which has been found in the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan. Coming up with a formula for alien life without water will be difficult. How a substitute for oxidation would work has not even been publicized, so respiration would be an equally great challenge.

Chris Butch, a chemist of the Earth Life Institute, says “It’s like trying to build a car in your backyard out of lawnmower parts, versus having the Maserati factory build a supercar.” As science looks for something that can be called life elsewhere in the solar system, we should be impressed with the wisdom involved in the original building of life on planet Earth.
–John N. Clayton © 2019

Reference: Astronomy magazine, February 2019, page 29-35.