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Ether: the multiple lives of a resilient concept

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In this session I propose to discuss the text of the introduction to a collective volume on the ether in the early twentieth century soon to be published by Oxford University Press. This book is a snapshot of the ether qua epistemic object in the early twentieth century. The contributed papers show that the ether was not necessarily regarded as the residue of old-fashioned science, but often as one of the objects of modernity, hand in hand with the electron, radioactivity or X-rays. Instrumental was the emergence of wireless technologies and radio broadcasting, certainly a very modern technology, which brought the ether into social audiences that would otherwise have never heard about such an esoteric entity. Following the prestige of scientists like Oliver Lodge and Arthur Eddington as popularisers of science, the ether became common currency among the general educated public. Modernism in the arts was also fond of the ether in the early twentieth century: the values of modernism found in the complexities and contradictions of modern physics such as wireless action or wave-particle puzzles a fertile ground for the development of new artistic languages; in literature as much as in the pictorial and performing arts.

The question of what was meant by ‘ether’ (or ‘aether’) in the early twentieth century at the scientific and cultural levels is also central to this volume. The essays in this volume display a complex array of meanings that will help elucidate the uses of the ether before its purported abandonment. Rather than thinking of the ether as simply a name that remained popular among several publics, this book shows the complexities of an epistemic object that saw, in the early twentieth century, the last episode in the long tradition of stretching its meaning and uses.

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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