Eddington 1927: Non-Empty Space


This paper presents Chapter VII (section 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.


Non-Empty Space

The law that the directed radius is constant does not apply to space which is not completely empty. There is no longer any reason to expect it to hold. The statement that the region is not empty means that it has other characteristics besides metric, and the metre rod can then find other lengths besides curvatures to measure itself against. Referring to the earlier (sufficiently approximate) expression of the law, the ten principal coefficients of curvature are zero in empty space but have non-zero values in non-empty space. It is therefore natural to use these coefficients as a measure of the fullness of space.

There is material-space that characterizes the extent of material-substance. Then there is field-space that characterizes the extent of field-substance. There is no space without substance. Hence there is no such thing as empty space.

The measure of fullness of “field-space” comes from quantization of the field-substance. The vanishing ten principal coefficients of the general theory of relativity may then be applied to the field-substance because of the great variations in quantization that goes to zero. The inertia of material-substance remains pretty much finite and constant.

One of the coefficients corresponds to mass (or energy) and in most practical cases it outweighs the others in importance. The old definition of mass as “quantity of matter” associates it with a fullness of space. Three other coefficients make up the momentum—a directed quantity with three independent components. The remaining six coefficients of principal curvature make up the stress or pressure-system. Mass, momentum and stress accordingly represent the non-emptiness of a region in so far as it is able to disturb the usual surveying apparatus with which we explore space—clocks, scales, light-rays, etc. It should be added, however, that this is a summary description and not a full account of the non-emptiness, because we have other exploring apparatus—magnets, electroscopes, etc.—which provide further details. It is usually considered that when we use these we are exploring not space, but a field in space. The distinction thus created is a rather artificial one which is unlikely to be accepted permanently. It would seem that the results of exploring the world with a measuring scale and a magnetic compass respectively ought to be welded together into a unified description, just as we have welded together results of exploration with a scale and a clock. Some progress has been made towards this unification. There is, however, a real reason for admitting a partially separate treatment; the one mode of exploration determines the symmetrical properties and the other the antisymmetrical properties of the underlying world-structure (see p. 236).

There is material-space and field-space, but no “material in space” or “field in space”. That is where the “particles in void” perspective goes wrong. That perspective generates error with unnecessary concepts, such as, aether. Space is a general term for field-substance. We need to develop appropriate surveying apparatus to measure the quantization characteristic of space.

The curvature of the general theory of relativity represents the twisting of space. The ten coefficients, which describe this twisting of space are: mass (1 coefficient), momentum (3 coefficients) and stress (6 coefficients). We need to figure out how these coefficients may help us determine quantization.

Objection has often been taken, especially by philosophical writers, to the crudeness of Einstein’s initial requisitions, viz. a clock and a measuring scale. But the body of experimental knowledge of the world which Einstein’s theory seeks to set in order has not come into our minds as a heaven-sent inspiration; it is the result of a survey in which the clock and the scale have actually played the leading part. They may seem very gross instruments to those accustomed to the conceptions of atoms and electrons, but it is correspondingly gross knowledge that we have been discussing in the chapters concerned with Einstein’s theory. As the relativity theory develops, it is generally found desirable to replace the clock and scale by the moving particle and light-ray as the primary surveying appliances; these are test bodies of simpler structure. But they are still gross compared with atomic phenomena. The light-ray, for instance, is not applicable to measurements so refined that the diffraction of light must be taken into account. Our knowledge of the external world cannot be divorced from the nature of the appliances with which we have obtained the knowledge. The truth of the law of gravitation cannot be regarded as subsisting apart from the experimental procedure by which we have ascertained its truth.

Clock and scale as surveying apparatus apply to the measurement of material-time and material-space respectively. Using these, the theory of relativity discovered anomaly when light, which represents field-substance, was compared to material-substance. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, thus, sets the stage up for more refined explanations.

The conception of frames of space and time, and of the non-emptiness of the world described as energy, momentum, etc., is bound up with the survey by gross appliances. When they can no longer be supported by such a survey, the conceptions melt away into meaninglessness. In particular the interior of the atom could not conceivably be explored by a gross survey. We cannot put a clock or a scale into the interior of an atom. It cannot be too strongly insisted that the terms distance, period of time, mass, energy, momentum, etc., cannot be used in a description of an atom with the same meanings that they have in our gross experience. The atomic physicist who uses these terms must find his own meanings for them—must state the appliances which he requisitions when he imagines them to be measured. It is sometimes supposed that (in addition to electrical forces) there is a minute gravitational attraction between an atomic nucleus and the satellite electrons, obeying the same law as the gravitation between the sun and its planets. The supposition seems to me fantastic; but it is impossible to discuss it without any indication as to how the region within the atom is supposed to have been measured up. Apart from such measuring up the electron goes as it pleases “like the blessed gods”.

The concepts of distance, period of time, mass, energy, momentum, stress, etc., have been designed for material-substance. These concepts cannot be applied to space or, field-substance, without some modification. That modification requires knowledge of quantization of field-substance.

We have reached a point of great scientific and philosophic interest. The ten principal coefficients of curvature of the world are not strangers to us; they are already familiar in scientific discussion under other names (energy, momentum, stress). This is comparable with a famous turning-point in the development of electromagnetic theory. The progress of the subject led to the consideration of waves of electric and magnetic force travelling through the aether; then it flashed upon Maxwell that these waves were not strangers but were already familiar in our experience under the name of light. The method of identification is the same. It is calculated that electromagnetic waves will have just those properties which light is observed to have; so too it is calculated that the ten coefficients of curvature have just those properties which energy, momentum and stress are observed to have. We refer here to physical properties only. No physical theory is expected to explain why there is a particular kind of image in our minds associated with light, nor why a conception of substance has arisen in our minds in connection with those parts of the world containing mass.

We erroneously assign mass to field-particles, such as, electron, proton, neutron etc. They do not have mass (structured inertia); they have charge (unstructured quantization). Mass-energy equivalence really refers to the equivalence between mass and charge. Such equivalence does not mean that mass and charge can be interchanged.

The concepts, which were traditionally developed for material-substance, must be reviewed before they can be applied to field-substance.

This leads to a considerable simplification, because identity replaces causation. On the Newtonian theory no explanation of gravitation would be considered complete unless it described the mechanism by which a piece of matter gets a grip on the surrounding medium and makes it the carrier of the gravitational influence radiating from the matter. Nothing corresponding to this is required in the present theory. We do not ask how mass gets a grip on space-time and causes the curvature which our theory postulates. That would be as superfluous as to ask how light gets a grip on the electromagnetic medium so as to cause it to oscillate. The light is the oscillation; the mass is the curvature. There is no causal effect to be attributed to mass; still less is there any to be attributed to matter. The conception of matter, which we associate with these regions of unusual contortion, is a monument erected by the mind to mark the scene of conflict. When you visit the site of a battle, do you ever ask how the monument that commemorates it can have caused so much carnage?

The lines of force concept appropriately explains how a piece of matter gets a grip on the surrounding medium and makes it the carrier of the gravitational influence radiating from the matter. This brings Newtonian mechanics in consistency with the general theory of relativity when that theory is expressed in terms of quantization.

The philosophic outcome of this identification will occupy us considerably in later chapters. Before leaving the subject of gravitation I wish to say a little about the meaning of space-curvature and non-Euclidean geometry.


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