Aether, Ether, Higgs?

When is a field not a field? When you call it aether, apparently.

“Aethers were invented for the planets to swim in, to constitute electric atmospheres and magnetic effluvia, to convey sensations from one part of our bodies to another, and so on, until all space had been filled three or four times over with aethers … The only aether which has survived is that which was invented by Huygens to explain the propagation of light.”

James Clerk Maxwell 1878, Encyclopedia Britannica

The image above comes from the SGU on Facebook, their Facebook status referencing an article in Popular Mechanics. The article details the experiment that proved that alchemical aether didn’t exist back in 1887. This isn’t the first time that the SGU and its host Dr. Steve Novella have ridiculed the notion of aether as a substance that permeates all matter and gives it definition. What I find interesting is that scientific people, people like the brothers Novella, recently celebrated the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Particle physicists in particular were thrilled that they finally discovered the Higgs, the final piece of the puzzle that completes the standard model of particle physics (and if you have a grasp of what that is, you are probably doing better than I am right now) they now have all the particles that represent the forces and parts of nature that were theorized centuries ago. Except that they don’t have a complete explanation of the forces of nature. Science can’t explain gravity or point to the particle that carries that force, and it can’t explain quite a few other things that are pretty important to the functioning of the universe. Things like dark matter and dark energy. So they don’t really know as much as they like to pretend they are certain of. But that is beside the point of this article.

Particle physicists and the skeptics on the SGU both accept that there is a thing called a Higgs field, a thing related to the Higgs boson I mentioned previously. The Higgs field, a thing that permeates and defines all of the physical world that we can see around us. They simply refuse to equate this field with aether. This is a discussion that has been aired on the SGU several times now. I can almost recite it by rote having listened to all of the nearly 700 episodes of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe. I’ve got the argument in my head. It won’t go away.

To put it bluntly, for the purposes of discrediting alchemy, proving that alchemical aether was a delusion makes this particular experiment important in the annals of history. Alchemy is bullshit unless you are playing Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft, in which case you can do magic all you want, because it isn’t real. But in the real world alchemy is bullshit. This experiment proved that fact without a doubt.

However I fail to see the distinction between the Higgs field and the primordial notion of aether. Does it not permeate everything that exists? Does it not even exist in a vacuum? Does it not define all matter as we know it? How many other things are there out there that we don’t know about that enable existence as we know it? One? A thousand? We don’t know that, either. How about we admit we don’t know things? It really doesn’t hurt that much to admit it.

“Relativity actually says nothing about the existence or nonexistence of matter pervading the universe, only that any such matter must have relativistic symmetry. It turns out that such matter exists. About the time relativity was becoming accepted, studies of radioactivity began showing that the empty vacuum of space had spectroscopic structure similar to that of ordinary quantum solids and fluids. Subsequent studies with large particle accelerators have now led us to understand that space is more like a piece of window glass than ideal Newtonian emptiness. It is filled with “stuff” that is normally transparent but can be made visible by hitting it sufficiently hard to knock out a part. The modern concept of the vacuum of space, confirmed every day by experiment, is a relativistic ether. But we do not call it this because it is taboo.”

Laughlin, Robert B. (2005). A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down. NY, NY: Basic Books. pp. 120–121. ISBN 978-0-465-03828-2. h/t to Juan Calsiano on Facebook
This article was based on a comment from Facebook.