Eddington 1927: Nature’s Plan of Structure


Reference: The Nature of the Physical World

This paper presents Chapter II (sections 3 and 4) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.


Nature’s Plan of Structure

Let us now return to the observer who was so anxious to pick out a “right” frame of space. I suppose that what he had in mind was to find Nature’s own frame—the frame on which Nature based her calculations when she poised the planets under the law of gravity, or the reckoning of symmetry which she used when she turned the electrons on her lathe. But Nature has been too subtle for him; she has not left anything to betray the frame which she used. Or perhaps the concealment is not any particular subtlety; she may have done her work without employing a frame of space. Let me tell you a parable.

There was once an archaeologist who used to compute the dates of ancient temples from their orientation. He found that they were aligned with respect to the rising of particular stars. Owing to precession the star no longer rises in the original line, but the date when it was rising in the line of the temple can be calculated, and hence the epoch of construction of the temple is discovered. But there was one tribe for which this method would not work; they had built only circular temples. To the archaeologist this seemed a manifestation of extraordinary subtlety on their part; they had hit on a device which would conceal entirely the date when their temples were constructed. One critic, however, made the ribald suggestion that perhaps this particular tribe was not enthusiastic about astronomy.

Like the critic I do not think Nature has been particularly subtle in concealing which frame she prefers. It is just that she is not enthusiastic about frames of space. They are a method of partition which we have found useful for reckoning, but they play no part in the architecture of the universe. Surely it is absurd to suppose that the universe is planned in such a way as to conceal its plan. It is like the schemes of the White Knight—

But I was thinking of a plan

To dye one’s whiskers green,

And always use so large a fan

That they could not be seen.

If this is so we shall have to sweep away the frames of space before we can see Nature’s plan in its real significance. She herself has paid no attention to them, and they can only obscure the simplicity of her scheme. I do not mean to suggest that we should entirely rewrite physics, eliminating all reference to frames of space or any quantities referred to them; science has many tasks to perform, besides that of apprehending the ultimate plan of structure of the world. But if we do wish to have insight on this latter point, then the first step is to make an escape from the irrelevant space-frames.

We do not know how nature has planned its structure; whether it has used a frame of space; and if so what frame it is. It is possible that there may not be a preferred frame of space. There could simply be a universal law that we are not aware of. In that case we may have to sweep aside the idea of frames of space, and take a different approach to arrive at that universal law.

This will involve a great change from classical conceptions, and important developments will follow from our change of attitude. For example, it is known that both gravitation and electric force follow approximately the law of inverse-square of the distance. This law appeals strongly to us by its simplicity; not only is it mathematically simple but it corresponds very naturally with the weakening of an effect by spreading out in three dimensions. We suspect therefore that it is likely to be the exact law of gravitational and electric fields. But although it is simple for us it is far from simple for Nature. Distance refers to a space-frame; it is different according to the frame chosen. We cannot make sense of the law of inverse-square of the distance unless we have first fixed on a frame of space; but Nature has not fixed on any one frame. Even if by some self-compensation the law worked out so as to give the same observable consequences whatever space-frame we might happen to choose (which it does not) we should still be misapprehending its real mode of operation. In chapter VI we shall try to gain a new insight into the law (which for most practical applications is so nearly expressed by the inverse-square) and obtain a picture of its working which does not drag in an irrelevant frame of space. The recognition of relativity leads us to seek a new way of unravelling the complexity of natural phenomena.

Giving up frame of space would mean to give up proven laws, such as, the well-established inverse-square law. The recognition of relativity leads us to seek a new way of unravelling the complexity of natural phenomena.

But it appears that we have to completely give up the “particles in void” perspective, that influences the current science.


Velocity through the Aether

The theory of relativity is evidently bound up with the impossibility of detecting absolute velocity; if in our quarrel with the nebular physicists one of us had been able to claim to be absolutely at rest, that would be sufficient reason for preferring the corresponding frame. This has something in common with the well-known philosophic belief that motion must necessarily be relative. Motion is change of position relative to something; if we try to think of change of position relative to nothing the whole conception fades away. But this does not completely settle the physical problem. In physics we should not be quite so scrupulous as to the use of the word absolute. Motion with respect to aether or to any universally significant frame would be called absolute.

No aethereal frame has been found. We can only discover motion relative to the material landmarks scattered casually about the world; motion with respect to the universal ocean of aether eludes us. We say, “Let V be the velocity of a body through the aether”, and form the various electromagnetic equations in which V is scattered liberally. Then we insert the observed values, and try to eliminate everything that is unknown except V. The solution goes on famously; but just as we have got rid of the other unknowns, behold! V disappears as well, and we are left with the indisputable but irritating conclusion—O = O.

This is a favourite device that mathematical equations resort to, when we propound stupid questions. If we tried to find the latitude and longitude of a point north-east from the north pole we should probably receive the same mathematical answer. “Velocity through aether” is as meaningless as “north-east from the north pole”.

The theory of relativity assumes that it is impossible to determine absolute velocity. But this may become possible if we can locate a body at absolute rest. We note that a material body of infinite inertia would be difficult to move and its natural motion may be considered to be at absolute rest. The black holes may be considered to approach the value of infinite inertia, just as light is considered to approach the value of no inertia (or no quantization).

As inertia of the body decreases, it acquires a natural motion that is balanced by its inertia. This gives the body a natural velocity that depends on inertia. The natural velocity increases with decreasing inertia. This velocity shall be absolute in value because it is being measured from absolute rest.

For material substance we may go as low as the inertia of an atom. We then transition to the quantization of field-substance. As quantization decreases the natural velocity of the field-particle approaches the velocity of light. Light has a small amount of quantization. That is why its speed is finite even though very high. At the theoretical value of zero quantization, the speed shall be infinite.

This does not mean that the aether is abolished. We need an aether. The physical world is not to be analyzed into isolated particles of matter or electricity with featureless interspace. We have to attribute as much character to the interspace as to the particles, and in present-day physics quite an army of symbols is required to describe what is going on in the interspace. We postulate aether to bear the characters of the interspace as we postulate matter or electricity to bear the characters of the particles. Perhaps a philosopher might question whether it is not possible to admit the characters alone without picturing anything to support them—thus doing away with aether and matter at one stroke. But that is rather beside the point.

The interspace is not featureless. It is the extension characteristic of field-substance. An example of field substance is light. The field substance is hardly substantial, and therefore, it has extremely high speed. The interspace cannot be filled with aether, which is postulated to be at rest, and therefore, must have infinite inertia.

In the last century it was widely believed that aether was a kind of matter, having properties such as mass, rigidity, motion, like ordinary matter. It would be difficult to say when this view died out. It probably lingered longer in England than on the continent, but I think that even here it had ceased to be the orthodox view some years before the advent of the relativity theory. Logically it was abandoned by the numerous nineteenth-century investigators who regarded matter as vortices, knots, squirts, etc., in the aether; for clearly they could not have supposed that aether consisted of vortices in the aether. But it may not be safe to assume that the authorities in question were logical.

Nowadays it is agreed that aether is not a kind of matter. Being non-material, its properties are sui generis. We must determine them by experiment; and since we have no ground for any preconception, the experimental conclusions can be accepted without surprise or misgiving. Characters such as mass and rigidity which we meet with in matter will naturally be absent in aether; but the aether will have new and definite characters of its own. In a material ocean we can say that a particular particle of water which was here a few moments ago is now over there; there is no corresponding assertion that can be made about the aether. If you have been thinking of the aether in a way which takes for granted this property of permanent identification of its particles, you must revise your conception in accordance with the modern evidence. We cannot find our velocity through the aether; we cannot say whether the aether now in this room is flowing out through the north wall or the south wall. The question would have a meaning for a material ocean, but there is no reason to expect it to have a meaning for the non-material ocean of aether.

The aether itself is as much to the fore as ever it was, in our present scheme of the world. But velocity through aether has been found to resemble that elusive lady Mrs. Harris; and Einstein has inspired us with the daring skepticism—”I don’t believe there’s no sich a person”.

There is no such thing as aether as postulated. If the aether is at rest it must have infinite inertia and nothing shall be able to move through it. But there is field-substance that has little substantiality and things can move through it.

Thus, field-substance can take the place of aether. This only means that the background of material-substance is not at rest, but has great speed. Material-substance has simply congealed out of its background of field-substance. It has slowed down as it has increased in substantiality and acquired structure.


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