A hundred years after the quantum physics revolution, physicists continue to look for ways to integrate Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity with quantum theory.
Einstein’s theory resists integration with the standard atomic model and the development of a unified model. Nikola Tesla, the maverick scientist who disagreed with the basic assumptions of quantum theory, developed an aether-based theory of the cosmos and came remarkably close to the Chinese view of nature.
Unlike European science, Chinese natural philosophy is based on associative rather than analytical principles. At the heart of the Chinese view of nature is the yin-yang theory.
Starting with the notion of Tao (the mother of yin and yang), the Chinese concluded that the universe is a manifestation of opposite, complementary forces. The interaction between yin and yang was the start of Creation and led to the development of life on Earth.
The Chinese said: “When the yin and yang, initially united, separated forever, the mountains poured forth water.” Water is predominantly yin, mountains mostly yang.
Once the Chinese concluded that nature operates on a binary principle, they classified every conceivable phenomena and process as an interplay of yin and yang.
The classification included both ponderable and imponderable phenomenon and processes: heaven (the cosmos) and earth, day and night, positive and negative, advancing and retreating, male and female, growth and decay, something and nothing, strong and weak, motion and rest, space and time, etc.
The Chinese have a special word to describe the tension between yin-yang opposites: – qi (or chi). Wherever there are opposites there is qi. The push-and-pull tension between two magnets is a manifestation of qi, but so are the tension in a highly contested tennis match and the sexual tension between male and female.
The Chinese said: “Qi resides in tension.” The word is associated with magnetism. The modern Chinese word for electricity includes the character for qi.
The earliest written character for qi dates from the Shang Dynasty (circa 1600-1046 BCE) and gives us a sense of how the Chinese perceived qi. The pictogram consists of three wavy horizontal lines suggesting a continuous wave.
Scholars translate qi variously as cosmic breath, ether, spirit, or vital force, among others. Sinologist Joseph Needham, borrowing a concept of quantum physics, translated qi as “matter-energy.” Qi as a product of yin and yang has no true equivalent in other cultures and is best left untranslated.
Uniquely, the yin-yang system accommodates both magnetism and gravity. The Chinese pictogram for gravity is a compound character made up of two different pictograms. One means Heavy, the other Force. The image below shows the gravitational pull of the sun on the earth and the earth on the moon. Given the dynamics at work, the Chinese name for gravity – heavy force – makes sense.
In the yin-yang universe, orbital patterns are an interplay of opposite forces. Planets stay in their orbits through rotational push (yang) and gravitational pull (yin). Born out of the debris of the Big Bang, they ultimately settled in an orbit where the qi between the pull of the sun and the push of rotation is most acute. The universe is permeated by qi that mediates all processes, including gravity and magnetic phenomena.
In Europe, the closest equivalent to the Chinese notion of qi is the luminiferous aether. The word has ancient roots but was commonly used until the late 19th century.
In the early days of radio communication, people assumed radio waves traveled through the aether, but in 1887 scientists tried unsuccessfully to detect the aether. Einstein’s Relativity Theory didn’t require the existence of an aether, and speculations about its possible existence were virtually exiled from quantum theory.
In 1919, Einstein became a global celebrity when scientists observed that light (photons) traveling from distant stars to Earth is curved by the gravitational impact of the sun. They subsequently concluded that space is curved, based on the assumption that light (the trajectory of photons) and space are interchangeable phenomena.
This uncritical use of the ambiguous word “space” wrong-footed generations of physicists. Space means different things to physicists, astronauts, and architects.
Tesla was among the few scientists who questioned the notion of curved space. “I hold that space cannot be curved, for the simple reason that it can have no properties,” he said. “It might as well be said that God has properties. He has not, but only attributes, and these are of our own making.”
Instead, Tesla argued that the luminiferous aether is an electromagnetic field and the medium for the propagation of light (luminiferous means “light-bearing”). He wrote:
“Only the existence of an (aethereal) field of force can account for the motions of the bodies as observed, and its assumption dispenses with space curvature. All literature on this subject is futile and destined to oblivion. So are all attempts to explain the workings of the universe without recognizing the existence of the aether and the indispensable function it plays in the phenomena.”
Surprisingly, Einstein was sympathetic to Tesla’s argument. In 1919 he gave a lecture in the Dutch city of Leiden. He pointed out that Relativity doesn’t require the aether, but doesn’t exclude its possible existence.
Einstein said: “To deny the aether is ultimately to assume that empty space has no physical qualities whatsoever.”
Today, hardly any quantum physicist accepts the possible existence of the aether and asserts that Einstein was wrong.
Tesla developed his aether theory in 1893-94, well before the quantum revolution overshadowed his work. In an article written in 1930, “Man’s Greatest Achievement,” Tesla summarized his views for posterity.
He wrote: “All perceptible matter comes from a primary substance, or tenuity beyond conception, filling all space, the akasha or luminiferous ether, which is acted upon by the life-giving Prana or creative force, calling into existence, in never-ending cycles all things and phenomena.”
Eight centuries earlier, the Chinese philosopher and cosmologist Zhou Dun-yi explained nature in similar terms. Zhou integrated the so-called Five Elements theory in the yin-yang system. In Zhou’s diagram, the Supreme Polarity (Taijitu) produced the positive cosmic force yang and the negative cosmic force yin from an abundance of qi. Mediated by qi, the yin and yang created the five elements: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth.
Like Tesla, Zhou Dun-yi defined nature as a process of transformation. The Five Elements, or Wu Xing, are conceived of as material principles rather than concrete things. Xing meant to do or to act. The interaction of the yin and yang through different combinations of the five agents generates all things in a process of endless change and transformation.
Zhou Dun-yi, like all Chinese philosophers, was cued by the Book of Changes, the “manual” to the yin-yang universe. He integrated the theory of the Five Elements in the yin-yang system to propose a unified theory of nature. While his Diagram of the Supreme Polarity does not explain the mechanical, organic, and magnetic processes in nature, it conceptually accommodates them all.
In the past 100 years, physicists have proposed a slew of new theories that build on Einstein’s relativity and quantum theory. Using mathematical extrapolations, they have proposed wormholes, dark matter, black holes, string theory, and other mathematical abstractions that take them ever further away from experiential knowledge.
Recent advances in neurophysiology have fueled an interest in consciousness in recent decades and have brought science and the humanities a bit closer. The idea that the universe itself is conscious resonates with both scientists and the general public. More likely is that the universe created the conditions that made the development of consciousness possible.
Either way, Tesla’s aether theory offers a better framework to explore these and other existential questions than conventional theoretical quantum mechanics. Tesla had a human-centric vision of science. This is apparent in his essay “Man’s Greatest Achievement,” in which he celebrated the aether. In the opening paragraph he writes:
“When a child is born its sense-organs are brought in contact with the outer world. The waves of sound, heat and light beat upon its feeble body, its sensitive nerve-fibers quiver, the muscles contract and relax in obedience: a gasp, a breath, and in this act a marvelous little engine, of inconceivable delicacy and complexity of construction, unlike any on earth, is hitched to the wheel-work of the Universe.”