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Physics and the Bible:

Is Empty Space Empty?

by Lambert Dolphin

Lambert Dolphin, Physicist Website

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Last month we reviewed passages in the New Testament that refer to God's creation of the universe. We learned that all created things in the material and spiritual realms were created through Jesus, the eternal Son of God. Also, everything was created for Jesus - He is the heir of all things.

Third, the moment-by-moment control of the universe is determined in minutest detail by God-down from the Throne of God through the ranks of angels and into the created order.

We also saw in our last study that active force fields applied from outside the known, physical universe are required to hold everything together in a stable configuration. This is succinctly stated by the Apostle Paul in Colossians, "In Christ all things cohere (are held together)."

This month we'll look at a related subject - the likelihood that external energy flows into our known universe from outside on a continual basis. This energy appears literally out of nowhere; that is, from empty space - "the vacuum."

History of the Aether

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) taught that the physical world was made up of four elements: air, earth, fire and water. Tying these together (so that the "elements" intercommunicated) was a "subtle" medium, a fifth element-the aether (pron. E-ther). This element was later known as the vacuum (Latin: vacuus, "empty").

In a sense, the aether was the substratum of the material world. The Greeks believed that "nature abhors a vacuum" so they could not imagine space as being totally empty. They also believed the stars were suspended from, or attached to, a rotating crystalline shell at a fixed distance from the earth. When some of the "stars" (planets) were observed to be moving with respect to the "fixed" stars, a series of rotating crystal spheres was postulated.

The earth was believed to be fixed, immovable, and at the center of the cosmos. Not until the 16th century were these Greek (Ptolemaic) ideas challenged by the Copernican revolution. And until Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) challenged the notion, the velocity of light was assumed by most everyone to be infinite, so the nature of the space between the earth and the crystal spheres was not of great concern.

Solid or Empty Space?

Rene Descartes (1596-1640) championed the theory that the aether was a plenum, from the Greek word meaning "full." Because it was so difficult for the scientists of that era to understand "action at a distance," Descartes imagined that a very dense medium of very small particles pervaded everything. This medium was capable of transmitting force from one object to another by collisions. The aether "particles" were in constant motion and there were no spaces between the particles. In a sense the aether was more solid than matter, yet invisible. Descartes' universe was purely a "mechanical universe" and his theories were soon superseded.

In 1644, Galileo's former secretary, Evangelista Torricelli, filled a long glass tube with mercury. Inverting the tube into a dish of mercury he observed that the mercury dropped some 30 inches at the closed upper end of the tube, thereby creating what was obviously a vacuum. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) took this work even further and soon everyone was convinced that the vacuum of space was empty after all.

If light were corpuscular in nature, as some believed, it was not difficult to image light "particles" (we now call them photons) that could traverse a pure vacuum without the necessity of a real medium pervading space.

But other experiments soon began to show that light was a wave phenomenon. Of course waves could travel through the plenum aether by collisions, however at the time only compressional waves were imagined. [Sound waves or seismic waves are compressional in nature, for instance, but light waves proved to be transverse.]

In parallel with all these growing controversies, the velocity of light was finally measured by Olaf Roemer in 1675 and found to be finite, although the values he obtained were a few percent higher than the present value of 299,792.4358 km/sec.

Maxwell's Equations

By the time of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the aether was believed by many scientists to be "luminiferous." That is, the aether was said to be more fluid than solid, though it was elastic, and therefore it was a medium which would support waves. James Clerk Maxwell (1839-1879) enjoyed great success when he found a set of equations which beautifully described how light waves could travel through such a luminiferous aether. He showed that light waves are composed of oscillating electric and magnetic vectors in an x-y plane for a wave traveling in the z-direction. For a wave to exist at all, it is natural to suppose that there is some sort of supporting medium. Such a medium must possess elasticity (a spring-like property) and also inertia (a mass-like property). In fact, the velocity of a wave in any medium is equal to the square root of the stiffness divided by the density of the medium.

In the case of electromagnetic waves (gamma rays, x-rays, radio waves, heat, and light of various wavelengths), Maxwell found that the aether possessed an electric-field scaling parameter, called "dielectric permittivity," and a magnetic-field scaling parameter, called permeability, such that the velocity of light was equal to one over the square root of permeability times permittivity.

In support of the notion that the aether was a real medium, it was observed that empty space behaved like a transmission line with a "characteristic impedance" of 377 ohms (which is the ratio of permeability to permittivity for "free space.")

Maxwell's equations also explained how light slows down in glass, in gases, and in water-because media other than the vacuum had differing permeability and permittivity. The aether was once again thought of as a very real medium which could be stretched or compressed-it had resilience or compliance and inertia. Yet no known physical substance had a stiffness to mass density ratio anywhere near 9 x 1016, which was required of the aether as a medium. The aether appeared to possess elasticity but negligible inertia.

Michelson and Morley

The idea that some kind of aether medium existed prevailed until 1887, when Michelson and Morley utilized an interferometer in an attempt to detect the relative motion of the earth and the aether-the aether must be viscous and should be dragged along at least partially with the earth.

According to 19th century preconceptions, the velocity of the earth going around the sun should be about 30 km/sec. Yet when the measurements were made, no motion of the earth relative to the aether could be detected. In other words, the aether apparently did not exist. Until Einstein's Theory of Relativity was published in 1905, the negative result of the "M-M" experiment baffled scientists.

Einstein's Theory

Einstein showed that the velocity of light has the same value in all reference frames, whatever their velocity may be relative to other frames. From this point modern physics took off in the direction of Special and General Relativity Theory, and Quantum Mechanics.

For many scientists the notion that an actual aether medium existed was simply discarded. Yet the apparent non-existence of an aether raised many other problems, and the "M-M" experiment is not the end of the story.

''Zero-Point" Energy

If all the air molecules are pumped out of a chamber, the chamber still contains residual radiation (electromagnetic noise from stars, x-rays, and heat radiation). Even before quantum mechanics, it was shown by classical radiation theory that if the temperature of the container is lowered to absolute zero, there remains a residual amount of thermal energy that can not by any means be removed. This residual energy in an empty container at absolute zero was named "zero-point energy (ZPE)."

Contemporary physicist Dr. Hal E. Putoff notes that the "vacuum" is a vast reservoir of seething energy out of which particles are being formed and annihilated constantly. The energy potentials in the vacuum are staggering, but most of the time the forces involved balance each other out to zero. Zero point energy, he says... "is the energy of empty space... Finally when quantum theory was developed, it became absolutely clear that space, if you look at it in a microscopic scale, is more like the base of a waterfall with a lot of frothy, seething activity going on, rather than just something like a placid, empty space... This is, by the way, not a fringe concept. It is a basic underlying concept in modern quantum theory."

Putoff continues, "When the idea of the hydrogen atom was first put forward... one of the questions at the time was: why doesn't the electron simply radiate its energy away and spiral into the nucleus, in a way similar to the way our satellites have certain losses and spiral into the planet? At the time, the answer was simply, well it is just the magic of quantum theory, it doesn't obey classical rules, and for some reason hydrogen atoms are like little perpetual motion machines. But in fact, from the standpoint of the zero point energy approach... indeed you expect an electron in a hydrogen atom to radiate its energy away, but it picks up energy from the background zero point energy and therefore is sustained by it. What that means in terms of physics is that it shows why atoms can be seen as perpetual motion machines; it is just that they always have an energy input from the background to make up for the losses."

Australian Astronomer Barry Setterfield has, in the past year, picked up on this latest theory of the vacuum to explain the red shift of light from distant galaxies. Arizona astronomer William Tifft's research has recently shown that red-shifted light from the stars is quantized-this turns out to be also related to ZPE.

Setterfield's new model also takes into account the evidence that the velocity of light is not a fixed constant. Setterfield concludes that the universe is not expanding at all (as the Big Bang model has long supposed) but is static (it has a fixed diameter).

The original energy input of outside energy on Day Two of creation-when God stretched out the firmament to its maximum expanse-accounts for the red-shift and the subsequent velocity of light decrease! Setterfield has also provided a rough calculation at the rate at which "outside" energy from the "vacuum" would have to be fed into the universe percubic meter per second if Hal Putoff is correct, and electrons orbiting the nucleus do radiate energy after all. The compensatory energy that must be constantly supplied from the vacuum is a staggering 1.071 x 10117 kilowatts percubic meter! (That's a 1 followed by 117 zeroes.)

It is an old tenet of philosophy that ex nihilo nihil fit - out of nothing nothing comes. To imagine that vast amounts of energy flow into our physical universe from nowhere, from empty space, out of the "vacuum," at first appears impossible. To save the day, we must resort either to magic or we must seek some rational explanation in Biblical revelation. The latter is not hard to do.

The Second Day of Creation

On the Second Day of creation week:
God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day. (Gen 1:6-8)
The Hebrew word usually translated as firmament (raqia) strongly suggests an originally superdense medium stretched out very thin ("like a tent") on the second day of creation week. This means that what God created on Day One and Two was time, matter, energy, and space (the aether). These, evidently, are the building blocks from which He constructed the universe.

A careful examination of Biblical references to the terms "firmament," "the heavens" and "the heavenly places" and how they are used will show that the Bible depicts the spiritual realm as more solid, more substantial, and more permanent than the present observable, "material" world.

When God created the universe he created it "two-storied." The spiritual realm is where the angels dwell. It is so much more solid and substantial and permanent than our fading material world that we can best describe ourselves as ghosts in a shadow-like world surrounded and embedded in the more substantial world of the spirit.

This view of heaven is beautifully portrayed by C.S. Lewis in his fictional study, The Great Divorce.

Thinking of heaven as more solid than the material world suggests the aether is intensely solid, with objects in the physical world being akin to voids in the plenum of space. It is as if we had come full circle all the way back to Descartes!

What Is Aether Made of?

If the vacuum is not no-thing, what is the aether made of? It can not be pure spirit or even "condensed spirit" or we would be flirting with pantheism, because God is a Spirit, the angels and men are created spirits, and each of these is a "life-form." But the aether is not alive.

The aether does appear to have real metric properties which can change as space is expanded or contracted-it appears to be a substance that is more a part of the created spiritual world than a tangible physical substance.

Is the aether the substrate, the boundary layer, between our physical material world and the created world of the spirit (called in Scripture "the heavenly places")? This is probably not an unreasonable working hypothesis.

God's Energetic Involvement

From behind the curtains of our present world, God supplies not only force but also energy to sustain the created order. In more ways than one we owe not only our lives, but the moment-by-moment sustenance of the physical universe to His energetic involvement.

Knowing the Creator, personally, gives us every reason to feel secure and to stand in awe of Almighty God, who has by no means left us alone in the cosmos-its very existence is a direct expression of His power and His will!

* * *


  1. Barnes, Thomas G., Space Medium, Geo/Space Research Foundation, El Paso TX, 1986. The mysterious properties of the aether as a medium are discussed in this excellent book by a well-known Christian physicist.
  2. Boyer, Timothy H., "The Classical Vacuum," Scientific American, August 1985.
  3. Greiner, Walter, and Hamilton, Joseph,"Is the Vacuum Really Empty?" American Science, Mar-Apr. 1980.
  4. The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian World-view, Crossway Books, Wheaton IL, 1982.
  5. Whittaker, Sir Edmund, A History of the Theories of the Aether and Electricity, Dover Publications, New York NY, 1989.
  6. Evidence for a non-constant velocity of light, and references to the nature of the vacuum and ZPE can be found on my Internet web pages at http://www.ldolphin.org

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