Michael Faraday: Thoughts on Ray Vibrations -1854 Letter

Posted: January 7, 2016 by tallbloke in Education, Electro-magnetism, History

A fascinating letter from Michael Faraday to Richard Philips written in 1854.

faradayTo Richard Phillips, Esq.

Dear Sir,

At your request I will endeavor to convey to you a notion of that which I ventured to say at the close of the last Friday-evening Meeting, incidental to the account I gave of Wheatstone’s electro-magnetic chronoscope; but from first to last understand that I merely threw out as matter for speculation, the vague impressions of my mind, for I gave nothing as the result of sufficient consideration, or as the settled conviction, or even probable conclusion at which I had arrived.

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.

You are aware of the speculation (2) which I some time since uttered respecting that view of the nature of matter which considers its ultimate atoms as centres of force, and not as so many little bodies surrounded by forces, the bodies being considered in the abstract as independent of the forces and capable of existing without them. In the latter view, these little particles have a definite form and a certain limited size; in the former view such is not the case, for that which represents size may be considered as extending to any distance to which the lines of force of the particle extend: the particle indeed is supposed to exist only by these forces, and where they are it is. The consideration of matter under this view gradually led me to look at the lines of force as being perhaps the seat of vibrations of radiant phenomena.

Another consideration bearing conjointly on the hypothetical view both of matter and radiation, arises from the comparison of the velocities with which the radiant action and certain powers of matter are transmitted. The velocity of light through space is about 190,000 miles in a second; the velocity of electricity is, by the experiments of Wheatstone, shown to be as great as this, if not greater: the light is supposed to be transmitted by vibrations through an aether which is, so to speak, destitute of gravitation, but infinite in elasticity; the electricity is transmitted through a small metallic wire, and is often viewed as transmitted by vibrations also. That the electric transference depends on the forces or powers of the matter of the wire can hardly be doubted, when we consider the different conductibility of the various metallic and other bodies; the means of affecting it by heat or cold; the way in which conducting bodies by combination enter into the constitution of non-conducting substances, and the contrary; and the actual existence of one elementary body, carbon, both in the conducting and non-conducting state. The power of electric conduction (being a transmission of force equal in velocity to that of light) appears to be tied up in and dependent upon the properties of the matter, and is, as it were, existent in them.

I suppose we may compare together the matter of the aether and ordinary matter (as, for instance, the copper of the wire through which the electricity is conducted), and consider them as alike in their essential constitution; i.e. either as both composed of little nuclei, considered in the abstract as matter, and of force or power associated with these nuclei, or else both consisting of mere centres of force, according to Boscovich’s theory and the view put forth in my speculation; for there is no reason to assume that the nuclei are more requisite in the one case than in the other. It is true that the copper gravitates and the aether does not, and that therefore the copper is ponderable and the aether is not; but that cannot indicate the presence of nuclei in the copper more than in the aether, for of all the powers of matter gravitation is the one in which the force extends to the greatest possible distance from the supposed nucleus, being infinite in relation to the size of the latter, and reducing the nucleus to a mere centre of force. The smallest atom of matter on the earth acts directly on the smallest atom of matter in the sun, though they are 95,000,000 miles apart; further, atoms which, to our knowledge, are at least nineteen times that distance, and indeed in cometary masses, far more, are in a similar way tied together by the lines of force extending from and belonging to each. What is there in the condition of the particles of the supposed aether, if there be even only one such particle between us and the sun, that can in subtility and extent compare to this?

Let us not be confused by the ponderability and gravitation of heavy matter, as if they proved the presence of the abstract nuclei; these are due not to the nuclei, but to the force super-added to them, if the nuclei exist at all; and, if the aether particles be without this force, which according to the assumption is the case, then they are more material, in the abstract sense, than the matter of this our globe; for matter, according to the assumption, being made up of nuclei and force, the aether particles have in this respect proportionately more of the nucleus and less of the force.

On the other hand, the infinite elasticity assumed as belonging to the particles of the aether, is as striking and positive a force of it as gravity is of ponderable particles, and produces in its way effects as great; in witness whereof we have all the varieties of radiant agency as exhibited in luminous, caloric, and actinic phaenomena.

Perhaps I am in error in thinking the idea generally formed of the aether is that its nuclei are almost infinitely small, and that such force as it has, namely its elasticity, is almost infinitely intense. But if such be the received notion, what then is left in the aether but force or centres of force? As gravitation and solidity do not belong to it, perhaps many may admit this conclusion; but what are gravitation and solidity? certainly not the weight and contact of the abstract nuclei. The one is the consequence of an attractive force, which can act at distances as great as the mind of man can estimate or conceive; and the other is the consequence of a repulsive force, which forbids for ever the contact or touch of any two nuclei; so that these powers or properties should not in any degree lead those persons who conceive of the aether as a thing consisting of force only, to think any otherwise of ponderable matter, except that it has more and other forces associated with it than the aether has.

In experimental philosophy we can, by the phaenomena presented, recognize various kinds of lines of force; thus there are the lines of gravitating force, those of electro-static induction, those of magnetic action, and others partaking of a dynamic character might be perhaps included. The lines of electric and magnetic action are by many considered as exerted through space like the lines of gravitating force. For my own part, I incline to believe that when there are intervening particles of matter (being themselves only centres of force), they take part in carrying on the force through the line, but that when there are none, the line proceeds through space. Whatever the view adopted respecting them may be, we can, at all events, affect these lines of force in a manner which may be conceived as partaking of the nature of a shake or lateral vibration. For suppose two bodies, A B, distant from each other and under mutual action, and therefore connected by lines of force, and let us fix our attention upon one resultant of force, having an invariable direction as regards space; if one of the bodies move in the least degree right or left, or if its power be shifted for a moment within the mass (neither of these cases being difficult to realise if A and B be either electric or magnetic bodies), then an effect equivalent to a lateral disturbance will take place in the resultant upon which we are fixing our attention; for, either it will increase in force whilst the neighboring results are diminishing, or it will fall in force as they are increasing.

It may be asked, what lines of force are there in nature which are fitted to convey such an action and supply for the vibrating theory the place of the aether? I do not pretend to answer this question with any confidence; all I can say is, that I do not perceive in any part of space, whether (to use the common phrase) vacant or filled with matter, anything but forces and the lines in which they are exerted. The lines of weight or gravitating force are, certainly, extensive enough to answer in this respect any demand made upon them by radiant phaenomena; and so, probably, are the lines of magnetic force: and then who can forget that Mossotti has shown that gravitation, aggregation, electric force, and electro-chemical action may all have one common connection or origin; and so, in their actions at a distance, may have in common that infinite scope which some of these actions are known to possess?

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 occurrence of a change at one end of a line of force easily suggests a consequent change at the other. The propagation of light, and therefore probably of all radiant action, occupies time; and, that a vibration of the line of force should account for the phaenomena of radiation, it is necessary that such vibration should occupy time also. I am not aware whether there are any data by which it has been, or could be ascertained whether such a power as gravitation acts without occupying time, or whether lines of force being already in existence, such a lateral disturbance at one end as I have suggested above, would require time, or must of necessity be felt instantly at the other end.

As to that condition of the lines of force which represents the assumed high elasticity of the aether, it cannot in this respect be deficient: the question here seems rather to be, whether the lines are sluggish enough in their action to render them equivalent to the aether in respect of the time known experimentally to be occupied in the transmission of radiant force.

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!

And now, my dear Phillips, I must conclude. I do not think I should have allowed these notions to have escaped from me, had I not been led unawares, and without previous consideration, by the circumstances of the evening on which I had to appear suddenly and occupy the place of another. Now that I have put them on paper, I feel that I ought to have kept them much longer for study, consideration, and, perhaps final rejection; and it is only because they are sure to go abroad in one way or another, in consequence of their utterance on that evening, that I give shape, if shape it may be called, in this reply to your inquiry. One thing is certain, that any hypothetical view of radiation which is likely to be received or retained as satisfactory, must not much longer comprehend alone certain phaenomena of light, but must include those of heat and of actinic influence also, and even the conjoined phaenomena of sensible heat and chemical power produced by them. In this respect, a view, which is in some degree founded upon the ordinary forces of matter, may perhaps find a little consideration amongst the other views that will probably arise. I think it likely that I have made many mistakes in the preceeding pages, for even to myself, my ideas on this point appear only as the shadow of a speculation, or as one of those impressions on the mind which are allowable for a time as guides to thought and research. He who labours in experimental inquiries knows how numerous these are, and how often their apparent fitness and beauty vanish before the progress and development of real natural truth.

I am, my dear Phillips,

Ever truly yours,

M. Faraday,

April 15, 1846

*”Experimental Researches in Electricity”, Vol III, M. Faraday, p447-452<

1) M. Faraday, Philosophical Magazine, S.3, Vol XXVIII, N188, May 1846

2) M. Faraday, Phil Magazine, 1844, Vol XXIV, p136; or Exp.Res.II.284

  1. p.g.sharrow says:

    Thank you for posting this letter of M.Faraday on his considerations of forces and radiations in Aether. This is a problem I have pondered for many years. Only after I assigned charge, negative, to Aether and lack of charge, positive, to Matter, was I able to fit all the parts together. As the fabric of space, Aether, is charge, packed to high density, energy transport behaves as both wave and particle. Gravity operates in the proper manner for an EMF effect. Every thing in the Universe feels the changes of every other thing and Mass/Inertia can be explained…pg

  2. gymnosperm says:

    ” for I gave nothing as the result of sufficient consideration, or as the settled conviction, or even probable conclusion at which I had arrived.”

    Humility. No matter that he was a fogging genius who somehow managed to invent the electric motor and the electric generator in spite of self admittedly sucking at math.

    Supposedly Aether is rendered unnecessary by quantum theory, but then again, gravity and the dark things remain unexplained. Dark entropy has not even suggested…

    Would that we could find today his humility, his commitment, and his freedom to pursue his scientific heart.

  3. gymnosperm says:

    As I’ve given this nowhere near sufficient consideration, and I’m totally not certain yet, I nevertheless became interested in your comment on the second reading. If the dark things are the Aether, and they are negatively charged…that would not explain their overwhelming predominance in the current idiom. Wouldn’t everything be a black hole?

  4. oldbrew says:

    An opposing view?

    ‘The Luminiferous Ether’

    ‘The point is that there is simply no experimental evidence for the ether, and no need for it in any of our physical laws or theories. You can’t disprove something that isn’t there, or something that doesn’t affect anything material in any way. Yet even today, there are non-scientists who desperately seek to revive this 19th century ether concept. Why? The idea seems so “right” to them. They cannot imagine light moving through “nothing”. They are a classic case of people who have an emotional commitment to an appealing naive concept, and will bend physics and logic in order to justify that idea.’

    The writer points out that light can travel through a vacuum, but sound can’t. Worth a look, it’s only a short summary.

  5. p.g.sharrow says:

    Max Plank and Albert Einstein said they did not need the existence of Aether for their calculations although both believed in it’s existence. They, like Hubble, created “constants” to add to their formula to suppliant for that unknown. While it is very difficult to directly measure something that is so much smaller then the measuring devices, we can infer it’s existence from it’s effects on other things.

    As to acceptance of the existence of Aether to modern trained “Scientists” I really don’t care. Their theories have demonstrated far too many inconsistencies and required an upgrade. I was trained in the standard model like everyone else and after 30 years, had to rewrite my brain to make all the facts fit together.

    There ain’t nothing in space! It is jam packed filled with something! Matter in free fall has mass and inertia. How is that possible? EMF effects travel through space. How is that possible? Gravity influences astral bodies over vast distances. How is that possible? Light travels as wave and particle at a single apparent speed regardless of the speed and direction of it’s point of origin and the speed and direction of the detectors. How is that possible? Matter, protons etc., are made up of something that is at the start, nothing.

    My universe requires Aether for everything in it to work together. I need Aether to be able to create an EMF space drive. Various reported test results over the last 150years have indicated that this is possible. Modern accepted “Standard Theory” models say this is not possible. I believe it is…pg

  6. oldbrew says:

    If space was empty, things like the solar wind and the Van Allen radiation belts would be figments of the imagination, but they’re not.

    ‘A population of high-energy electrons inhabits the Van Allen radiation belts high above Earth.’

  7. p.g.sharrow says:

    When the quanta we call Electrons lose their energy they can not be detected, so it is said that they have ceased to exist. Photons are the same, as well as are Neutrinos and other “particles”. Only Protons seem to be immutable things that have actual existence. All the others seem to be creatures of charge-energy and seem to vanish when drained. A good example of our Pantheon of subatomic particles being creations derived from detector device outputs and the need for Nobel Prizes. All just different energy signatures of the same quanti…pg

  8. oldbrew says:

    p.g.: the NASA link says – ‘During solar storms, high-energy electrons in the [Van Allen] belts have been known to vanish – only to return a few hours later. This strange phenomenon was first spotted in the 1960s, and it has puzzled physicists ever since.’

  9. Brett Keane says:

    In 2001, i saw the article and pictures in Science magazine IIRC, about the first “stopping of light” observed claim. In a type of Bose-Einstein condensate, there were pictures (don’t ask me how) of a round and white photon in black and white, slowing; stopping and almost disappearing; then moving again and reappearing. I thought it was marvellous, but it leaves a lot of questions. Some, obviously going back to Faraday. Truly a great mind.

  10. tallbloke says:

    Faraday understood that whereas sound propagates as longitudinal waves, EM radiation is the resultant of two transverse waves at right angles to each other (the Poynting vector). But waves need a medium to propagate in – hence the aether discussion.

  11. Faraday mentions here another great mind, Roger Joseph Boscovich. He was a Ragusan physicist, astronomer, mathematician, philosopher, diplomat, poet, theologian, Jesuit priest, and a polymath from the city of Dubrovnik in the Republic of Ragusa (modern-day Croatia), who studied and lived in Italy and France where he also published many of his works.


  12. oldbrew says:

    TB says: ‘But waves need a medium to propagate in’

    Mathis argues:
    ‘I have shown in another paper that the wave motion of light and matter is caused by multiple spins, not by the motion of a medium. Because y and z spins must be physically external to the x spin, the wave motion may be explained with motions of the particle itself—no medium is required. This removes the primary historical reason for the ether, and again puts me in line with Einstein.’

    The Ether – by Miles Mathis

  13. tallbloke says:

    Einstein did have an aether theory in his earlier work, and was concerned by Miller’s work on the anisotropy of light. I think that as usual, it’s a case of ‘all of the above’. There is some entrainment of polarized structure in the interplanetary field by the Earth’s magnetosphere, but radiation isn’t dependent on it for propagation, though it is to some extent modulated by it. But I could be wrong. 🙂

  14. hunter says:

    photons (EM radiation) are particles that propagate in wave form. Aether is not required and there is no objective evidence it exists.

  15. tallbloke says:

    Proposition 1. photons (EM radiation) are particles that propagate in wave form.
    Proposition 2. Aether (or some medium capable of supporting waves) is not required and there is no objective evidence it exists.


  16. nuwurld says:

    Hi TB. In the (correct) diagram of a (far field) em wave as shown in the diagram you have provided, the ‘in phase’ characteristics of the E and B field strength begs the question of where does the energy go at the nodes. How can it momentarily have zero electric and zero magnetic components without some ‘memory’ or elasticity in another form? I understand that, the loading or losses in near field transmission only occur until the E and B fields become in phase at which point the disturbance becomes self propagating, and is independent then of energy lost from the source. It is also worth noting perhaps that the magnetic component in phase with the electric field strength E is magnetic induction B, not magnetic intensity H, that being in phase with D, the electric displacement. The diagram you have shown implies this but does not suggest a phase difference between E and D, or B and H. Any thoughts?

  17. tallbloke says:

    nuwurld: where does the energy go at the nodes. How can it momentarily have zero electric and zero magnetic components without some ‘memory’ or elasticity in another form?

    Help! More scientists needed! 🙂

    I wonder if Faraday might have answered nuwurld’s question by speculating that the energy must be temporarily stored in the elastic deformation of the aether, and restored to the propagating wave very soon afterwards?

  18. p.g.sharrow says:

    The model that I have come up with is that Aether is charge bubbles in chaos. That chaos is aligned or organized under EMF influence. That EMF travels in the highly compressed minute charge bubbles of the Aether. Electrons, photons, neutrinos are just energy information traveling through these bubbles. Every EMF action causes an opposite reaction from the neighboring bubbles, a perfect elastic that tends to concentrate the energy to the center of its’ path. If you drain that energy with a detection you “see” a particle that behaves as if it were a wave, but really only the energy is delivered.
    All detection requires a Quanta of energy to create a signal in the detector because that is how much is required to make a valance change in an atom in the detector. We “see” particles because we “see” units of energy.
    Electrons, photons, neutrinos,etc. are all Aether with different electronic signatures caused by differences in the 3 dimensions of internal motion caused by the internal actions of the proton that created or emitted them.

    Mass/inertia are external effects in the Aether caused by the internal actions of protons or Matter. Gravity is caused by the difference of charge between Aether and Matter…pg

  19. Alex says:

    QED theory implies an ‘ether’. There is no such thing as empty space. EM radiation is everywhere in the known universe. The void is full of energy to one degree or another. You can ‘see’ from any part of the universe.

  20. p.g.sharrow says:

    A more extensive explanation of my comments:
    Or TB can reblog…pg

  21. Wayne Job says:

    The standard model concluded in a failure as most of the universe is missing, thus the dark matter and dark energy BS. Space is pervaded by something call it anything you want but Aether has a nice ring to it. When we can quantify it then we can give it a name for what it is, that a strange force exists I have no doubt for what I am playing with should not happen according to main stream science.

  22. nuwurld says:

    It appears that I have misinterpreted the Poynting vector axis in worrying about energy at the nodes. It never is an issue. In the reference frame of the photon the peaks of E occur in phase with H and propagate ‘unchanged’ through time and space. The peaks never become nodes but are inter-spaced by them at the relevant frequency interval. In the external frame the observer sees a series of in phase pulses of electric and magnetic field disturbance at a frequency modulated by relative velocity of observer and emitter, but again no energy exists at the nodes, nor is it required to.

  23. nuwurld says:

    To agree with Alex, I believe it was Einstein who said,

    “matter doesn’t fill space, but the radiation from matter does”

    Radiation being a vector quantity can be summed over all angles at all monochromatic intervals over the entire spectrum to yield a single flux at any instant at any point in space (not a trivial calculation though!). That flux is also the Poynting Vector as used in applied physics, and gives the netted radiosity through a given surface. The direction and magnitude of the Poynting Vector here denotes the magnitude of net gain or loss by radiation.

  24. tom0mason says:

    TB says: ‘But waves need a medium to propagate in’

    Do not EM waves propagate through the medium of space-time?

  25. p.g.sharrow says:

    @tomOmason: What is space-time? please define…pg

  26. hunter says:

    Predictions based on the photon nature of EM have been verified as accurate.
    None of the those predictions require an Aetheric medium.
    Despite detailed comprehensive efforts, no physical evidence has been documented to date to demonstrate the existence of Aether.
    Is there “more” to be discovered? I believe the answer is yes. Knowing I am merely speculating, I still hope that someday breakthroughs in physics will occur that will lead to FTL for humanity.

  27. tom0mason says:

    P.G. Sharrow

    Space-time is that peculiar idea of Einstein, and as such is a major part of his ‘Special Theory of Relativity’.
    In order to sidestep the issue of Newton’s Third Law of Motion

    Third law: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.

    (from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton's_laws_of_motion)
    and the theoretical impossibility of matter traveling faster than the speed of light, Einstein speculated on the relationship between time and space. He thought that when taken together, space, consisting of three dimensions (up-down, left-right, and forward-backward) and time are all part of what’s called the space-time continuum.
    Within this theory Einstein states two postulates:

    1. The speed of light (about 300,000,000 meters per second) is the same for all observers, whether or not they’re moving.
    2. Anyone moving at a constant speed should observe the same physical laws.

    Unfortunately Einstein’s theory does not truly define time, nor does he indicate how we can test to ensure that space-time is constant — that is to say space-time progresses at a constant rate, or if the progress of time and space can vary.

  28. tom0mason says:

    Sorry for the format mess the quote ends after ‘…direction on the first body. ‘ My dyslexia ranges today and screws up another hour of work! Ho-humm, I hope you get the gist…