Question

I’m a liberal arts major so science, while interesting, is not something I claim expertise in. Still, there are questions that occur to me. Among them is one prompted by this:

My question is this: having disposed of a universe-permeating field known as “ether” in the 19th Century, what exactly is the difference between that and another universe-permeating field called a “Higgs field” in the 21st Century? I’m wondering what Mike Flynn makes of all this.

  • Alister

    The wonder of science is that it can go through different theories and test them until they’re either proven (in this case, actually finding the Higgs boson) or snap under the weight of other evidence.

    None of which conflicts with faith, of course: I see science as listening ever more closely to the intricacies of the symphony of creation. How much more astounding is a God who can create not only the visible world, but the tiny intricacies of the subatomic universe?

  • godescalc

    Ideas like the “space-time continuum” or “quantum vacuum” can also be regarded as aethers – Einstein spoke of relativistic space-time as a “new aether”. What science ditched back in the day was the specific theory of the luminiferous aether, and particularly the idea that the aether was a stationary thing you could move through – if you can move relative to the aether, this implies the aether is a priviledged reference frame, whereas relativity is built on the idea there are no priviledged reference frames.

    Also the word “aether” went out of fashion, being associated with the outmoded theory of “luminiferous aether” and therefore in opposition to relativity, but this is a purely cosmetic issue. It would not change the theory of relativity to relabel “spacetime” as “the relativistick aether”, and you could similarly rechristen “quantum vacuum” as “the undoparticulate aether” without any effect on science (beyond forcing quantum scientists everywhere to waste time and money rewriting all the textbooks).

    • Dan C

      Who uses textbooks?

  • kristan

    hi mark,

    a friend who faithfully reads your blog forwarded this to me (a less faithful reader). let me address a few aspects of your question.
    – the higgs is not the only example of a “universe permeating field.” the formalism by which people talk about the higgs is known as quantum field theory, often abbreviated as QFT. the objects in QFT are quantum fields whose excitations are observable particles like the electron, proton, and various composite states. all of these fields are “universe permeating.” if you will, you can think of this statement as being equivalent to “an electron/quark/photon/higgs can live anywhere in the universe.”
    – QFT is a remarkably robust framework that naturally incorporates the postulates of quantum mechanics whilst being consistent with relativity (that is, QFT is covariant). it’s used for, well, just about everything these days. e.g. QED (quantum electrodynamics) is a quantum version of electromagnetism, describing light and electrically charged particles like the electron.
    – besides being robust, it’s been freakishly accurate and predictive. for instance, the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron has been measured and predicted to high precision. the results agree to 10 sig figs.
    – the reason why the c.~1900 aether theory was wrong wasn’t because it sounds like a silly piece of metaphysics when explained to the general public. the reason is that it simply doesn’t describe Creation. you can make predictions from the aether theory that do not match the world around us. for instance, the observed speed of light would vary as a function of relative velocity to the aether.
    – there are also theoretical reasons why people should have not put as much stock in the aether theory. however, these are nigh infinitely easier to understand after the fact. for instance, ordinary electromagnetism (i.e. maxwell’s equations) naturally implies relativity rather than an aether-like propagating medium for light.
    – back to the higgs. the words used in the fermilab video sound somewhat ridiculous, but I assure you that there are well-defined models with a “higgs field” (or five as in the MSSM, or more) that can be used to make predictions. like the existence of a higgs boson.
    – if that prediction holds, the models consistent with data will be held credible. those that aren’t, won’t. it’s really no more complex than that.

    best,
    kristan

    • Mark Shea

      Thanks. Please understand I have no investment in 19th Century ether theories. I was just having trouble understanding the difference between that and the more modern conceptions. I’m not quite clear on some of your jargon, but I think I get a rough idea of the difference now. Thanks.

      • kristan

        hi mark,

        no worries.

        regarding jargon, thanks for reminding me. I put jargon in the original post so that, if you were interested in learning more about these things, you know where to start looking for more information. in particular, wikipedia has surprisingly good articles on particle physics.

        the crisp difference between the aether and modern theories is: the aether was posited as a universe-filling medium required for the propagation of light, whereas modern theories use the mathematical construct known as a “quantum field” to consistently describe particles and their interactions (I mean consistent with the postulates of quantum mechanics and relativity).

        best,
        kristan

      • Ralph

        Kristan did a pretty good job, but I’ll take a shot at stating in less technical terms the difference between quantum fields (QF) like the Higgs/electrons/photons and the ‘luminiferous aether’ (LF).

        The LF was postulated as a medium which could have an overall motion relative to everything else, and this motion could be measured.

        The QFs have no overall motion, but local excitations of a QF (for example, excitations of the electron field are individual electrons) can move around, and this movement can be measured.

        The EF is something like a fluid that permeates all space, but a QF is more like a look-up table of values of some feature that all of space-time has. For example, the electro-magnetic ‘field’ describes the ‘electromagnetic-ness’ of each point in space-time, so for the tip of Mark Shea’s nose at December 16, 2011 at 9:46 am has some of particular value of ‘electromagnetic-ness’ (or higgs-ness, or gravity-ness, and so on) and the collection of values for all points in space is called the electrmagnetic (or higgs or gravity) field.

        • Ralph

          looks like I butchered the html tags and mixed up my own terminology – by ‘EF’ I meant to say LF, the luminiferous ether.

        • Dr. Eric

          Back in my day (the 90s), they told us outer space was a vacuum. Is it no longer a vacuum?

        • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

          @Kristan & @Ralph,

          So, if I’m understanding you correctly, a “particle” is not a substantial thing as I’m used to thinking of it, but is rather an excitation of a field?

          This would make sense of Dr. Lincoln’s statement that electrons and top quarks have “zero size”.

          Am I anywhere near the right track on this? Thanks!

  • http://www.deepsoftime.com Michael Baruzzini

    Godescalc is right. The “ether” dismissed previously was a medium filling space through which light traveled — they reasoned that, since light is waves and waves travel through a medium, then there must be a medium filling all space that light travels through. That idea didn’t pan out. The basic idea of another sort of “ether” as a substance filling all of space, or perhaps more accurately as space itself being a substance or a medium or an “ether”, is in fact more amenable to modern conceptions.


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