ETHER FEVER, as proposed for the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics, Waterloo, CANADA

The Theory of Everything

Ether Fever is an artwork that consists of 21 neon letters, arranged across two rows that spell the phrase “THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING.”          

The various letters are illuminated in different combinations to also spell two other phrases: “ETHER FEVER” and “THE VERY THING.” 

These 3 phrases appear in the following order:      

             …THE VERY THING 
                                   …THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING                               

Ether Fever    

‘Ether’ (or Aether in Latin) has multiple meanings.  Substantively, it signifies an evanescent or imaginary medium, a space-filling substance, or an air-like atmosphere through which things are transmitted.  In classical physics from medieval times it is ‘the material that fills the Universe above the terrestrial sphere.’  Plato had identified it as the ‘fifth element’, or the ‘quintessence’ and distinguished it from the other four terrestrial elements.   

It is perhaps most commonly known in early modern physics as a way of explaining how light propagates through a vacuum.  First proposed by Robert Boyle and Christiaan Huygens, ‘Luminiferous Ether’ was widely considered to be the panacea that explained unexplained and mysterious phenomena and forces such a the propagation of light, magnetism, and even gravity itself.

Newton himself proposed an ‘Ethereal Medium’ and despite the fact that Einstein rejected the idea as useful in explaining Special Relativity the ‘Ether’ as an idea, as a possible explanation for the not understood, persisted and its wholehearted acceptance in some scientific circles was described as ‘Ether Fever.’ 

Today, the idea of the existence of an ‘Ether’ (in science) is considered naïve folly, the product of pre-enlightenment minds.  Further it is often confused with  Diethyl Ether (ethanol) which had wide uses including as a recreational drug in the 19th Century.  Since Ether could be inhaled, it is  no surprise that it could be confounded with an odourless, insubstantial, and invisible medium. 

Ether Fever, in the context of this proposal, refers to all of its associations: The invisible, air, the states induced by ethanol, consciousness, the imaginary, popular acceptance of an idea, historical failures… In particular, Ether Fever is a precursor to an idea advanced by contemporary Physics: The Theory of Everything.      

The Theory of Everything        

It is well known that scientists are attempting to answer the most fundamental questions and problems in physics and ideally determine once and for all the fundamental laws of nature. These problems concern the essential conflicts among dominant theories in the various branches of physics: namely quantum mechanics and general relativity.            

A comprehensive and unifying theory that marries all competing theories has been dubbed “The Theory of Everything.”              

The complexity involved in these theories is only understood by theoretical physicists, yet the phrase is provocative and is largely open to interpretation since it encompasses ‘everything.’  Most know very little about the Theory of Everything yet since it seems to suggest that the very existence of such a theory would answer for us not only the most burning questions in the world of theoretical physics, but also the age old and essential questions concerning life itself: ‘What does it all mean?’ To quote Gaugain, ‘D’où venons nous? Que sommes nous? Où allons nous?’

As has been the case for a long time, the most pertinent questions today in science seem to collide with the very same questions that are foundations of philosophy.

The Very Thing

The phrase ‘Ether Fever’ is found within the phrase ‘The Theory of Everything.’ This could be pure coincidence and could signify very little.

Theories and beliefs that explain the universe are both terribly complex and infinitely flexible.  So little is known that the very idea of epistemological certainty itself is cast into doubt.  Recently with the discovery of Higgs-Boson subatomic particle and the confirmation of ‘dark matter’, the notion of the ‘Ether’ is once again de rigeur..

On the other hand, one might interpret the presence of Ether Fever within The Theory of Everything as a warning. Perhaps the world is so complex that a singular idea simply cannot account for it. That the quest for the very thing that explains it all could be an impossibility, doomed to fail as Ether Fever did in another age. (‘Very’, in English is used as both an adverb and an adjective.  As an adjective it signifies ‘precise’ or ‘actual.’)             

Another interpretation might read Ether Fever as a sickness, something for which a cure is needed.  The precise thing that could be required is exactly a unifying and common belief: The Theory of Everything.

This installation of Ether Fever illuminates the night sky.  (During the day, the neon’s glass appears white and remains legible).  It is a reminder that we all form a part of the universe and as such are subject to its laws and vagaries, even though we may not ever be aware of them, nor understand them. Neon is made of evacuated glass tubes.  Despite the absence of air, light nonetheless propagates through them.  Perhaps it does so because of the  presence of an Ether.

At its' most simple, it is a play of light and show illuminating, reflecting, and attracting our thirsty eyes. It appears to be significant, full of potent meaning, and like the celestial heavens or the infinitesimally small or even our imaginings and ideas about the same, we continue asking questions with rapt attention.