What the Heck is the Aether?

Issac Newton

The aether comes up every so often in steampunk. Often, it’s used as a hand-wavy thing to explain all manner of strange technology or effects the same way ‘subspace’ is used in Star Trek. Am I guilty of using the aether to hand-wave things? Oh yeah, big time. However, the aether is actually a real concept, albeit an outdated one.

The word aether comes from Ancient Greece and was used to described the air-like substance present in the realm of the gods. It has been used to describe various concepts as physics developed as a science. Issac Newton solidified the concept of the aether as a substance that filled the universe at the end of the 1600s. As we all know from the story of the falling apple, Issac Newton developed the first equations that described the effects of gravity. However, while he could describe the effects of gravity, he was left with the mystery of how gravity works.

Newton’s laws of motion describe the way forces work on objects and the inertia of mass, but gravity didn’t really fit in. What force was acting on that famous apple to make it fall to the ground? So Newton created the concept of a substance that filled the universe. In this theory an object’s mass caused this substance to flow toward it. Other objects are then caught up like a log in a river. Newton moved away from this idea latter, but the concept of a universe-filling substance persisted and came to be named ‘aether’.

In the 1800s, new discoveries brought back the idea of the aether in a big way. During the last half of the 1800s, the Victorian age, a number of scientists began to develop the equations that described electromagnetism that would formulate into Maxwell’s equations. An outcome of this work was that electromagnetic radiation (light, radio, microwave, x-ray, etc…) propagated at the speed of light as a wave. That brought of the question of what was waving. Sounds waves waved air, ocean waves waved water, so what did light or other forms of electromagnetism wave? The aether provided the answer.

It seemed like a solid theory, but then scientists started running experiments to detect the aether. The best known of these was the Michelson-Morley experiment. In this experiment, they measured the speed of light in perpendicular directions. If the Earth was moving through the aether that filled the universe, the speed of light would have to be a little different in the two different directions. Think of it like measuring sound while moving through the air. In this analogy, consider the Earth as a boat moving at a good clip. On the top of the boat we affix a device to make a sound and two detectors, one 10 feet away toward the front of the boat and one 10 feet away toward the side of the boat. We’ll also assume there is no wind. When the sound gets made it will radiate through the air in all directions at a constant speed. However, the detectors on that moving boat are also moving through the air. The sound is lot faster than the boat so it will still reach both detectors, but not at the same time. So while the sound is moving at a constant speed, the speed we measure at each detector isn’t the same. The point of the experiment is not to measure the actual speed of sound, but to show that the source and the detectors are all moving through the air.

However, the Michelson-Morley experiment showed no difference in the detected speed of light between the two directions. This result really puzzled scientists at the time. It would take Albert Einstein and his laws of relativity to finally explain the results. Between relativity and quantum mechanics we now understand the nature of electromagnetic waves isn’t the same as sound or water waves and the concept of something waving doesn’t apply. We also gained a new understanding of gravity that saw the effect of gravity as warping space rather than making a substance flow toward mass.

With relativity and quantum mechanics changing the way we saw the universe, the idea of an aether faded away to become a relic of the Victorian age. Nonetheless, recent observations of the universe have suggested an unknown energy, called dark energy, filling empty space and accelerating the expansion of the universe. Maybe the aether will rise once again.

Erik Larson was born in Manhattan — the Kansas one — and raised mostly in Topeka Kansas. He went to college in San Antonio at Trinity University where he earned a degree in physics. After the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider, he decided to seek his fortune with software engineering instead.

Eventually, he gained an interest in writing his own fantastical tales and has written three fantasy novels. Cog and the Steel Tower is the first one ready for public consumption. He normally goes by the name Erik Larson, but decided on W.E. Larson for a pen name since there is already a well-known author with his name.

Steampunk and the Dark Side of the Victorian Age

While steampunk and the Victorian age aren’t synonymous, they are obviously  very much intertwined. The Victorian age in Britain was a time of great change in almost every aspect of life. Industrialization and urbanization transformed the lives of the lower and emerging middle classes while science and technology transformed communication, transportation, and society itself. It’s easy to see to the appeal of envisioning an alternate future from this dynamic period of history.

However, there was a dark side to the Victorian age. As the rural population migrated into urban areas, wages for the lower classes fell sparking poverty, child labor, long work hours, and dangerous conditions.  Outside of England, the British army committed atrocities to maintain the empire, and the slave trade continued despite the successes of the British abolitionists back home. A rigid patriarchy ruled the day, limiting the options for women and girls despite Britain’s monarchy being led by a Queen.

When I set about to write a steampunk novel, I largely sidestepped the darkness. I was targeting a middle-grade readership and had set the story in an alternative world. There are a couple of hints of social and economic injustice, but nothing that really plays into the story. If, make that when, I get the time to get to the next novel I think I’ll have to dig into it a bit more. It may be an alternative world, but it still borrows from the same Victorian heritage as so much of steampunk does.

Something I wonder about is to what extent writers of Steampunk fiction should expose the dark side of the Victorian world. Maybe ‘should’ is the wrong word. I don’t want the writer of a fun, escapist steampunk story to feel guilty over not delving into the injustices of that world. However, I do feel like it does a disservice if the darker aspects never come up. I guess I’d say I think it’s something to keep in mind when writing. That’s a lot that history has glorified during the Victorian age, but history also stepped on a lot of people during that same period and some care should be taken to not sweep it all under the rug.

With the darker aspects of Victorian culture, there comes a certain optimism. The Victorian age was also an age of reform. While the British slave trade didn’t cease entirely, slavery had been outlawed by Britain as the age started. As the Victorian age continued, laws were established to limit child labor and the working hours of adults. The patriarchy wasn’t challenged, but more opportunities did appear for women. Leisure time increased even among the lower classes and the middle class grew.  Perhaps the spirit of reform and justice can inspire stories told from the lower levels of society instead of the frequent focus on the aristocracy and military.

What do you think is the responsibility of steampunk writers to remember darker aspects of the age?

Erik Larson was born in Manhattan — the Kansas one — and raised mostly in Topeka Kansas. He went to college in San Antonio at Trinity University where he earned a degree in Physics. After the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider, he decided to seek his fortune with software engineering instead. He has worked as a software engineer at a variety of companies, carefully avoiding ones that have a big IPO that makes all the employees rich.

Eventually, he gained an interest in writing his own fantastical tales and has written three fantasy novels. Cog and the Steel Tower is the first one ready for public consumption.

Airships are Awesome

Modern airship
A modern day airship.

When I was a kid, back in the long ago, I would scour the elementary school library for any and every book on aircraft. One of my third-grade art projects featured a construction-paper airplane with a proper airfoil. In other words, I was into flying machines of every variety in a very serious way. However, nothing quite filled my nerdy heart like airships.

Let’s face it, while airplanes are remarkable machines, the experience of traveling in those fixed-wing speedsters of the skies isn’t that much different than traveling by bus. There’s something about the idea of traveling in a machine more akin to a floating hotel that sounds simply spectacular. It’s no wonder they are a staple of the steampunk universe.

There was little doubt that I would include an airship in my first steampunk story, but I had to think about how a steampunk airship would actually work. The story was aimed toward middle-grade readers and the airship is merely a backdrop for a small part of it, so I had no intention to include lots of details, but I wanted what did show up to make at least some sense.

The first item to figure out was what type of airship it would be. Airships basically fall into three categories: blimps which hold their shape purely with air pressure, semi-rigid airships which also hold their shape with air pressure and include some metal structure to distribute forces, and rigid airships whose shape is defined by its metal structure (sometimes called Zeppelins even though the Zeppelin company wasn’t the only manufacturer of such machines). Weight is everything with airships so the less of that heavy structure the better. However, as size increases more structure is needed to deal with the loads the airship has to carry. This means that when we look toward history, all the truly large airships have been of the rigid variety. If large airships were produced today, advances in engineering would likely result in the use of a semi-rigid design to reduce weight. My airship needed to be big, so a rigid design was the only possible choice.

That led me to the tricky part. How do you propel a huge airship? In the real world, airships were powered with internal combustion engines rather than the external combustion engines that powered the age of steam. External combustion means burning fuel to heat water in a boiler to produce the steam pressure that powers the engine. That means a heavy engine and plenty of hot flame. Heavy is always bad in an airship and flames… well, everyone knows about the Hindenburg.

USS Macon
The USS Macon with a 747 jumbo jet and a school bus to give an idea of scale.

As far as weight goes, I think it means that steampunk airships need to be big. A huge airship can carry enough lifting gas to support the structure needed for a powerful steam engine and boilers. The airship would need to carry water as well, but that is historically the case anyhow. In order to control altitude an airship needs to be able to change either the amount of lifting gas or its weight by adding or removing ballast and that ballast was generally water. Removing water for an airship is easy enough, you just release it. Adding water is less obvious, but it can be added by capturing engine exhaust and condensing the steam in the exhaust back into water. A lot of engine exhaust is water vapor. The United States Navy had some large airships for a short period of time (like the USS Macon that served as a flying aircraft carrier) and they relied on capturing water from exhaust to manage altitude.  So a steam-powered cousin of those big U.S. Navy airships would probably be larger and slower to carry the same load, but it seems plausible.

Now about the whole flame thing. The best lifting gas for an airship is hydrogen–it’s the lightest element after all. Unfortunately, hydrogen really likes to burn which makes the airship a fireball waiting to happen. There’s a reason that the big airships that used hydrogen for lift mounted their engines outside of the hull.

Well, the obvious solution is to use helium–the second lightest element–as the lifting gas. Unlike hydrogen, helium doesn’t burn and is quite effective at smothering fires. Unfortunately, there’s a problem with helium. Now, helium is about twice as heavy as hydrogen for a given volume, but that’s less of an issue then you might think. Lift in an airship is produced by displacing air and air is so much heavier than either helium or hydrogen that the difference between the two doesn’t have a huge impact. The real problem with helium is the supply. Hydrogen is easy to produce from water so there’s no problem filling the vast volume of an airship. In fact, hydrogen airships would just vent off hydrogen as it consumed fuel and became lighter during a journey. Nobody had to worry about replacing that hydrogen before the next trip. Helium, on the other hand, can’t be produced unless you happen to have a fusion reactor handy. The only significant source of helium is as a by-product of drilling for natural gas. In current times, there’s actually a fair amount of concern about the helium supply. There might not be a lot of airships around, but helium is an important coolant for superconductors.

The infamous Hindenburg was originally intended to use helium rather than hydrogen, but the Germans didn’t have access to enough of it. They also considered surrounding a central section of hydrogen gasbags with helium, but the supply was too short to make that work as well. When the U.S. Navy deployed its large airships, helium was used since the United States had a much greater helium supply than Germany. Maybe the Germans couldn’t make the idea of a hybrid airship work because of their helium shortage, but the idea could work for my imagined steampunk vessel.

With a hybrid design, my airship started to make sense. It would be bulky and slow compared to its real-world counterparts, but using helium to provide a protective layer around its dangerous load of hydrogen meant that the flame and boilers could be used with a plausible degree of safety. Even if hydrogen leaks, it goes up keeping it away from the engine mounted below.

Carrying all that hydrogen meant that it doesn’t even need to carry a separate supply of fuel. It can burn its hydrogen to heat the boilers and power the ship. As I mentioned earlier, Airships normally carried water for ballast and the steam from powering the engines can be captured or released to help control altitude. Since most of the lifting gas would be hydrogen, I can better hand-wave around where all the helium comes from to support fleets of such machines.

With a bit of thought and research, I felt I could justify my steampunk airship. That’s a very good thing since airships are awesome.