Guest Post by James Clerk Maxwell – On Action at a Distance

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) formalized a set of equations that describe the behavior and interaction of electricity and magnetism.

From Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, vol 2, LIV, p.311 (Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, vol. VII, 1876). Emphasis added inn bold.

I HAVE no new discovery to bring before you this evening. I must ask you to go over very old ground, and to turn your attention to a question which has been raised again and again ever since men began to think. The question is that of the transmission of force. We see that two bodies at a distance from each other exert a mutual influence on each others’ motion. Does this mutual action depend on the existence of some third thing, some medium of communication, occupying the space between the bodies, or do the bodies act on each other immediately, without the intervention of anything else?The mode in which Faraday was accustomed to look at phenomena of this kind differs from that adopted by many other modem inquirers, and my special aim will be to enable you to place yourselves at Faraday’s point of view, and to point out the scientific value of that conception of lines of forcewhich, in his hands, became the key to the science of electricity.When we observe one body acting on another at a distance, before we assume that this action is direct and immediate, we generally inquire whether there is any material connection between the two bodies; and if we find strings, or rods, or mechanism of any kind, capable of accounting for the observed action between the bodies, we prefer to explain the action by means of these intermediate connections, rather than to admit the notion of direct action at a distance.Thus, when we ring a bell by means of a wire, the successive parts of the wire are first tightened and then moved, till at last the bell is rung at a distance by a process in which all the intermediate particles of the wire have taken part one after the other. We may ring a bell at a distance in other ways, as by forcing air into a long tube, at the other end of which is a cylinder with a piston which is made to fly out and strike the bell. We may also use a wire; but instead of pulling it, we may connect it at one end with a voltaic battery, and at the other with an electro-magnet, and thus ring the bell by electricity.

Here are three different ways of ringing a bell. They all agree, however, in the circumstance that between the ringer and the bell there is an unbroken line of communication, and that at every point of this line some physical process goes on by which the action is transmitted from one end to the other. The process of transmission is not instantaneous, but gradual; so that there is an interval of time after the impulse has been given to one extremity of the line of communication, during which the impulse is on its way, but has not reached the other end.

It is clear, therefore, that in many cases the action between bodies at a distance may be accounted for by a series of actions between each successive pair of a series of bodies which occupy the intermediate space; and it is asked, by the advocates of mediate action, whether, in those cases in which we cannot perceive the intermediate agency, it is not more philosophical to admit the existence of a medium which we cannot at present perceive, than to assert that a body can act at a place where it is not.

To a person ignorant of the properties of air, the transmission of force by means of that invisible medium would appear as unaccountable as any other example of action at a distance, and yet in this case we can explain the whole process, and determine the rate at which the action is passed on from one portion to another of the medium.

Why then should we not admit that the familiar mode of communicating motion by pushing and pulling with our hands is the type and exemplification of all action between bodies, even in cases in which we can observe nothing between the bodies which appears to take part in the action?

Here for instance is a kind of attraction with which Professor Guthrie has made us familiar. A disk is set in vibration, and is then brought near a light suspended body, which immediately begins to move towards the disk, as if drawn towards it by an invisible cord. What is this cord? Sir W. Thomson has pointed out that in a moving fluid the pressure is least where the velocity is greatest. The velocity of the vibratory motion of the air is greatest nearest the disk. Hence the pressure of the air on the suspended body is less on the side nearest the disk than on the opposite side, the body yields to the greater pressure, and moves toward the disk.

The disk, therefore, does not act where it is not. It sets the air next it in motion by pushing it, this motion is communicated to more and more distant portions of the air in turn, and thus the pressures on opposite sides of the suspended body are rendered unequal, and it moves towards the disk in consequence of the excess of pressure. The force is therefore a force of the old school — a case of vis a tergo — a shove from behind.

The advocates of the doctrine of action at a distance, however, have not been put to silence by such arguments. What right, say they, have we to assert that a body cannot act where it is not ? Do we not see an instance of action at a distance in the case of a magnet, which acts on another magnet not only at a distance, but with the most complete indifference to the nature of the matter which occupies the intervening space? If the action depends on something occupying the space between the two magnets, it cannot surely be a matter of indifference whether this space is filled with air or not, or whether wood, glass, or copper, be placed between the magnets.

Besides this, Newton’s law of gravitation, which every astronomical observation only tends to establish more firmly, asserts not only that the heavenly bodies act on one another across immense intervals of space, but that two portions of matter, the one buried a thousand miles deep in the interior of the earth, and the other a hundred thousand miles deep in the body of the sun, act on one another with precisely the same force as if the strata beneath which each is buried had been non-existent. If any medium takes part in transmitting this action, it must surely make some difference whether the space between the bodies contains nothing but this medium, or whether it is occupied by the dense matter of the earth or of the sun.

But the advocates of direct action at a distance are not content with instances of this kind, in which the phenomena, even at first sight, appear to favour their doctrine. They push their operations into the enemy’s camp, and maintain that even when the action is apparently the pressure of contiguous portions of matter, the contiguity is only apparent—that a space always intervenes between the bodies which act on each other. They assert, in short, that so far from action at a distance being impossible, it is the only kind of action which ever occurs, and that the favourite old vis a tergo of the schools has no existence in nature, and exists only in the imagination of schoolmen.

The best way to prove that when one body pushes another it does not touch it, is to measure the distance between them. Here are two glass lenses, one of which is pressed against the other by means of a weight. By means of the electric light we may obtain on the screen an image of the place where the one lens presses against the other. A series of coloured rings is formed on the screen. These rings were first observed and first explained by Newton. The particular colour of any ring depends on the distance between the surfaces of the pieces of glass. Newton formed a table of the colours corresponding to different distances, so that by comparing the colour of any ring with Newton’s table, we may ascertain the distance between the surfaces at that ring. The colours are arranged in rings because the surfaces are spherical, and therefore the interval between the surfaces depends on the distance from the line joining the centres of the spheres. The central spot of the rings indicates the place where the lenses are nearest together, and each successive ring corresponds to an increase of about the 4000th part of a millimetre in the distance of the surfaces.

The lenses are now pressed together with a force equal to the weight of an ounce; but there is still a measurable interval between them, even at the place where they are nearest together. They are not in optical contact. To prove this, I apply a greater weight. A new colour appears at the central spot, and the diameters of all the rings increase. This shows that the surfaces are now nearer than at first, but they are not yet in optical contact, for it they were, the central spot would be black. I therefore increase the weights, so as to press the lenses into optical contact. But what we call optical contact is not real contact. Optical contact indicates only that the distance between the surfaces is much less than a wavelength of light. To show that the surfaces are not in real contact, I remove the weights. The rings contract, and several of them vanish at the centre. Now it is possible to bring two pieces of glass so close together, that they will not tend to separate at all, but adhere together so firmly, that when torn asunder the glass will break, not at the surface of contact, but at some other place. The glasses must then be many degrees nearer than when in mere optical contact.

Thus we have shown that bodies begin to press against each other whilst still at a measurable distance, and that even when pressed together with great force they are not in absolute contact, but may be brought nearer still, and that by many degrees.

Why, then, say the advocates of direct action, should we continue to maintain the doctrine, founded only on the rough experience of a pre-scientific age, that matter cannot act where it is not, instead of admitting that all the facts from which our ancestors concluded that contact is essential to action were in reality cases of action at a distance, the distance being too small to be measured by their imperfect means of observation ?

If we are ever to discover the laws of nature, we must do so by obtaining the most accurate acquaintance with the facts of nature, and not by dressing up in philosophical language the loose opinions of men who had no knowledge of the facts which throw most light on these laws. And as for those who introduce aetherial, or other media, to account for these actions, without any direct evidence of the existence of such media, or any clear understanding of how the media do their work, and who fill all space three and four times over with aethers of different sorts, why the less these men talk about their philosophical scruples about admitting action at a distance the better.

If the progress of science were regulated by Newton’s first law of motion, it would be easy to cultivate opinions in advance of the age. We should only have to compare the science of to-day with that of fifty years ago; and by producing, in the geometrical sense, the line of progress, we should obtain the science of fifty years hence.

The progress of science in Newton’s time consisted in getting rid of the celestial machinery with which generations of astronomers had encumbered the heavens, and thus “sweeping cobwebs off the sky.”

Though the planets had already got rid of their crystal spheres, they were still swimming in the vortices of Descartes. Magnets were surrounded by effluvia, and electrified bodies by atmospheres, the properties of which resembled in no respect those of ordinary effluvia and atmospheres.

When Newton demonstrated that the force which acts on each of the heavenly bodies depends on its relative position with respect to the other bodies, the new theory met with violent opposition from the advanced philosophers of the day, who described the doctrine of gravitation as a return to the exploded method of explaining everything by occult causes, attractive virtues, and the like.

Newton himself, with that wise moderation which is characteristic of all his speculations, answered that he made no pretence of explaining the mechanism by which the heavenly bodies act on each other. To determine the mode in which their mutual action depends on their relative position was a great step in science, and this step Newton asserted that he had made. To explain the process by which this action is effected was a quite distinct step, and this step Newton, in his Principia, does not attempt to make.

But so far was Newton from asserting that bodies really do act on one another at a distance, independently of anything between them, that in a letter to Bentley, which has been quoted by Faraday in this place, he says :-

“It is inconceivable that inanimate brute matter should, without the mediation of something else, which is not material, operate upon and affect other matter without mutual contact, as it must do if gravitation, in the sense of Epicurus, be essential and inherent in it That gravity should be innate, inherent, and essential to matter, so that one body can act upon another at a distance, through a vacuum, without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their action and force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an absurdity, that I believe no man who has in philosophical matters a competent faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.”

Accordingly, we find in his Optical Queries, and in his letters to Boyle, that Newton had very early made the attempt to account for gravitation by means of the pressure of a medium, and that the reason he did not publish these investigations ” proceeded from hence only, that he found he was not able, from experiment and observation, to give a satisfactory account of this medium, and the manner of its operation in producing the chief phenomena of nature.”

The doctrine of direct action at a distance cannot claim for its author the discoverer of universal gravitation. It was first asserted by Roger Cotes, in his preface to the Principia, which he edited during Newton’s life. According to Cotes, it is by experience that we learn that all bodies gravitate. We do not learn in any other way that they are extended, movable, or solid. Gravitation, therefore, has as much right to be considered an essential property of matter as extension, mobility, or impenetrability.

And when the Newtonian philosophy gained ground in Europe, it was the opinion of Cotes rather than that of Newton that became most prevalent, till at last Boscovich propounded his theory, that matter is a congeries of mathematical points, each endowed with the power of attracting or repelling the others according to fixed laws. In his world, matter is unextended, and contact is impossible. He did not forget, however, to endow his mathematical points with inertia. In this some of the modern representatives of his school have thought that he “had not quite got so far as the strict modern view of ‘matter’ as being but an expression for modes or manifestations of `force'”.”

But if we leave out of account for the present the development of the ideas of science, and confine our attention to the extension of its boundaries, we shall see that it was most essential that Newton’s method should be extended to every branch of science to which it was applicable — that we should investigate the forces with which bodies act on each other in the first place, before attempting to explain how that force is transmitted. No men could be better fitted to apply themselves exclusively to the first part of the problem, than those who considered the second part quite unnecessary.

Accordingly Cavendish, Coulomb, and Poisson, the founders of the exact sciences of electricity and magnetism, paid no regard to those old notions of “magnetic effluvia” and “electric atmospheres,” which had been put forth in the previous century, but turned their undivided attention to the determination of the law of force, according to which electrified and magnetized bodies attract or repel each other. In this way the true laws of these actions were discovered, and this was done by men who never doubted that the action took place at a distance, without the intervention of any medium, and who would have regarded the discovery of such a medium as complicating rather than as explaining the undoubted phenomena of attraction.

We have now arrived at the great discovery by Oersted of the connection between electricity and magnetism. Oersted found that an electric current acts on a magnetic pole, but that it neither attracts it nor repels it, but causes it to move round the current. He expressed this by saying that “the electric conflict acts in a revolving manner.”

The most obvious deduction from this new fact was that the action of the current on the magnet is not a push-and-pull force, but a rotatory force, and accordingly many minds were set a-speculating on vortices and streams of nether whirling round the current.

But Ampere, by a combination of mathematical skill with experimental ingenuity, first proved that two electric currents act on one another, and then analysed this action into the resultant of a system of push-and-pull forces between the elementary parts of these currents. The formula of Ampere, however, is of extreme complexity, as compared with Newton’s law of gravitation, and many attempts have been made to resolve it into something of greater apparent simplicity.

I have no wish to lead you into a discussion of any of these attempts to improve a mathematical formula. Let us turn to the independent method of investigation employed by Faraday in those researches in electricity and magnetism which have made this Institution one of the most venerable shrines of science.

No man ever more conscientiously and systematically laboured to improve all his powers of mind than did Faraday from the very beginning of his scientific career. But whereas the general course of scientific method then consisted in the application of the ideas of mathematics and astronomy to each new investigation in turn, Faraday seems to have had no opportunity of acquiring a technical knowledge of mathematics, and his knowledge of astronomy was mainly derived from books.

Hence, though he had a profound respect for the great discovery of Newton, he regarded the attraction of gravitation as a sort of sacred mystery, which, as he was not an astronomer, he had no right to gainsay or to doubt, his duty being to believe it in the exact form in which it was delivered to him. Such a dead faith was not likely to lead him to explain new phenomena by means of direct attractions.

Besides this, the treatises of Poisson and Ampere are of so technical a form, that to derive any assistance from them the student must have been thoroughly trained in mathematics, and it is very doubtful if such a training can be begun with advantage in mature years.

Thus Faraday, with his penetrating intellect, his devotion to science, and his opportunities for experiments, was debarred from following the course of thought which had led to the -achievements of the French philosophers, and was obliged to explain the phenomena to himself by means of a symbolism which he could understand, instead of adopting what had hitherto been the Only tongue of the learned.

This new symbolism consisted of those lines of force extending themselves in every direction from electrified and magnetic bodies, which Faraday in his mind’s eye saw as distinctly as the solid bodies from which they emanated.

The idea of lines of force and their exhibition by means of iron filings was nothing new. They had been observed repeatedly, and investigated mathematically as an interesting curiosity of science. But let us hear Faraday himself, as he introduces to his reader the method which in his hands became so powerful.

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) pioneered field theory through his conception of "lines of force."

“It would be a voluntary and unnecessary abandonment of most valuable aid if an experimentalist, who chooses to consider magnetic power as represented by lines of magnetic force, were to deny himself the use of iron filings. By their employment he may make many ‘ conditions of the power, even in complicated cases, visible to the eye at once, may trace the varying direction of the lines of force and determine the relative polarity, may observe in which direction the power is increasing or diminishing, and in complex systems may determine the neutral points, or places where there is neither polarity nor power, even when they occur in the midst of powerful magnets. By their use probable results may be seen at once, and many a valuable suggestion gained for future leading experiments.”

Experiment on Lines of Force.

In this experiment each filing becomes a little magnet. The poles of opposite names belonging to different filings attract each other and stick together, and more filings attach themselves to the exposed poles, that is, to the ends of the row of filings. In this way the filings, instead of forming a confused system of dots over the paper, draw together, filing to filing, till long fibres of filings are formed, which indicate by their direction the lines of force in every part of the field.

The mathematicians saw in this experiment nothing but a method of exhibiting at one view the direction in different places of the resultant of two forces, one directed to each pole of the magnet; a somewhat complicated result of the simple law of force.

But Faraday, by a series of steps as remarkable for their geometrical definiteness as for their speculative ingenuity, imparted to his conception of these lines of force a clearness and precision far in advance of that with which the mathematicians could then invest their own formulae.

In the first place, Faraday’s lines of force are not to be considered merely as individuals, but as forming a system, drawn in space in a definite manner so that the number of the lines which pass through an area, say of one square inch, indicates the intensity of the force acting through the area. Thus the lines of force become definite in number. The strength of a magnetic pole is measured by the number of lines which proceed from it; the electro-tonic state of a circuit is measured by the number of lines which pass through it.

In the second place, each individual line has a continuous existence in space and time. When a piece of steel becomes a magnet, or when an electric current begins to flow, the lines of force do not start into existence each in its own place, but as the strength increases new lines are developed within the magnet or current, and gradually grow outwards, so that the whole system expands from within, like Newton’s rings in our former experiment. Thus every line of force preserves its identity during the whole course of its existence, though its shape and size may be altered to any extent.

I have no time to describe the methods by which every question relating to the forces acting on magnets or on currents, or to the induction of currents in conducting circuits, may be solved by the consideration of Faraday’s lines of force. In this place they can never be forgotten. By means of this new symbolism, Faraday defined with mathematical precision the whole theory of electro-magnetism, in language free from mathematical technicalities, and applicable to the most complicated as well as the simplest cases. But Faraday did not stop here. He went on from the conception of geometrical lines of force to that of physical lines of force. He observed that the motion which the magnetic or electric force tends to produce is invariably such as to shorten the lines of force and to allow them to spread out laterally from each other. He thus perceived in the medium a state of stress, consisting of a tension, like that of a rope, in the direction of the lines of force, combined with a pressure in all directions at right angles to them.

This is quite a new conception of action at a distance, reducing it to a phenomenon of the same kind as that action at a distance which is exerted by means of the tension of ropes and the pressure of rods. When the muscles of our bodies are excited by that stimulus which we are able in some unknown way to apply to them, the fibres tend to shorten themselves and at the same time to expand laterally. A state of stress is produced in the muscle, and the limb moves. This explanation of muscular action is by no means complete. It gives no account of the cause of the excitement of the state of stress, nor does it even investigate those forces of cohesion which enable the muscles to support this stress. Nevertheless, the simple fact, that it substitutes a kind of action which extends continuously along a material substance for one of which we know only a cause and an effect at a distance from each other, induces us to accept it as a real addition to our knowledge of animal mechanics.

For similar reasons we may regard Faraday’s conception of a state of stress in the electro-magnetic field as a method of explaining action at a distance by means of the continuous transmission of force, even though we do not know how the state of stress is produced.

But one of Faraday’s most pregnant discoveries, that of the magnetic rotation of polarised light, enables us to proceed a step fartber. The phenomenon, when analysed into its simplest elements, may be described thus: Of two circularly polarised rays of light, precisely similar in configuration, but rotating in opposite directions, that ray is propagated with the greater velocity which rotates in the same direction as the electricity of the magnetizing current.

It follows from this, as Sir W. Thomson has shewn by strict dynamical reasoning, that the medium when under the action of magnetic force must be in a state of rotation — that is to say, that small portions of the medium, which we may call molecular vortices, are rotating, each on its own axis, the direction of this axis being that of the magnetic force.

Here, then, we have an explanation of the tendency of the lines of magnetic force to spread out laterally and to shorten themselves. It arises from the centrifugal force of the molecular vortices.

The mode in which electromotive force acts in starting and stopping the vortices is more abstruse, though it is of course consistent with dynamical principles.

We have thus found that there are several different kinds of work to be, done by the electro-magnetic medium if it exists. We have also seen that magnetism has an intimate relation to light, and we know that there is a theory of light which supposes it to consist of the vibrations of a medium. How is this luminiferous medium related to our electro-magnetic medium?

It fortunately happens that electro-magnetic measurements have been made from which we can calculate by dynamical principles the velocity of propagation of small magnetic disturbances in the supposed electro-magnetic medium.

This velocity is very great, from 288 to 314 millions of metres per second, according to different experiments. Now the velocity of light, according to Foucault’s experiments, is 298 millions of metres per second. In fact, the different determinations of either velocity differ from each other more than the estimated velocity of light does from the estimated velocity of propagation of small electromagnetic disturbance. But if the luminiferous and the electro-magnetic media occupy the same place, and transmit disturbances with the same velocity, what reason have we to distinguish the one from the other? By considering them as the same, we avoid at least the reproach of filling space twice over with different kinds of aether.

Besides this, the only kind of electro-magnetic disturbances which can be propagated through a non-conducting medium is a disturbance transverse to the direction of propagation, agreeing in this respect with what we know of that disturbance which we call light. Hence, for all we know, light also may be an electro-magnetic disturbance in a non-conducting medium. If we admit this, the electro-magnetic theory of light will agree in every respect with the undulatory theory, and the work of Thomas Young and Fresnel will be established on a firmer basis than ever, when joined with that of Cavendish and Coulomb by the key-stone of the combined sciences of light and electricity—Faraday’s great discovery of the electro-magnetic rotation of light.

The vast interplanetary and interstellar regions will no longer be regarded as waste places in the universe, which the Creator has not seen fit to fill with the symbols of the manifold order of His kingdom. We shall find them to be already full of this wonderful medium; so full, that no human power can remove it from the smallest portion of space, or produce the slightest flaw in its infinite continuity. It extends unbroken from star to star; and when a molecule of hydrogen vibrates in the dog-star, the medium receives the impulses of these vibrations; and after carrying them in its immense bosom for three years, delivers them in due course, regular order, and full tale into the spectroscope of Mr Huggins, at Tulse Hill.

But the medium has other functions and operations besides bearing light from man to man, and from world to world, and giving evidence of the absolute unity of the metric system of the universe. Its minute parts may have rotatory as well as vibratory motions, and the axes of rotation form those lines of magnetic force which extend in unbroken continuity into regions which no eye has seen, and which, by their action on our magnets, are telling us in language not yet interpreted, what is going on in the hidden underworld from minute to minute and from century to century.

And these lines must not be regarded as mere mathematical abstractions. They are the directions in which the medium is exerting a tension like that of a rope, or rather, like that of our own muscles. The tension of the medium in the direction of the earth’s magnetic force is in this country one grain weight on eight square feet. In some of Dr Joule’s experiments, the medium has exerted a tension of 200 lbs. weight per square inch.

But the medium, in virtue of the very same elasticity by which it is able to transmit the undulations of light, is also able to act as a spring. When properly wound up, it exerts a tension, different from the magnetic tension, by which it draws oppositely electrified bodies together, produces effects through the length of telegraph wires, and when of sufficient intensity, leads to the rupture and explosion called lightning.

These are some of the already discovered properties of that which has often been called vacuum, or nothing at all. They enable us to resolve several kinds of action at a distance into actions between contiguous parts of a continuous substance. Whether this resolution is of the nature of explication or complication, I must leave to the metaphysicians.

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