The positivists, who call themselves “scientists,” are obsessed with measurements. As Isaac Asimov himself admitted, “If there is some phenomenon that can neither be observed nor measured under any conceivable circumstances, then, as far as the world of experimental science is concerned, it can be treated as though it does not exist.” (Understanding Physics, Vol. II, ch. 7 footnote)
After a hard day of measuring things, the “scientists” like to relax with other measurement fetishists and tell tall tales. One of the best of these whoppers is entitled…
The Diminishing Mass
It was a dark and stormy night. The “scientists” had gathered at the Humbug Tavern, a favorite spot. Their measuring tools and book of formulas were nearby, in case of emergencies such as a collapsing reality. Huddled by a roaring fire, which seemed to protect them all from “the outside,” one of their group, George Francis FitzGerald, began a most amazing tale.
“Light is a wave form, so something must be waving,” he began. “Yet in a vacuum, light will still travel, in ‘waves.’ The ‘waves’ carry the ‘light’ through the vacuum. So of what could the ‘waves’ consist?”
Some of the “scientists” grew uneasy. This was scary stuff! Instinctively they reached for their measuring tools.
“What must be in the vacuum of space?” continued FitzGerald. “Let us call it ‘ether.'” (The “scientists” roared with laughter at the bold invention. Here was something which might be measured!)
As the laughter died down, another of the “scientists” embellished the tale. “Since the ‘light’ travels in transverse ‘waves,’ and the ‘ether’ must be a solid to carry the transverse ‘waves,’ let us say that the ‘ether’ is a greatly tenuous gas having a rigidity greater than steel.” Uproarious laughter broke out anew at the audacity of the suggestion.
The “scientists” next agreed that the “ether” must be in a state of “absolute rest.” They needed this as a reference point for “motion.” If everything were in motion, then what would “motion” be?
“And where is this ‘ether?'” asked one. “It is in ‘absolute space,'” they said.
Now another of the “scientists,” Albert Abraham Michelson, suggested a further twist. “The ‘absolute space’ could be moving toward us, or away from us,” he guffawed. At the Humbug Tavern, laughter burst forth again. How could there be “motion” if nothing were standing still? “Motion” compared to what!?
“We’ll have to tone that down,” suggested one of the “scientists,” as the chuckling ceased. “We’ll say it is the earth that is moving toward or away from the ‘absolutely resting ether’ inhabiting the ‘absolute space.'”
It was formula time. (They’d have to tack on some formulas to mystify the public.) One formula they arrived at took account of the ‘ether wind’ which, depending upon its direction, would either increase or decrease the velocity of light.
At this point, FitzGerald added another whopper to the tale. “And the objects become shorter as they move into the ‘ether wind!’ A ‘light’ beam headed into the ‘ether wind’ is slowed, but a ‘FitzGerald contraction’ counteracts that by foreshortening the object!”
Some felt FitzGerald had gone too far. But he was supported by Albert Einstein, one of the great storytellers of the claque, who next added his own inimitable skills to the yarn.
“Not only that, but time would slow down!” The room exploded with merriment. As if time did not exist independently of motion! This was the funniest leg-puller of them all!
The “scientists” went home with wide grins, after many hearty slaps on the back. All agreed that that evening’s tale was “one for the records.” And so, it was written down in their Book Of Yarns, and has been handed down to us today.
(Acknowledgement to Understanding Physics, by Isaac Asimov. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1993.)
(A version of the above first appeared at my old Conspiracy Nation web site on June 23, 2005.)