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Isaac Newton's
Letter to Boyle, on the
Cosmic Ether of Space

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Isaac Newton's
Letter to Robert Boyle, on the
Cosmic Ether of Space - 1679


Newton the younger (left - 1689), Newton the elder (right - 1712)

Prefacing Comments

Below is a letter on the question of the cosmic ether of space, written by Isaac Newton in 1679 to Robert Boyle, a fellow scientist about 15 years older than Newton at the time, and who is remembered with a fame nearly equal to that of Newton. This letter firstly came to my attention where it was reprinted in a relatively-unknown journal edited by the heretic-scientist Wilhelm Reich, his International Journal of Sex-Economy and Orgone Research (vol.3, 1944, p.191-194). The original reference from Reich's journal is found in the 1938 volume Isaac Newton: 1642-1727, by J.W.N. Sullivan (Macmillan, NY p.118-124). However, a longer and more complete version of the letter was thereafter found in an 1846 publication (cited at the bottom of this webpage) which contains pertinent information not previously available.

The letter below is significant firstly because it is not well-known outside of a few historians. Where it is quoted, significant parts as I have now restored, are often left out.

The letter is significant secondly because of its contents. Newton's early embrace of a tangible and motile ether was heresy not just to the Vatican in his time, but also for the modern departments of physics in nearly every university, where quasi-religious concepts of empty-space, devoid of any tangible qualities are embraced; and nothing can be permitted to challenge them.

The letter clearly shows the young Newton, who wrote this in 1679 when he was 37 years old, had a firm belief and working grasp of the ether of space as a thing of substance and "ponderability", something which participated in the movement and ordering of the planets and universe, as a working force in optics, chemistry and gravitation. In this, Newton was continuing the conceptual ideas of Galileo, which had been such an irritant to the Vatican Bishops, who would tolerate no possibility of a motional force in nature other than God. The idea that ether and god might be identical descriptions for the "prime-mover" was equally intolerable, as while one could scientifically know and measure the ether, one could not by definition measure or know "the divine". The young Newton was not bothered by such conceptual difficulties as which bothered the Bishops of Rome, however, but the older Newton increasingly became preoccupied with theological matters, to the point that nearly all his biographers would agree he had become as much of a theologian as scientist in his last decades. Even only 20 years after penning this Letter to Boyle, he writes in the last query of his Optics, the following:

"Now by the help of these principles, all material things seem to have been composed of the hard and solid particles, above-mentioned, variously associated in the first creation by the counsel of an intelligent agent. For it became him who created them to set them in order. And if he did so, it's unphilosophical to seek for any other origin of the world, or to pretend that it might arise out of a chaos by the mere laws of nature; though being once formed, it may continue by those laws for many ages..." (quoted in Sullivan, p.125-126)

During those later periods, Newton would drop ideas such as a ponderable and moving cosmic ether in favor of more abstract concepts, such as the divine "prime mover" or deified "absolute space", which was foundational for most later astrophysical investigations into the nature of the cosmos. The most obvious result of this shift was, that in the original Michelson-Morley experiment for testing of ether-drift, everyone anticipated a very large ether-drift effect, based upon the assumption the Earth was racing through an intangible and substance-less static and immobile cosmic ether at very high speeds. No such intangible static ether has ever been demonstrated, nor could it be. But a material and substantive entrained ether, moving more slowly at lower altitudes and close to the speed of the earth itself, something quite similar to that proposed by the young Isaac Newton, was detected repeatedly, as I have already summarized in two papers on the subject:

Dayton Miller's Ether-Drift Experiments: A Fresh Look

A Dynamic and Substantive Cosmological Ether

I also have prepared a separate webpage which offers PDF downloads of most of the historic ether-drift research papers which got a positive result, by scientist-authors such as Michelson, Morley, Miller and Sagnac, plus more recent positive replications as by Galaev:

Thirdly, this letter from Newton is significant for its insights into how the ether "adheres" to matter, and may work to bind matter together, to create optical, chemical and gravitational effects. He would later abandon all such ideas, and the world would basically forget about them until the first half of the 20th Century, when scientists such as Dayton Miller, Wilhelm Reich, Giorgio Piccardi and others would detect exactly that kind and form of a cosmic energy force in nature, expressing itself in their experimental results.

Newer studies undertaken today, attempting to better understand the nature of the substance and structure of space, can benefit from this older work. There is a prejudice we must overcome in the sciences, to not drink from these old refreshing wells, in spite of their clear and deep waters, as if the plastic-bottled fizz-water of modern vending-machine scientism will make us wiser or healthier. It is not so.

The young Newton was on the right track and had it right, and would have made the same basic mathematical and experimental proofs in optics and gravitation had he sayed with those original thoughts about the ether. Nothing would be different, except for a greater appreciation for the substance of space. The older Newton lost that track, descending into theological labyrinths, even while a few heretic scientists of later centuries found the "red-thread", and continued on.

James DeMeo, PhD
Ashland, Oregon, USA
October 2009

PS: As a final point, one can reflect upon the difference between the "two Newtons" as revealed in their portraits. The younger Newton as painted by Godfrey Kellner in 1689 on the left side above, even while it is ten years after his "letter to Boyle", shows a man who still carries a vitality and spark of life. The elder Newton in the right side portrait, painted by Sir James Thornhill in 1712, reveals Newton the theologian, preoccupied with the hereafter.

Note on Symbols: The symbols in Newton's letter appear to mean as follows:
= Ag Argentum or Silver, symbolized by the color of the moon.
= Au Aurum or Gold, symbolized by the color of the Sun.


Honoured Sir,

I have so long deferred to send you my thoughts about the physical qualities we spoke of, that did I not esteem myself obliged by promise, I think I should be ashamed to send them at all. The truth is, my notions about things of this kind are so indigested, that I am not well satisfied myself in them; and what I am not satisfied in, I can scarce esteem to fit to be communicated to others; especially in natural philosophy, where there is no end of fancying. But because I am indebted to you, and yesterday met with a friend, Mr. Maulyverer, who told me he was going to London, and intended to give you the trouble of a visit, I could not forbear to take the opportunity of conveying this to you by him.

It being only an explication of qualities which you desire of me, I shall set down my apprehensions in the form of suppositions as follows. And first, I suppose, that there is diffused through all places an aetherial substance, capable of contraction and dilatation, strongly elastic, and, in a word, much like air in all respects, but far more subtile.

2. I suppose this aether pervades all gross bodies, but yet so as to stand rarer in their pores than in free spaces, and so much the rarer, as their pores are less; and this I suppose (with others) to be the cause why light incident on those bodies is refracted towards the perpendicular; why two well-polished metals cohere in a receiver exhausted of air; why mercury stands sometimes up to the top of a glass pipe, though much higher than thirty inches; and one of the main causes why the parts of all bodies cohere; also the cause of filtration, and of the rising of water in small glass pipes above the surface of the stagnating water they are dipped into; for I suspect the aether may stand rarer, not only in the insensible pores of bodies; but even in the very sensible cavities of those pipes; and the same principle may cause menstruums to pervade with violence the pores of the bodies they dissolve, the surrounding aether, as well as the atmosphere, pressing them together.

3. I suppose the rarer aether within bodies, and the denser without them, not to be terminated in a mathematical superfices, but to grow gradually into one another; the external aether beginning to grow rarer, and the internal to grow denser, at some little distance from the superfices of the body, and running through all intermediate degrees of density in the intermediate spaces; and this may be the cause why light, in Grimaldo's experiment, passing by the edge of a knife, or other opaque body, is turned aside, and as it were refracted, and by that refraction makes several colours. Let ABCD be a dense body whether opake or transparent, EFGH the outside of the uniform aether, which is within it, IKLM the inside of the uniform aether, which is without it; and conceive the aether, which is between EFGH and IKLM, to run through all intermediate degrees of density between that of the two uniform aethers on either side. This being supposed, the rays of the sun SB, SK, which pass by the edge of this body between B and K, ought in their passage through the unequally dense aether there, to receive a ply from the denser eether, which is on that side towards K, and that the more by how much they pass nearer to the body, and thereby to be scattered through the space PQRST, as by experience they are found to be. Now the space between the limits EFGH and IKLM I shall call the space of the aether's graduated rarity.

4. When two bodies moving towards one another come near together, I suppose the aether between them to grow rarer than before, and the spaces of its graduated rarity to extend further from the superficies of the bodies towards one another; and this, by reason that the aether cannot move and play up and down so freely in the strait passage between the bodies, as it could before they came so near together: thus if the space of the aether's graduated rarity reach from the body ABCDFE only to the distance GHLMRS, when no other body is near it, yet may it reach further, as to IK, when another body NOPQ approaches And as the other body approaches more and more, I suppose the aether between them will grow rarer and rarer. These suppositions I have so described, as if I thought the spaces of graduated aether had precise limits, as is expressed at IKLM in the first figure, and GMRS in the second ; for thus I thought I could better express myself. But really I do not think they have such precise limits, but rather decay insensibly, and, in so decaying, extend to a much greater distance than can easily be believed or need be supposed.

5. Now, from the fourth supposition it follows, that when two bodies approaching one another come so near together as to make the aether between them begin to rarefy, they will begin to have a reluctance from being brought nearer together, and an endeavour to recede from one another; which reluctance and endeavour will increase as they come nearer together, because thereby they cause the interjacent aether to rarefy more and more. But at length, when they come so near together that the excess of pressure of the external aether which surrounds the bodies, above that of the rarefied aether, which is between them, is so great as to overcome the reluctance which the bodies have from being brought together; then will that excess of pressure drive them with violence together, and make them adhere strongly to one another, as was said in the second supposition. For instance, in the second figure, when the bodies ED and N P are so near together that the spaces of the aether's graduated rarity begin to reach to one another, and meet in the line I K, the aether between them will have suffered much rarefaction, which rarefaction requires much force, that is, much pressing of the bodies together; and the endeavour which the aether between them has to return to its former natural state of condensation, will cause the bodies to have an endeavour of receding from one another. But, on the other hand, to counterpoise this endeavour, there will not yet be any excess of density of the aether which surrounds the bodies, above that of the aether which is between them at the line I K. But if the bodies come nearer together, so as to make the aether in the mid-way line I K grow rarer than the surrounding aether, there will arise from the excess of density of the surrounding aether a compressure of the bodies towards one another, which, when by the nearer approach of the bodies it becomes so great as to overcome the aforesaid endeavour the bodies have to recede from one another, they will then go towards one another and adhere together. And, on the contrary, if any power force them asunder to that distance, where the endeavour to recede begins to overcome the endeavour to accede, they will again leap from one another. Now hence I conceive it is chiefly that a fly walks on water without wetting her feet, and consequently without touching the water; that two polished pieces of glass are not without pressure brought to contact, no, not though the one be plain, the other a little convex, that the particles of dust cannot by pressing be made to cohere, as they would do, if they did but fully touch; that the particles of tingeing substances and salts dissolved in water do not of their own accord concrete and fall to the bottom, but diffuse themselves all over the liquor, and expand still more if you add more liquor to them. Also, that the particles of vapours, exhalations, and air do stand at a distance from one another, and endeavour to recede as far from one another as the pressure of the incumbent atmosphere will let them; for I conceive the confused mass of vapours, ar, and exhalations which we call the atmosphere, to be nothing else but the particles of all sorts of bodies, of which the earth consists, separated from one another, and kept at a distance by the said principle.

From these principles the actions of menstruums upon bodies may be thus explained: suppose any tinging body, as cochineal or logwood be put into water; so soon as the water sinks into its pores and wets on all sides any particle which adheres to the body only by the principle in the second supposition, it takes off, or at least much diminishes, the efficacy of that principle to hold the particle to the body, because it makes the aether on all sides the particle to be of a more uniform density than before. And then the particle being shaken off by any little motion, floats in the water, and with many such others makes a tincture; which tincture will be of some lively colour, if the particles be all of the same size and density; otherwise of a dirty one. For the colours of all natural bodies whatever seem to depend on nothing but the various sizes and densities of their particles, as I think you have seen described by me more at large in another paper. If the particles be very small (as are those of salts, vitriols, and gums), they are transparent ; and as they are supposed bigger and bigger, they pat on these colours in order, black, white, yellow, red ; violet, blue, pale green, yellow, orange, red ; purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, &c., as it is discerned by the colours, which appear at the several thicknesses of very thin plates of transparent bodies. Whence, to know the causes of the changes of colours, which are often made by the mixtures of several liquors, it is to be considered how the particles of any tincture may have their size or density altered by the infusion of another liquor. When any metal is put into common water, the water cannot enter into its pores, to act on it and dissolve it. Not that water consists of too gross parts for this purpose, but because it is unsociable to metal. For there is a certain secret principle in nature, by which liquors are sociable to some things and unsociable to others; thus water will not mix with oil, but readily with spirit of wine, or with salts; it sinks also into wood, which quicksilver will not; but quicksilver sinks into metals, which, as I said, water will not. So aquafortis dissolves , not ; aqua regis , not , &c. But a liquor, which is of itself unsociable to a body, may, by the mixture of a convenient mediator, be made sociable; so molten lead, which alone will not mix with copper, or with regulus of Mars, by the addition of tin is made to mix with either. And water, by the mediation of saline spirits, will mix with metal. Now when any metal is put in water impregnated with such spirits, as into aquafortis, aqua regis, spirit of vitriol, or the like, the particles of the spirits, as they, in floating in the water, strike on the metal, will by their sociableness enter into its pores and gather round its outside particles, and by advantage of the continual tremor the particles of the metal are in, hitch themselves in by degrees between those particles and the body, and loosen them from it; and the water entering into the pores together with the saline spirits, the particles of the metal will be thereby still more loosed, so as by that motion the solution puts them into, to be easily shaken off, and made to float in the water: the saline particles still encompassing the metallic ones as a coat or shell does a kernel, after the manner expressed in the annexed figure, in which figure I have made the particles round, though they may be cubical, or of any other shape. If into a solution of metal thus made be poured a liquor abounding with particles, to which the former saline particles are more sociable than to the particles of the metal (suppose with particles of salt of tartar), then so soon as they strike on one another in the liquor, the saline particles will adhere to those more firmly than to the metalline ones, and by degrees be wrought off from those to enclose these. Suppose A a metalline particle, inclosed with saline ones of spirit of nitre, E a particle of salt of tartar, contiguous to two of the particles of spirit of nitre, b and c, and suppose the particle E is impelled by any motion towards d, so as to roll about the particle c till it touch the particle d, the particle b adhering more firmly to E than to A, will be forced off from A ; and by the same means the particle E, as it rolls about A, will tear off the rest of the saline particles from A one after another, till it has got them all, or almost all, about itself. And when the metallic particles are thus divested of the nitrous ones, which, as a mediator between them and the water, held them floating in it, the alcalizate ones, crowding for the room the metallic ones took up before, will press these towards one another, and make them come more easily together : so that by the motion they continually have in the water, they shall be made to strike on one another; and then, by means of the principle in the second supposition, they will cohere and grow into clusters, and fall down by their weight to the bottoln, which is called precipitation. In the solution of metals, when a particle is loosing from the body, so soon as it gets to that distance from it, where the principle of receding described in the fourth and fifth supposition begins to overcome the principle of acceding, described in the second supposition, the receding of the particle will be thereby accelerated ; so that the particle shall as it were with violence leap from the body, and putting the liquor into a brisk agitation, beget and promote that heat we often find to be caused in solutions of metals. And if any particle happen to leap off thus from the body, before it is surrounded with water, or to leap off with that smartness as to get loose from the water, the water, by the principle in the fourth and fifth suppositions, will be kept off from the particle, and stand round about it, like a spherically hollow arch, not being able to come to a full contact with it any more ; and several of these particles afterwards gathering into a cluster, so as by the same principle to stand at a distance from one another, without any water between them, will compose a bubble. Whence I suppose it is, that in brisk solutions there usually happens an ebullition. This is one way of transmuting gross compact substance into aerial ones. Another way is by heat ; for as fast as the motion of heat can shake off the particles of water from the surface of it, those particles, by the said principle, will float up and down in the air, at a distance both from one another, and from the particles of air, and make that substance we call vapour. Thus I suppose it is, when the particles of a body are very small (as I suppose those of water are), so that the action of heat alone may be sufficient to shake them asunder. But if the particles be much larger, they then require the greater force of dissolving menstrua ms to separate them, unless by any means the particles can be first broken into smaller ones. For the most fixed bodies, even gold itself, some have said will become volatile, only by breaking their parts smaller. Thus may the volatility and fixedness of bodies depend on the different sizes of their parts. And on the same difference of size may depend the more or less permanency of aerial substances, in their state of rarefaction.

To understand this, let us suppose A B C D to be a large piece of any metal, E F G H the limit of the interior uniform aether, and K a part of the metal at the superficies AB. If this part or particle K be so little that it reaches not to the limit EF, it is plain that the aether at its centre must be less rare than if the particle were greater; for were it greater, its centre would be further from the superficies AB, that is, in a place where the aether (by supposition) is rarer ; the less the particle K therefore, the denser the aether at its centre ; because its centre comes nearer to the edge AB, where the aether is denser than within the limit E F G H. And if the particle were divided from the body, and removed to a distance from it, where the aether is still denser, the aether within it must proportionally grow denser. If you consider this, you may apprehend how, by diminishing the particle, the rarity of the aether within it will be diminished, till between the density of the aether without, and the density of the aether within it, there be little difference ; that is, till the cause be almost taken away, which should keep this and other such particles at a distance from one another. For that cause explained in the fourth and fifth suppositions, was the excess of density of the external aether above that of the internal. This may be the reason then why the small particles of vapours easily come together, and are reduced back into water, unless the heat, which keeps them in agitation, be so great as to dissipate them as fast as they come together; but the grosser particles of exhalations raised by fermentation keep their aerial form more obstinately, because the aether within them is rarer. Nor does the size only, but the density of the particles also, conduce to the permanency of the aerial substances; for the excess of density of the aether without such particles above that of the aether within them is still greater; which has made me sometimes think that the true permanent air may be of a metallic original; the particles of no substance being more dense than those of metals. This, I think, is also favoured by experience, for I remember I once read in the Philosophical Transactions, how M. Huygens at Paris, found that the air made by dissolving salt of tartar would in two or three days time condense and fall down again, but the air made by dissolving a metal continued without condensing or relenting in the least. If you consider then, how by the continual fermentations made in the bowels of the earth there are aerial substances raised out of all kinds of bodies, all which together make the atmosphere, and that of all these the metallic are the most permanent, you will not perhaps think it absurd, that the most permanent part of the atmosphere, which is the true air, should be constituted of these, especially since they are the heaviest of all other, and so much subside to the lower parts of the atmosphere and float upon the surface of the earth, and buoy up the lighter exhalations and vapours to float in greatest plenty above them. Thus, I say, it ought to be with the metallic exhalations raised in the bowels of the earth by the action of acid menstruums, and thus it is with the true permanent air; for this, as in reason it ought to be esteemed the most ponderous part of the atmosphere, because the lowest, so it betrays its ponderosity by making vapours ascend readily in it, by sustaining mists and clouds of snow, and by buoying up gross and ponderous smoke. The air also is the most gross unactive part of the atmosphere, affording living things no nourishment, if deprived of the more tender exhalations and spirits that float in it; and what more unactive and remote from nourishment than metallic bodies?

I shall set down one conjecture more, which came into my mind now as I was writing this letter; it is about the cause of gravity. For this end I will suppose aether to consist of parts differing from one another in subtilty by indefinite degrees; that in the pores of bodies there is less of the grosser aether, in proportion to the finer, than in open spaces; and consequently, that in the great body of the earth there is much less of the grosser aether, in proportion to the finer, than in the regions of the air; and that yet the grosser aether in the air affects the upper regions of the earth, and the finer aether in the earth the lower regions of the air, in such a manner, that from the top of the air to the surface of the earth, and again from the surface of the earth to the centre thereof, the aether is insensibly finer and finer. Imagine now any body suspended in the air, or lying on the earth, and the aether being by the hypothesis grosser in the pores, which are in the upper parts of the body, than in those which are in its lower parts, and that grosser aether being less apt to be lodged in those pores than the finer aether below, it will endeavour to get out and give way to the finer aether below, which cannot be, without the bodies descending to make room above for it to go out into.

From this supposed gradual subtilty of the parts of aether some things above might be further illustrated and made more intelligible; but by what has been said, you will easily discern whether in these conjectures there be any degree of probability, which is all I aim at. For my own part, I have so little fancy to things of this nature, that had not your encouragement moved me to it, I should never, I think, have thus far set pen to paper about them. What is amiss, therefore, I hope you will the more easily pardon in

Your most humble servant and honourer,

Isaac Newton.
Cambridge, Feb. 28, 1678-9.

As reproduced from the following book:

Letter to
Henry Lord Brougham, FRS &c., Containing Remarks on
Certain Statements in his lives of
Black, Watt and Cavendish

by Rev. William Vernon Harcourt, FRS, &c.
With an Appendix Containing
Newton's Letters on Air and Aether.
London: Richard & John Edward Taylor, 1846, p.131-141.

Robert Boyle, recipient of Newton's letter.

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