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Reality Check: Marvel Summons the Ghosts of Science Past

Reality Check

Reality Check: Marvel Summons the Ghosts of Science Past

It’s a common misconception that science progresses in a linear fashion, boldly mowing down ignorance in an unstoppable acquisition of truth. The reality is more like being trapped in a dark room, feeling around for something that might not even be there. We have to use our cleverness and ingenuity to devise ways of finding out. If the universe were easily explicable, and all it took was a little forward momentum, we’d have it all figured out by now.

There is progress, but it’s messy and often convoluted. Generally accepted ideas sometimes prove to be blind alleys and are tossed aside when better, contradictory evidence becomes available. Two such historical footnotes have seen new light in Marvel Comics media lately, at least in name. You might’ve seen one this weekend. The thought used to be that you couldn’t see anything without it.

An aether-infused Malekith wants to return the universe to darkness.

Seeing is Believing

In Thor: The Dark World (check out our review if you haven’t already), Marvel’s second cinematic offering of 2013, the Dark Elf Malekith seeks a mysterious substance dubbed the aether, a relic he hopes will return the universe to a time before light. Malekith must be nostalgic for the period prior to the reionization stage, which started 150 million years after the Big Bang, when the first quasars and stars began to form. Until that time, there was nothing energetic enough to kickstart those reactions.

Quasars, immense galactic regions orbiting supermassive black holes, were some of the first luminous features in the universe.

But if the history of science is any indication, the aether should actually be on the bright side. By the mid-19th century, physicists had finally decided that light was a wave, abandoning Isaac Newton’s insistence on particles. The problem then became, what’s waving? Waves are really just motions in a medium that transmit energy. Sound waves propagate through air. A tsunami is an ocean wave that brings energy from a landslide or earthquake to the shore. So, naturally, light waves must also move through something. A wave without a medium is almost nonsensical.

You can call a tsunami a wave, but it’s really just a bunch of water. So what’s crashing on our eyes when we look at something?

Enter the luminiferous aether, a proposed material that permeates all of space, named for the mythological material the Greek gods were said to have breathed. The modern aether, really just a nomenclature stand-in to describe what was not understood, became magical in its own right, as numerous contradictory properties needed to be assigned to it for the math to work out. The famous equations of James Clerk Maxwell showed in the 1860s that light was actually composed of alternating electric and magnetic fields, proving that, against all common sense, it could be a wave with no medium. By that time, though, the idea of the aether was so entrenched that even Maxwell himself engaged in special pleading to keep it around.

And there was light! It should have also been the end of the aether.

In a renowned series of experiments culminating in 1887, physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morely set out to measure the “aether wind” produced by the Earth moving through the material as it revolves around the Sun, using mirrors to precisely measure the expected changes in light’s speed as the aether flowed either toward or away from the meters. They actually observed changes so vanishingly small as to be negligible. The excuses were catching up to the aether, and more professionals began to think it just didn’t exist. Einstein’s further description of light’s behavior in 1905, through special relativity, finally sent the aether back to the realm of fiction.

In science, negative results can still make serious waves. The Michelson-Morely experiment failed to find the assumed aether, casting further doubts on its very existence.

Image from The Sinequanon


When Tony Stark flies to the Moon after disabling missiles launched from the lunar surface toward Los Angeles in the digital Infinite Comic “Fatal Frontier,” he finds a lonely, Soviet-era automaton trying to draw the attention of the humans who abandoned him. The assault was merely a signal flare, as Udarnik knows the entire world will rush to his doorstep once they see the great resources that have developed there. It seems that all the cosmic energies deposited from previous super-battles have infused an ore beneath the surface and turned it into something special.

Iron Man: Fatal Frontier #3

The news media call the energy-storing substance “phlogistone,” which is awfully close to the 18th century term “phlogiston.” They’re conceptually similar, too, as phlogiston was thought to be trapped within combustible objects, being released to the air when they were burned. The fact that an enclosed flame quickly burned out was seen as evidence that air could only hold so much phlogiston, and once that capacity was reached, the reaction would stop.

“Close the window, Bill; you’re letting all the phlogiston out!”

The rub came when experimentalists like Mikhail Lomonosov noticed matter that had been “liberated” of its phlogiston was often actually heavier than before, exactly opposite of the expectation. Of course now we know that the phlogiston idea was exactly backward, as the oxidation that causes combustion is due to bonding with atmospheric oxygen, not the loss of something else. Like the aether, though, some were reluctant to let the notion go, proposing that the miraculous stuff might somehow have a negative weight. Phlogiston was conclusively put to bed when chemistry legend Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier proved that combustion couldn’t occur without the presence of oxygen.

I’ve always been amused by the “discarded” ideas in science, things that seemed sensible at the time but were ultimately abandoned for more elegant and accurate theories, so it’s nice to see them return now and then, even it’s just to remind us that everything is provisional and open to refutation if new data calls it into question.

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