“Action at a Distance” & Faraday

ReferenceA Logical Approach to Theoretical Physics

The problem of action at a distance arose in Newton’s logical framework of “particles in void”. The particles are made of matter and have properties. The “void” is free of matter and has no property. The question arose, “How can two objects attract each other across a void that has no property?” To answer that, scientists postulated an unknown material substance called aether that permeated the void. They were now trying to find this substance.

In 1844, Michael Faraday encountered a similar problem in the context of electricity. He noted that the atomic doctrine of continuous space separating matter into discrete, impenetrable atoms leads to contradictions from the view of electric conduction1.

It would seem, therefore, that in accepting the ordinary atomic theory, space may be proved to be a non-conductor in non-conducting bodies, and a conductor in conducting bodies, but the reasoning ends in this, a subversion of that theory altogether; for if space be an insulator it cannot exist in conducting bodies, and if it be a conductor it cannot exist in insulating bodies. Any ground of reasoning which tends to such conclusions as these must in itself be false.

He noted further that a discrete atom, which was an unchangeable, impenetrable piece of matter, could not act as a center that extended force out to other atoms1.

If, in the ordinary view of atoms, we call the particle of matter away from the powers a, and the system of powers or forces in and around it m, then in Boscovich’s theory a disappears, or is a mere mathematical point, whilst in the usual notion it is a little unchangeable, impenetrable piece of matter, and m is an atmosphere of force grouped around it…
Thus, referring back to potassium, in which as a metal the atoms must, as we have seen, be, according to the usual view, very far apart from each other, how can we for a moment imagine that its conducting property belongs to it, any otherwise than as a consequence of the properties of the space, or as I have called it above, the m? … which, without the forces, is conceived of as having no powers. But then surely the m is the matter of the potassium, for where is there the least ground (except in a gratuitous assumption) for imagining a difference in kind between the nature of that space midway between the centres of two contiguous atoms and any other spot between these centres? …
To my mind, therefore, the a or nucleus vanishes, and the substance consists of the powers or m; and indeed what notion can we form of the nucleus independent of its powers? all our perception and knowledge of the atom, and even our fancy, is limited to ideas of its powers: what thought remains on which to hang the imagination of an a independent of the acknowledged forces? A mind just entering on the subject may consider it difficult to think of the powers of matter independent of a separate something to be called the matter, but it is certainly far more difficult, and indeed impossible, to think of or imagine that matter independent of the powers. Now the powers we know and recognize in every phaenomena of the creation, the abstract matter in none; why then assume the existence of that of which we are ignorant, which we cannot conceive, and for which there is no philosophical necessity?

In other words, matter or substance is recognized by its powers. Therefore, the location of the powers determines the location of the substance. In the above case powers are in the force surrounding the center, and not at the center. Therefore, the assumed matter at the center is just a mathematical point, and the forces surrounding the center are the actual substance of the atom.

Faraday concluded that there is continuity between two contiguous atoms, and the atmosphere of force constitutes the substance of the atom. There is no hard boundary between particle and void or matter and space. The properties of a molecule are evenly distributed even when it contains different types of atoms. The matter is present everywhere within the molecule, and there is no intervening space unoccupied by it. Thus, atoms everywhere touch each other; no mere intervening space is present. In such a view all the contradiction resulting from the consideration of electric insulation and conduction disappears.

Atoms everywhere touch each other; no mere intervening space is present.

The consideration of matter under this view gradually led Faraday to consider the lines of force as being perhaps the seat of vibrations of radiant phenomena. In 1846, he wrote2,

The point intended to be set forth for consideration of the hearers was, whether it was not possible that vibrations which in a certain theory are assumed to account for radiation and radiant phaenomena may not occur in the lines of force which connect particles, and consequently masses of matter together; a notion which as far as is admitted, will dispense with the aether, which in another view, is supposed to be the medium in which these vibrations take place.

Faraday thus extended his observation of inter-atomic “space” to inter-stellar space of the universe. He adds2,

The view which I am so bold to put forth considers, therefore, radiation as a kind of species of vibration in the lines of force which are known to connect particles and also masses of matter together. It endeavors to dismiss the aether, but not the vibration. The kind of vibration which, I believe, can alone account for the wonderful, varied, and beautiful phaenomena of polarization, is not the same as that which occurs on the surface of disturbed water, or the waves of sound in gases or liquids, for the vibrations in these cases are direct, or to and from the centre of action, whereas the former are lateral. It seems to me, that the resultant of two or more lines of force is in an apt condition for that action which may be considered as equivalent to a lateral vibration; whereas a uniform medium, like the aether, does not appear apt, or more apt than air or water.

The vibrations visualized by Faraday affected the very “substance” of space as they propagated through it. This progression occupied time. Faraday saw the impossibility of instantaneous action at a distance even in the case of gravitation.

The time known experimentally to be occupied in the transmission of radiant force required that the supposed aether as a medium be highly elastic. But for lines of force the equivalent condition called for sluggishness, or a form of inertia.

Faraday compares his lines of force to aether as follows2,

The aether is assumed as pervading all bodies as well as space: in the view now set forth, it is the forces of the atomic centres which pervade (and make) all bodies, and also penetrate all space. As regards space, the difference is, that the aether presents successive parts of centres of action, and the present supposition only lines of action; as regards matter, the difference is, that the aether lies between the particles and so carries on the vibrations, whilst as respects the supposition, it is by the lines of force between the centres of the particles that the vibration is continued. As to the difference in intensity of action within matter under the two views, I suppose it will be very difficult to draw any conclusion, for when we take the simplest state of common matter and that which most nearly causes it to approximate to the condition of the aether, namely the state of the rare gas, how soon do we find in its elasticity and the mutual repulsion of its particles, a departure from the law, that the action is inversely as the square of the distance!

Thus, aether is assumed to permeate the space between atoms and fill the space between material bodies. In the alternate view,  but the lines of force form the atoms, material bodies and the space in between. Space and matter are simply the expressions of various conditions of force. When we approximate the conditions of the aether by the state of rare gas filling space, we soon discover its incompatibility in expressing action per the inverse square law due to limitation on elasticity with mutual repulsion among its particles. There is no such limitation when the continuity expressed through lines of force in intervening space is considered.

The continuum of substance perspective held by Faraday is consistent with all phenomena in the universe: matter, space, light, heat, chemical and nuclear reactions.

In 1852, Faraday wrote3:

There is one question in relation to gravity, which, if we could ascertain or touch it, would greatly enlighten us. It is, whether gravitation requires time. If it did, it would show undeniably that a physical agency existed in the course of the line of force. It seems equally impossible to prove or disprove this point; since there is no capability of suspending, changing, or annihilating the power (gravity), or annihilating the matter in which the power resides.

Recent detection of gravitational waves by LIGO (Laser Interferometer

Gravitational-Wave Observatory) should prove that space has physical characteristics, and that inter-stellar space acts as a medium.

Faraday view on force includes the inerent force of matter or inertia and the energy of radiative phenomena. Thus, Faraday’s concept of force is much more comprehannsive than Newton’s limited concept of force as “mass times acceleration”.

In his lecture on Conservation of Force4 Faraday stated

Supposing that the truth of the principle of the conservation of force is assented to, I come to its uses. No hypothesis should be admitted nor any assertion of a fact credited, that denies the principle. No view should be inconsistent or incompatible with it. Many of our hypotheses in the present state of science may not comprehend it, and may be unable to suggest its consequences; but none should oppose or contradict it.

Therefore, Faraday insisted that, with regard to conservation of force, any and all types of force must be included and their effects followed up. It is not metaphysical to observe and follow effects that have never been observed before. 

To Faraday the conservation of force was the most important prnciple4.

If the principle be admitted, we perceive at once, that a theory or definition, though it may not contradict the principle cannot be accepted as sufficient or complete unless the former be contained in it; that however well or perfectly the definition may include and represent the state of things commonly considered under it, that state or result is only partial, and must not be accepted as exhausting the power or being the full equivalent, and therefore cannot be considered as representing its whole nature; that, indeed, it may express only a very small part of the whole, only a residual phenomenon, and hence give us but little indication of the full natural truth. Allowing the principle its force, we ought, in every hypothesis; either to account for its consequences by saying what the changes are when force of a given kind apparently disappears, as when ice thaws, or else should leave space for the idea of the conversion. If any hypothesis, more or less trustworthy on other accounts, is insufficient in expressing it or incompatible with it, the place of deficiency or opposition should be marked as the most important for examination; for there lies the hope of a discovery of new laws or a new condition of force. The deficiency should never be accepted as satisfactory, but be remembered and used as a stimulant to further inquiry; for conversions of force may here be hoped for.  Suppositions may be accepted for the time, provided they are not in contradiction with the principle. Even an increased or diminished capacity is better than nothing at all; because such a supposition, if made, must be consistent with the nature of the original hypothesis, and may, therefore, by the application of experiment, be converted into a further test of probable truth. The case of a force simply removed or suspended, without a transferred exertion in some other direction, appears to me to be absolutely impossible.

Thus Faraday had a viable solution to the problem of action at a distance both physically and logically by considering a continuum of substance. This solution led to a concept of force that was inclusive of Newtonian mass and energy. 

Faraday came up with a brilliant solution to the problem of “action at a distance”, that required a logical framework of continuum of substance, which was very different from the Newtonian framework.

But Faraday’s framework of continuity of substance was in opposition to Newton’s framework of particles in void. Faraday was not a theoretician. His brilliant solution arose from his extensive and painstaking experimentation with electricity and magnetism. He could not bring mathematics to support his solution. A lack of resolution of this conflict meant the continuance of highly successful theory and framework employed by Newton. Therefore, no other scientist followed Faraday’s work with the exactitude he displayed.


1A speculation touching Electrical Conduction and the Nature of Matter” by Michael Faraday (1844), Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, Vol. XXIV, p. 136
2Thoughts on Ray Vibrations”, Lecture by Michael Faraday (1846),  Experimental Researches in Electricity, Vol III, M. Faraday, p447-452
3On the Physical Character of the lines of magnetic Force” by Michael Faraday (June 1852), Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, [Fourth Series], p. 401
4On the Conservation of Force” by Michael Faraday (1857), Proceedings of the Royal Institution, Vol. II, p. 352


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  • vinaire  On December 15, 2018 at 7:03 AM

    It is possible that lines of force are not there without vibrations. They are made up of vibrations.

    Thoughts are made of lines of force of extremely low vibrations. Electromagnetic radiations are made of lines of force of low to high vibrations. Matter is made of lines of force of extremely high vibrations.

    A line of force with vibration has force and inertia.

  • vinaire  On December 15, 2018 at 9:09 AM

    Reality is made up of SUBSTANCE. There are three types of substance: material, electromagnetic and thought. All three lie on the same spectrum. The electromagnetic spectrum consists of material at its upper end and thought at its lower end.

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