Nautilus

The Comforting Certainty of Unanswered Questions

Light was thought to travel through aether like waves on a lakeShutterstock

You might know the anecdote. In April 1900, Lord Kelvin, one of the most prominent physicists of the 19th century, stands in the speaker’s well of the Royal Society in London. Surveying the state of scientific knowledge at the dawn of a new century, he declares the sky to be clear as far as the eye can see, with the exception of two pesky “clouds.” “Cloud No. 1” is physicists’ inability to detect the aether, the lake-like medium along which waves of electromagnetism must presumably travel. “Cloud

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