Is light a body or not? Newton decided that it is a body; by his corpuscular theory it is the emission of particles from the source of light, or it is caused by such emission. But the phenomena of interference and some other effects could not be explained by this theory, and could be explained by the vibratory theory; so the latter supplanted the former. The theory of interference enables us to measure the wave-length of these vibrations; and by representing this length, and the distance gone by light in a second, in suitable units, and dividing the larger number by the smaller, we obtain a quotient representing the inconceivable rapidity of these vibrations, hundreds of trillion times in a second. For the vibrations we require a vibrating medium, which therefore has to be endowed with an inconceivable rapidity, while at the same time being so tenuous that it will not check the passage of bodies through it. We know of no such substance in our experience; but there seems no good reason why an hypothesis should not have those properties, and why an hypothesis should not be able to transmit those rapid vibrations and yet permit the passage of the earth through it without friction. However the question of the ether may be left aside for the moment. The point to be made now is that experimental science has found that, for certain classes of phenomena, it is necessary to regard light as a stream of particles. Allusion is here made particularly to the photo-electric effect. It was necessary therefore to conceive of light as being at once a wave-motion and a flow of particles
The only way of escaping from this difficulty, then is to assume that the wave aspect of light, and its corpuscular aspect, are as it were two different aspects of the same underlying reality.
(Matter and Light, Louis de Broglie, p . 28)
This confirms what we quoted above from H. P. Blavatsky, that atoms are vibrations. It also confirms the teaching that there are underlying unities which reconcile apparent dualities. What can this word "underlying" mean but "on a higher plane'? And as to the word "reality," this is a relative term, for there is no apparent reason for regarding the higher unity as real, except in relation to its dual manifestation; while the manifestations themselves are real enough to our ordinary perceptions.
At all events we may now regard light as a body without transgressing scientific orthodoxy, and this is what H P. Blavatsky contended for. If light is not a body, it becomes reduced to a mere vibration, a "mode of motion," an effect in short. The word "light," as used in science, though deriving its name from visual sensations, really includes much more; for its effects are actinic, thermal, and otherwise, besides visual.
In The Secret Doctrine (1) it is described as one of the great primary forces of the universe. The expression Fiat Lux refers, as the Kabala says, to the evolution of the Sephiroth, the rays of the Logos.
That which is meant by the allegorical sentence, "Fiat Lux" is — when esoterically rendered — "Let there be the "Sons of Light'," or the noumena of all phenomena. (I, 481)
As we have said in the case of sound, science treats light as a physical phenomenon, and has little or nothing to say about the psychical phenomenon, the sensation of light, the visual faculty. And again here, as in the case of sound, we trace a chain of physical cause and effect up to the ends of certain nerves — and there comes the big jump. The gap between physical vibration and mental image is unbridged, whether we measure it as one second or as 186,000 miles. Why not say that we have light in our head or in our eye, and that the physical vibrations merely bring it into physical manifestation? That seems a pretty good theory. But with H P. Blavatsky, light is a primal force, operating on all planes, its physical manifestation being only one of these.
In the "beginning," that which is called in mystic phraseology "Cosmic Desire" evolves into absolute Light. Now light without any shadow would be absolute light — in other words, absolute darkness — as physical science seeks to prove. That shadow appears under the form of primordial matter allegorized — if one likes — in the shape of the Spirit of Creative Fire or Heat — (I, 201).
To know what is light, and whether it is an actual substance or a mere undulation of the "ethereal medium," Science has first to learn what are in reality Matter, Atom, Ether, Force. Now the truth is, that it knows nothing of any of these, and admits it. (I, 482)
This refers to the science of last century; and she continues, referring to Stallo, that the words enumerated were but convenient temporary hypotheses. They were what a surveyor might call bench marks, fixed arbitrarily as basis for a system of measurement, but subject to replacement at any necessary time. And now see what has become of the atom, the ether, force, and Matter. As shown above, it has been found impossible to measure light by the old bench marks: the question, Is light a body or not? becomes unanswerable. It is not a body in the old sense, but it is a body in another sense; nor can we call it a vibration in an ether unless we define better the words vibration and ether. Light is a cosmic energy producing manifestations on all planes, and science studies the physical manifestations, which include not only visual phenomena but also thermal and actinic effects.
The subject of light leads to the subject of ether. The word itself is borrowed from the Greek, meaning an upper and clearer region of the atmosphere, and often the abode of the Gods; also called the empyrean. When light was defined as a vibratory phenomenon, it was necessary to imagine some extended medium in which such vibrations could inhere. Theorists were hampered by their experience of vibrating mediums in ponderable matter, such as the air with its sound vibrations. They transferred these properties to their hypothetical aether, and tried to calculate what must be the density, rigidity, etc., of such a medium, in order that it could transmit such vibrations. But physical concepts are not applicable to an ultra-physical medium, as is now being found out. We need more data before theorizing. The aether has also had to be accommodated to electro-magnetic theory: it is at present an hypothesis, or group of hypotheses; we have no direct perception of it. The fact remains that light and electric impulses are transmitted across spaces void of physical matter, and that these impulses are of the nature of vibrations, which can be tuned.
H. P. Blavatsky, in seeking to present the ancient teachings in modern terms, makes use of this word "aether," which thus has to cover a variety of meanings. Aether, an aether, the aether, ether, Ether, etc., may be used in the desire to draw distinctions; and often the Sanskrit word Akasa is used in reference to higher grades of aether. Certain Hindu systems speak of five elements in Nature:
Prithivi or Earth
Apas or Water
Vayu or Air
Agni or Fire
Akasa or Ether
This system does not fit in with that of modern science, so that attempts to translate one system, word by word, into the other will not succeed. A study of these Hindu treatises is requisite, so that we may get an understanding of the meaning of these terms as used therein. However, we are concerned at present with the word "ether" only. It stands for the most subtle (from our point of view) of the series, being beyond Agni, which corresponds to luminous and thermal phenomena. The word akasa has been translated into "ether" for want of a better word; but we must beware of being misled into attaching to it other meanings which attach to "ether," and which do not necessarily pertain to akasa. Its peculiar property is stated to be sound, the other four elements being correlated to the other four senses. The scientific ether was originally luminiferous, but since the development of wireless telephony we may surely speak of it as connected with sound. It is true that there is a conversion of sound waves into etheric waves, and back again, and that ordinary physical sound is not transmissible where there is no physical matter. But in spite of this, and in view of the wider use of the word "sound," the fact is suggestive, and may be a signpost for scientific discoveries yet to come. Some quotations from The Secret Doctrine may follow here.
The whole range of physical phenomena proceed from the Primary of Ether — Akasa, as dual-natured Akasa proceeds from undifferentiated Chaos, so-called, the latter being the primary aspect of Mulaprakriti. . . (I, 536)
The septenary gradation, and the innumerable subdivisions and differences, made by the ancients between the powers of Ether collectively, from its outward fringe of effects, with which our Science is so familiar, up to the "Imponderable Substance," once admitted as the "Ether of Space," now about to be rejected, has been ever a vexing riddle for every branch of knowledge. (I, 331)
Now, what does the modern science of physics know of Aether, the first concept of which belongs undeniably to ancient philosophers, the Greeks having borrowed it from the Aryans, and the origin of modern Aether being found in, and disfigured from, Akasa? (I, 485)
And a discussion follows as to whether we are to regard it as atomic and continuous, both alternatives being demanded by science for different reasons, and inconsistencies arising therefrom. At I, 342 and 464 we read that, with the ancients, aether was regarded as the synthesis of all the elements — synthesis, not in the sense of an additive compound, but a common source or parent. At I, 508 it is stated that, according to Occultism, aether is the source and cause of cohesion, chemical affinity, thermal, electric, and magnetic forces — in short, of the "properties of matter."
We are reminded of the quest of the Alchemists for an "Absolute," a primary element, a universal solvent, etc. Aether, as used in the above passages, is at once the source of elements and of forces. But these two words have recently lost most of their distinctiveness and have tended to become merged into one. They are Nature viewed under its active and passive aspects. When we recede from physical matter, the distinction between body and energy becomes obliterated; such a question as whether light is a body or an energy loses meaning: it is an element, and as such has both active and passive aspects. If the properties of matter are functions of ether, then it is absurd to try and explain ether itself in terms of these properties; so no wonder there is confusion if we try to do so. Ether is by hypothesis non-physical, so why expect to find physical properties in it?
And what does present-day science say about it? We have only to read current scientific literature to see how men of science are revising their views, and revising them along the lines indicated by H. P. Blavatsky. Is it not being openly said that the scientific philosophy is but a temporary structure, devised for particular purposes, but now due for alteration? This structure was made to accommodate a certain range of facts, but new facts have been discovered which do not fit into it. After all, this is but the declared scientific method, of making provisional hypotheses and enlarging them according to requirement. And many of the things which were once regarded as fundamental and universal are now seen to be merely superficial and local. The fixed and mutually independent time and space, the spatio-temporal scaffolding upon which physics has been built, has given way under the stress of the Relativity theory; and we now speak of the position of an event in a four-dimensional space-time continuum. It is necessary to recognise that the word "matter" may be made to cover a number of different things, of which physical matter is only one. We have to study the properties of higher forms of matter, and to bear in mind that we are endowed with higher perceptions adapted thereto, though these may be latent for want of use.
This is a word used by science in a somewhat vague way. Ordinarily it implies audition, but the meaning has been extended to include effects which make no impression on our auditory sense. A wave-motion of a particular kind produces audible sounds when its frequency lies within certain limits; but similar vibrations can be created which lie outside those limits and produce no audible sound, and yet they are still included under the term "sound." A new name has lately been devised for the waves whose frequency is above the limit of audibility — "supersonics," and the effects of such waves have been experimentally studied. These effects are powerful, disintegrative, destructive. Classical mechanics shows that there must be a great energy in a motion which changes its direction so frequently, and corresponding energy is required to generate such a motion. Hence we have an illustration of the power of sound, or sound considered as a power. Sound, thus considered, becomes a name for longitudinal vibration in a medium. As to its connexion with audition, we are told that some animals will start at the blowing of a whistle which makes a sound too shrill for human ears to hear. What may be the case with insects? we ask ourselves. And, if man himself has subtler senses, may not these be correlated with still higher frequencies, and with vibrations thrilling in a medium subtler than any familiar to our physical perceptions? In a word, can the two ideas of sound as an energy and sound as a sensation be separated? Or are the physical and the psychical inseparably related?
In The Secret Doctrine, sound is spoken of as one of the primal forces in cosmos, having manifestations on every plane of objectivity, its physical manifestations being those which science studies. The creative Word, or Logos, has for its energic aspect Sound, while on its formative side it is a Name: a mystery which underlies the use of mantrams and incantations. It would seem that no hard-and-fast distinction is made between sound as a sensation and sound as an energy, such distinction being artificial; planes of consciousness are everywhere correlated with planes of matter, the subjective with the objective; and where sound is of a nature imperceptible to physical senses, there are other channels of perception susceptible to it. We find Akasa mentioned as the material cause of sound, (I, 296) and sound mentioned as the characteristic of Akasa. (I, 205) Another name for Akasa is Ether, used to connect the idea with a familiar scientific term; though, as Occultism recognises different ethers, the word Akasa is used to denote the higher forms as distinct from the lower. This higher Ether is spoken of as a vibratory soundboard of nature (I, 536). In Hindu systems, sound is correlated with Akasa. The scientific ether was postulated as a vehicle for the conveyance of undulatory vibrations of light and some other effects; but it remains merely a hypothesis, and by some is now regarded as unnecessary. Audible sounds are made perceptible by the vibrations of materials having mass — -gaseous, liquid, solid — under the bell-jar of the vacuum pump, such sounds die away. There is no longer any physical sound, because there is no physical vehicle for its manifestation. There was a Punch joke where one man says to his mate: "Donal', have you got a light?" and the answer comes: "Yes, Tugal', but it's oot." What becomes of the sound when we can no longer hear it? Physics says that a certain order of vibration gives rise to a sensation called "sound'; vibration is tracked through the air to the tympanum, and from the tympanum through various structures to the auditory nerve and brain; and here we come to a big jump. The road to the bridge is magnificent, but the bridge is not crossed; as to how the molecular vibrations are converted into a sensation, science is silent — it emits no audible sound. As in the case of the human soul, the question of whose whereabouts after death is linked up with that of its whereabouts before birth, we may ask where is the sound when we cease to hear it, and where was it before it became audible. A particular vibration among physical molecules provides the condition for a physical manifestation of sound; but sound itself existed both before and after. "Music, when sweet voices die, Lingers in the memory;" and we can hear the voices of friends, and sing all the songs we like, "in our head," after our physical molecules have stopped vibrating. But perhaps this is metaphysics; very well, and science is another kind of metaphysics, for its philosophy is based, as has been seen, on abstractions of a highly unphysical character. The study of phenomena ought surely to engross science; and these inaudible sounds in our head are phenomena. Recent scientific views confirm the need for taking into account such phenomena, if even physical phenomena are to be comprehended. The line between Knower and Known (or, if you prefer, between Subject and Object) is not a fixed line; the stakes may be shifted, so that what was once part of the Knower becomes part of the Known. We study physical phenomena with our physical senses, and then we study our physical senses with our minds: all of it is science. Once again we say that the Phenomenon cannot be understood without taking into account the Noumenon.
(To be continued)
1. To avoid repetition references to H P Blavatsky's great work, The Secret Doctrine, are indicated simply by numbers denoting the volume and page. (return to text)