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Action at a Distance

i Classical Physics
1yWzry1.Hesse "
HE scholastic axom that "matter cannot act where it is not" is one o te
very general metapbysical principIes found in sdence before the seven
tenth century whicb retain their relevance for scientfc theory even when the
metapbysics itself m been discrded. Gtber 5uch principIes bave bn iruit
fuI in the developmet oi physics: for example, the "conservatioo oi motivo"
5tatO by 1rte and Leibniz, whicb generaJize and given precision in
the nineteentb century as t doctrine of the conservativD vi energ; and the
principIe that oature works by the shortet route, wbicb was hailed by Mauper
tuis as a metapbysic principIe "so w, so worthy of supreme Beiog," and
which led diretly to variational metbods in optics and dynamics.
We may regard these metaphysical statements as generalizations from
familiar experience, or from a familiar stock oi ideas, applied anaJogicaly to
the fundamental structure of nature. In this they are like a scientifc by
pothese, but they lack the presion of a go bypothesis, and are capble oC
various interpretations depending on the type of theory in whieh they are used;
a they are often not held tentatively, like hypotheses, but are unoonscious
preuppositions of science into which mthe facts are made to ft. It may b o
interest to sketch part of the historical background o one o these principIes,
namely, the aleged impossibility o aetion at a distance, and to try to reinter
pret sore of the controversies that have arisen round it, not in terms of rival
ontologcal theories, but in terms of the choice of suitable models or analogues
for the decription of physical phenomena.
It has bcharacteristic o physics that it is only those actions which pro
duce or tend l produce motion that are considered as candidales for funda
menta explanations. Actions involving change of other properties, such as il
lumination or temprature, are explained in terms of motion, and not t re
verse. In otber words mecbanics mtraWtiona1ly provided tbe basic categories
o physics. The types of action l be admitted in mechanics were furtber re
stricted at the beginning o the moern scientifc period b the decision to ex
plain the cbange o motion o bodie only by communication from outside, and
nol by any innate pwer or striving within t bodies themselves. Collingwood
credits Kepler with "the momentous step of proosing that i n treating o
physics the word anima should be vqla by the word 1H' in other words,
that the conception o vital energ producing qualitative changes should be re
placed by tbat of mechanical energ .... producing quantitative changes."
UmvrmIy of L I di England. '8 fd c]Aal T (Odo.d, '95), p . e' .
it would show undeniably that a physical agency existed in the curse ol
tbe line of force."
(iii) The action of gravity is depndet upon tbe mass 01 both reacting partides
and their distance aparto
So gravity prents us "ith U simplet C of aUradion; ad apnng to
0W no reJation W any physicl proe by WmO U pe of t particle i5
cm cnImn tbem, sems UD a puCof attractioo or actioo at a dis
tance, and ofer therefore simplt type of the cass "hich may be Jike it in
tbat lt.h
Secood, with regard to radiation:
(i) Lines of radiation are afected by tbe properties 01 the interveoing medium
both in curvature and in transverse orientation about their axs (plarity).
(ii) They require time for their propagation.
(iii) They are not dependent upon a W d reaction partide.
Here "we obtain tbe highest prof, that though nothing ponderable p , yet
tbe lines of force have a physical existence independent, in a manner, of tbe
body radiating, or of the body receiving tbe rays." '*
Tbird, with regard l electric inductioo:
(i) Lines of electric induction are afected by the material medium, but it is
not certan whether, in a vacuum, they would be straight like those of
gravity, or curved. No coodition 01 polarity bas been observed.
() No time has ben sM l b required for their propagation.
(iii) A scond reacting partide is required.
Fourtb, with regard to electric current:
(i) Current afected by the medlum as regards directioo and quantity, and
it is esentially related to a mteial medium.
(ii) Time is require for propagation even in good conductors.
(iii) Tbe lines of 0 are eitber Iimited as io a discharge, or endless and con
tinuous. In btb cases the current depends upn two extremities, as for
instance two charged conductors, or tbe plates of a voltaic cel!.
Tbere are tbus three typs ol forces eerted over a distance:
G,avity, "where propagation of the force by physical Iines through the inter
mediate space is oot supposed to erist"
RadiatjQn, "wbere the propagation does eist, and where the propagating line
or ray, once produce, has exstence independent eitber oI its source, or termi
nation" and
Ectry, "where tbe propagating process m intennediate existence, like a
ray, but at the same time depends upon both extremities of the line ol force." '
I magetic action like any of these? Have tbe Iines of magnetic force a
physical eristence, and if so, is it static tike e1ectric induction, or dynamic like
"fM., Q. q. D Ibid., p. 411.
an electric current? Fy answers his thre questions in t 1 of mag
netic lines o force as follows:
(i) They have not been shown to he afected in any way by any medium other
than iron. On the other hand it W M tbat the eternal lines must be
curved in the I of a rectangular bar Uet in vacuum, since tbey begin
at one ple and end at the other, and Faraday "cannot conceve curve
lines of force witbout m conditions o a phsical existence in that inter
mediate space. lf tbey eist, it is not by a succession o partcles, as in the
cae of static eletric induction, but by the condition o space free from
5uch material particles.21
(ii) No time has been shown to be reuired for protion o magnetic action.
(i) The lines are depndent on opposite poles at ther etremities. Magnetic
lines of force bave many properties in cormon with tose of electric in
duction and current, and can probably be said to be "real" in tbe same
5ense. The chief evidence for M Faraday takes U be their curvature,
and the fact tbat current is induced in a circuit by mere motion in a mag
netic feld. He remains agnotic as to the preise state of matter or aether
which accounts for tbem, whether a current or a stress or any other modi
fcation of tbe medium.
When Kelvin showed tbe matheatical euivalence of various ways ol repre
senting magnetic action and tbe matbematical analog between heat How, cur
rent How, and electric and magnetic Iine of force, Faraday declared himself
strengthened in bis view tbat tbe lines of force represente 50mething physi
cally real; in otber words he was prepared t take mathematical analog with
other physical proesse as evidence for physical reality. tt is interesting to
note, too, that he is prepared to speak of physical relity in connection with a
"oondition o space free from ... material particles." In spite o the in
creasing mecbanization o physics, the notion 01 "reality" was seldom wholIy
retricted t matter-in-motion.
Beginning with the work of Faraday and bis mathematical succesors, one
must distinguish clearly between two ways of considering action at a distance,
ways which may be called respectively tbe mehanica1 problem, and Umathe
matical problem.
The mechanical problem is inherite from tbe physics of the sevenlenth
century, and concrns tbe questions which bave ben considered aboye about
the ultimate nature of matler and aether and of their manner of propagating
action. AH the important attempts to 8wer this question were in terms 01 a
t o substance baving mechanica1 properties: extension, duration, motion,
M force. In the ninelenth century, mechanical models 01 theories are still
5Ougbt, but it is clear that in terms o ts no er t the moical prob
lero of acton is possible. Tbe reson for Uis tat mmehanical models are
fl p. 414-
no longer thought 01 a literaJ descriptions 01 entities exsting in nature, but
onJy as interpretations, in terms o mechanical devices, o pbenoena tbat are
described matbematica1y but whoe ultimate nature canDot be regarded as
crudely meicaJ.
Take lor eumple Maxwell's mecbanicaJ moel o the electroragnetic aether.
He accounts lor the proQtion o electretic efects by a quasi-material
elastic medium in which tubes 01 magnetic force are vorte flaments causing
tension in the medium aJong their length and pressure laterally. The vortex
motion is made psible by "idle" particles between one vorte and anotber
the fux o these particles iD a conductor represents electric current, and their
displacement in an insulating medium prouces dielectric efects. This model
applies to so-called free space, or aether, as well as to the interior 01 matter,
and Maxwell showed tbat his euations 01 the electrODetic feld can be de
rived from it, giving the pr@tion o electromagnetic disturbances with the
velocity of Iight.
If this model were intended as a description 01 the ultimate partic1es 01
nature, it would be difcult to say whether it involved aetion at a distance or
W Tbe equations of the moel are those 01 a continuous elastic fuid medium,
but the question of whether ths meium is ultimately continuous or discrete is
let undedded, beause it depms on more detailed tnowledge ol the moleular
constitution 01 matter and aether. If matter and aether ultimately consist 01
discrete simple atoms, the chances are that sore action at a distance, over
atomic distances at least, wiIl have U be postulated; otherwise it becomes im
possible to account lor the cohesion o hd. But Maxwell is concered oruy
to explain "action betweD distant bodies without asuming the enstence of
torces capble 01 actng directIy at sensible distanccs." On the question o
whether aether is discrete or continuous, Muwe11 remarks:
It is olten UM that mere laet tat W meium is elastic or cmpre ible
Ua prof that t meium is not continuous, but is eompsed ol separate parts
having wid Qbtwen But there is nothing nconssMnt WUe
enee in supposng elasticity or compresibiJity to ppecfevery grtion,
bowever small, into which the meiu can D cncived U W divide, in whieb
case the meium would be MfLj continuous. A medium, bowever, tbough
mogeneu and CUnUus reard$ ii! desity, may be redered heMPeM
by lts moton, & in Sir . !n's hyptbesis 01 vortex-molecules in a per
fet liquid.
Tbe aether . . . is probably moleular, at least in tbis
Ths iIIustrates the sort 01 difculty that arises wben one attempts U take
t mecbanical models as literal descriptions 01 nature, and l wring from tbem
an answer to tbe question whether actioD at a distance ocurs in nature or noto
One generally beomes involve in an infnite regress: aetioD btween bodies at
fDite distances is eplaine by continuous stress in the intervening medium;
this stress is explained by the moleular constitution of the medium, which may
itself involve aetion at a distanee, and so on. There are other example 01 the
. "A dynaml tory of tke ektmmQ-
etcm . 5m/i8c Td#r:, vL I, pz/.
"m," mH.,m. II,
p. 774.
same sort: Helmholtz introuce< terms representing viscosity into m eua
tions olaetber motion, but, a Kelvin pointed out,2' viscosity produces thennal
motion of the particles themselves, and presumably viscous lorce between
aete particles would, ii m idea is to be taken literally, involve thermal
motion of particles within the particle. Agin, in Lorentz's tbeory o the elec
tron, the force on a macroscoic ch particle is replace by forees on its
constituent electrons, and U forees on charges wmn c/crIron: are spoken
Such la is legitimate i it is merely a way al spg about tbe ap
propriate mathematical equations, but no solution t the problem al action at
a distance is t be found by taking such mechanical moels literally. Maxwell
bimself is careful Uexplain the status o his moleular vortex mode:
propse now V eumine m'tic pW froro a mecbanicl pint of view,
and to deterine what tensions in, or motions 01, a mW are capble of pro
ducng U mechanical pheomena o
The t'lception of a partide having its motion connWwith that of a H by
pafeet rolling oontact may r sewhat awkward. do not bring it forward
a mode of cneion existing in naturt.1I
And ma later paper:
1 have en a former ocaion attempte U deribe a partiO kind of moticn
and a partcular kind of $train, W & pa V t for t pbeomena. In
the pMt paper 1avoid any hypotheis of this kindj and Uusing such wNa
etc Otum and eVc elasticity in referece U known phenoO
. . . wish merely U direct mind of the reder to mOical pmea
which wilJ assst mm in understanding the Mcal one. R such phrases in t
pt papr are U Doonsidered M ilIUtrative, not a 6U@,
In sng of the Energ of U feld, haever, I W V W understo
On the other hand, the mathematical aspt of the problem o action at a
distance bame increasingly important as tbe nature of mechanical moels
ce t be btter understood. The mathematicaI problem may be said t have
ben that of reinterpreting action at a distance and action by contact that
the concepts reained relevant to a physics whoe fundamentals were m
coming more and more abstract and less less mechanical, and whose struc.
tUle was more easily understood in terms of mathematics Uof mehanicaI
Kelvin so in a series of mathematical paprs beginning in t84z that
the same matheatcal formalism could be use t expres the laws of fuid
fow, of heat fow, o electric and magnetic phenomena, and o elasticity. Thus,
a source of fuid or o heat is the analogue of an electric charge, Uetic ple,
W source of eletric curret; line o fow are analogue of line of force,
"BmmB T 2 (Cambr 19), {.
911 .
mf] I rlmm (L.
19), p. 13, 14
""D py u. 01 lo" SruN
Fejr V1,Q. 451.
temprature is an analogue of ptentiaJ, and > on. Kelvin als showed that
Faraday's representations in terms o lines ol force were consistent with the
older theries o the inverse-square law, and that this foUowed witbout M
suming any physicaI hypthesis about the oature of the lines of force. These
lines are mathematically defne when the distribution ol centers oI force is
Kelvin remarks that no physical hypothesis follows from the facl of lhese
anaIogie. Fourier did not deduce tbat beat is a material fuid from the Iaws
ol heat fow, and Coulomb did nol deduce ultimate attractions and repulsions
al a distante from the inverse-square law, but tbe analogies are bound to sug
gest that, if heat is proQted from particle to particle in a continuous
medium, then e1ectric and other actions may be propagated in a similar manner.
Maxwell is euaJly cautious in bis m ol the anaIogies: he propases to treal
lines ol forc as if they were lines o fow o an incmpressible fuid, but he
The substance bere trettd of must not U ed to any of the prope_
ties o ordinary Buids except thoe o freedom of motion and usistance U c
presion. It is not even a hypthetical fuid "hich is introducd Ueqlznatu
pheno. It is merely a oollection of imzg|ozqproprties which may be e
ployed for zblidiog%Mm tmrWs in pure mathematics in a way more in
telligible to many minds and more applicable U physical problems that
which a1gbraic symbols aJone are used

General opinion in physics m, however, folIowing Maxwel1, regarded feld

theories derived lrom these analogies with fuid fow and with elastic media as
the new type ol continuous-action thery. Continuous action has now come t
mean that B point al Q b characterid by certain mathematical
quantities which describe the properties of space without implying that any
mehanical events are happing there: " ... we may regard Faraday's con
ception of a state olstres in the electro-magnetic feld as a method of explain
ing action at a distance by means of tbe continuous transmission ol force, eveo
though we do not know how tbe state of stress is produced."" Abelore long
physicists ceased to ask how the state ol stress is prouced in a mechanica1
sens, or even to allow tbat the question many mg. Faraday's criteria
lor continuous action bgan to be accepted as sufcient, namely, that the action
should be m by the meium aud that its propagation should take time.
With regard U propagation in time, the work ol the Continetal physicsts,
Riemann, Neumann, Webr, Clausus, and others, on moving charges, had l e
to the notion of eledric ptentiaJ propagate from cbarge to charge with a lnite
veloity. mathematical tbeories were exprcin terms o action at
a distance, and Maxwell remarks tbat this must b due to cJ0nobjection
to intervening medium:
"''Oi .d.y'. In K of force," ll#c
FePr , vol. 1, p. 11\.
1m. vol. JI, _ gy,
"el. Lumor, "
ritI m 190: "It u not
w #r0 M Iqeat hefe tbt tbe obJKt or
@U modeJ or Ue muc ate u Dt
to Q fW .ctual scture, but to h u.
to ri ZC lha! tbe SOm or math."'atlal teJa_
ti" M wbicb W U ctlvlty W a ,h T |
co"lo". MUlet y b m mHy M a
Jlructure W tbe aetber, bul cetUlnly |
nO a atrctur n of tN.' (Atk~ cm
clI~,C.mbk, I { Y (n.)
... we B uble lo Cncive of ptW u time, extpt eitber a t iigbt
u a material substance tbrougb space, or a t propagtiO of a codition of
motion M stT m a medium dy mg . In tbe theory o Neu-
Wg MthematiOl OmU0ONPotential, which we are unable lo con
ceive a a material substane, W suppsed U be proje<ted fmm one particle lo an
otber, in a manner quite independent of a medium . . . .
But i n aU of te teres te qu naturaUy o ur: 1t!lething utrans
mitted froro one prticle anotbr at a m,wt Wits cndition arter it W
lelt tbe oe particle and before it has Wthe otber? 1$
Maxwell's own fe1d theory leads to a salution represeting a potential
prqted froro charge to charge with a 6nite veloity. The pint at issue m
twen tbe Continental schol and that 01 MaxweU upartly a question olmatbe
matical convenience, since fonnulation in tenos ol either aetOD at a distance
or feld theory can b m to yield results that are confrmed b obsrvations,
but it is a question of what criteria are to be use in chosing between two
psible hyptheses. In addition to confonity witb observation, MaxweU de
mands mpssibUity of thinking physica11y about events taking place in the
medium. A matbematica1 formalism which is no more t an ad hoc collec
tion of equations designed to 6t phenomea u not a sucent aid to tbe
imagnation in trying Uetend a theory. In tbis instance the feld metos ol
tbe British scbol were ertainly more fruitful in further developrnts, and
mwa freely admitted by later Uphysicists.1t
Tbe discovery tat various types of pbysical energy are transfonnable one
into anoter, and that exact numerical corOndences are found in suro trans
forations, suggested that pbycal phenomena migbt b regarded a manifes
tations of a "substantial" energy in its various fons, moical, mm,
Uical, eletromtic, and so on. In m Principie! o/ Mecha",!, Hertz
suggested tbat the theory of mechanics might b rewrltten in tenos of space,
W and energ, instead olthe traditional spce, M and fote. Th formu
Iation m m advantage that energy is accessible to observation in a more
direct way t force, and the use of tbe concept of energ dos not depnd
upon atomic hypoteses as tat of force dos, for instance, in sor statements
of D'Alembet's Principie. bfM of energy may b au t resemble
a subtanc, a1though ptentia energ is difcult Uconceive in tbis way, sDce
it may be negatve, and it depnds on tbe presence of distant M + Obal
anee, Hertz dedes against U way of stating the fundWtal principIes 01
mechanics, and adopts a metho which involves only space, time and M g in
which force or energ merely derived notions.
In electromagnetism, however, the description of events in tenos ol the
continuous How of a quai-substantial eerg was more plausible. Poynting
adopted Upoint of view:
containing electric eurrenu may be regarded as a feld where energy W
transfoned at certain points into the eletric and magnetic hCs by ms of
batteries, dynamos, thermoletric ations, and so on, whle in other parts of the
-Se< 0r WOO Htbol', Prfa
EcIm9 Pd Monu 1W (OfOd, ,8SI), H W 5 Tnmn G M (|Ig,
V 1, p. 48. !W-
fdd Us energy U again uasfoIed mH heat, work done by electromagnetk
rorce, or any form of energ yielded by currents.40
In the theories oi Faraday and Maxwell, the energ of the feld is not simply
carried along by the currents, bul reides in the intervening meium. This
must follow, ii continuity of motioo is asserted, because, il a particle b placed
m the feld al a point previously epty of mater, it may acquire a kinetic
energy, and tls energy must come through the surrounding space. "The al
ternative that jt appared in tbe boy without pesing through the space im
mediately surrounding tbe body nee nol b discllssed."
Poynting shows tbat, if the meum b regarded a the seat of energ de
fne al aoy pajot in tenns of the electric and magnetic intensities al that
paot, then tbe energ iate with eJtric enrreou fows in towards a eUI
reol-heariog wire along Iad drawn Irom the wire, and is transfonned into
heat on reaching tbe wire tseH. In a similar way, the tubes of electric intensity,
which are parallel to the wire, converge on it as the current fows, and the tubes
of magnetic intensity converge on it like ripples reversed in diretion. Tbe
veloity ol tbis fow depnds on the dieletric and mtic proprties of the
medium and on the electrical resistance o tbe wire. Poynting remarks tbat
this is only a repreentation of Maxwell's equations, and tbat no observational
prof o tbe fow is lo be eed other utbe evidence which a1ready sup
ports M&l's theory.

At Uend oC the nineteenth century it semed that most branches o macro

scopic and molecular pbysics were on the way lo explanation in terms ol tbe
electromagetic feld theory. Charged atomic particles were discovered, and
alomic structure bgan lo be treate by that tbeory. Lol apparent action
at a distance m eletric and magnetic phenomena were all describable by a
feld theory which no longer implied a material aetber, but which assigned a
certain matbematical structure lo space, and whicb desribed events going on
in space in terms of tbe fow of mathematically defned concepts such as tubes
ol force and energy. It be inded more correet lo speak of matter as a
particular moifcation o lhis feld, a particular assemblage ol singularities W
tbe feld, rather t t try to explain tbe properties of the feld in terms ol
The only important pbysical pbenomenon which stoo outside tbe eletro
mtic syntbesis gravitation, and this still ed t exhibit pure action
at a distance. Altbough tbe fundamental inverse-square law of gravitational
force leads lo the > matbematical development as Coulomb's law in elec
tridty, severa! pbysica1 diferences betwen gravitational and eleetric force
made it difcult t regard the potential feld ol gravitation as more u a
'" M te m M M W0-
Dd, PI. r"". Bd). . (1884),
u Poynting, " th connelol mtw
Wm cumnt and !he e aDd metlc 11_
ductians \1 tbe unm ,w. (1885),
mathematical convenience, just as the eletric ptentia1s bnot moed the
theory of eleicity m on Ilton B a distaDc before Faraday. Faraday's
arguments for regarding gravity as pure action at a distanc were bardly moi
fed durlng the succeeding hall-century. Alhough !he mathematical analog
with electrostatcs showed that one eould spak 01 curved lines o gravitationaJ
force, it 5liO true !hat nothing W the interveing mum mben lound
to aet U propagation o gravity, whereu the efet of the interveing
medium one 01 m m for asserting the pbysical reality of the
e1ectrmetc feld. It 5tl11 nol elear wbether !he prgtioD of gravit
reuired a fnite tme, Ior lor inuwrote W tQ that its velocty
01 propagaton was mM "enormously to md" lhe vloty ol light!"
MMl mgiven up the attempt lO describe gravitationai attraction in terms
01 aether action, because 01 insuperable diffilties about the energ of a
medium in which the forc between like paru ls attraction, instead 01
pubion as in te 1 o electric and metic pee. Until te advet o
the t 01 relativity, therelore, gavitation understod no bUer U
in the sevente nth century, when the theory o attrlton was fnt formm,
aitbough it m 5erved as an esential m for the impressive rapidly
growing science ol eletromtism.
To pur5ue UhislOry of the concept 01 aetion furter would take us heyond
!he limits 01 elassicai physics, in any 1 It might well be argued that with
the Mdonment 01 any attempt lo describe nalure literally in tenns ol fa
miliar concpts such a billiard balls, elastic st, continuoU! bmdt and
on, o controversy t a al a disu mot of its pint.
We have prbaps gone far g U conclude !hat stateents containing co
Ulile "actio," "contact," ''cle,'' were DO longer literally iD ther
Newtmg even in !he nim nth cenlury, but on the other hand they
did nol disagr {rom the Hterature 01 physics t be entirely rep1aced by
matbematic formalismo Their funeton to poInt to analogies between di
verse pbenomena and to enable the new and unfamiliar to be tought about
and dmim nterms 01 the f.
If we stll me Vak whether action W moer phyics uwa distance or
continuous, the ooly MW to b that it uband it uneither. It
i b bu language maUtica fmm derived 1 6eld
theory and particle theory are stiO , but it u neither, because the
le and the formalism are descriptions oi natural struetures which M
not Iike the subject-matter o Newtonian mechanics, and in reg&ld to which
concepts such as "action," "partcle," "distance" are only u.ed analogically.
But Uuno longer the impt questio: a more interesting quesuon would
be, "What are !he lays in which acton u mtted aecording 1 modem
physc?" The answer would have to take accounl 01 the various mthmatl
dciptions which are m, and would indicate what new moels or analogue
are fOUd t be appropriate.
W. $. w p 1 .
"lM Ts, V ,p. 57".
Not: T: aulr m wm
M help nfro" a con" . ton wt P
ftr 1. Dk, a. from Dr. D. Mc.
Galileo was the frst to exploit this principie systematically in the study ol the
motion of inert matter; in the physics ol Utes mechanical categories were
the only ones admitted in expIaining the bebavior ol material substance, as
opposed U mind; from ther time there a gradual elimination o the
analogies lrom living beings and the teleological categories whicb had pervaded
Aristotelian and Renaissance pbysics. Certain features ol animistic physics
lingered on in seventeenth-century speculations upon the vapors and emana
tions invoked to explain magnetic and electric actiOIS, and even in the "etherial
spirits" and "active principies" discuby Newton in letters to Oldenburg and
Boyle. In earlier writers such M Teleio, Bruno and Gilbert these emanatioI
were not entirely material in the sense in which "matter" was later sharply dis
tinguished from "spirit," but they had something ol the nature ol spirit or soul,
conceved as a fne vapor pervading bodies. At frst the vaprs were suppsed
to have sore capacity lor nitiating action, for instance in drawing iron towards
a magnet, but tbis capacity c to b required as time went on, and, if any
detailed account of the functioning of the vapor, or aether ,2 were attempted, it
in terms ol the mechanical laws of ordinary matter.
In the mechanical tbeory of matter which cae to dominate natural philos
opby It was assumed that the basic constituents of oature are substances having
mast ol tbe properties ol matter ordinarily observed, namely, position and
etension in space, persistence through time, impenetrability and so on. Within
this framework various choices betwen diferent basic concepts and diferent
types oC mechanical action presented tbemselves, namely, whether matter is
ultimately continuous or discrete, whether tbere is a material aether, whether
there is void, and whether action al a distance may be admitted. Fundamental
actions between prts of matter and aetber were conceived in tbree diferent
ways: as impacts, as actions in a continuous medium, and actions at a dis
tance. I of tbese exhibits itself to common-sense obseration in a familiar
type 01 mechanical prM which may be called the pbysical model" ol the
action, and each gave rise during the seventeenth and eightenth centuries to
a cbaracteristic q of matbematical tbeory. Empirical and mathematical
study ol action by impact culminated in Newton's laws o elastic and inelatic
impact in his Prcipia MaJhematica. Action in a continous medium was frst
studied in terms of the communication ol ation through fuids by diret pres
SUfe or by wave motion, the theory of wbich was worked out in the hydrody
namics ol Newton, the Bernouillis, and others, and later, in tbe frst half o the
ninetenth century, an a1ternative physical and matbematical model was pro
vided by tbe development ol the theory of continuous elastic solids.t Finally,
"'Aeb" may b uoed W a ge.c term for
akIhol "subtk substan" ptU!aIe for vari_
O!l$ %h by tm svenleclb_cnlllry wrlters;
by Descartes, for ;rW.Ib, bmB 0
existen of vl, also by Descarte<, Hllyahel
an. N . ton, M acount for O of U
mot\o,, of _Itr. distinctlon O
I W66" "alte &dhe. aIa . Ihe
prGpertia of maitu .e lo be belte Inder_
!load and .. Newtonlan "eanI $ w mb
WM, al wdht bame Ibe chlef distl_
ing proper1y of malte, -e being one of M
imponderable fuid." Introduce In .. veral
brancl of py in Ihe eigbtecnth nl"ry.
the ."lbor', "Modeb in Phyaia, " BnI-
kJom}ortmF+toJh3 cI '95J,
4 I
JI souk be re k ta i Ibe mal""_
matles O t! Ih.-rie malle. U MM
continuo .. and no .aunt W Id:en of smaU_
&c atomlcly. Tbe appliction 01 the theorirs
M malter whl b Hm ",ol<:ulu W
action at a distance was studie in connection with falling b`, the solar
system, and electric and magnetic attractions, and was given mathematical
shap in Newton's theory of central forces, including gravitation.
Until recent1y all the theories of mechanical motions have been derivatives
o one or more o these three models. Much of the progress of theoretical
physics c b described in terms of attempts to eJtend the application o(each
moel to new felds, and at the same time to reuce two of tbe models to the
remaining one in order to economize hypoU. For instance, action by impact
is extended to the bviour of gases, continuous action to the phenomena of
light and electromagetic radiation, and action at a distance t tbe interior of
the atom. On the other band, the view taken otbe nature of matter mat one
time required impact or continuous action to b regarded ultimately as action
at a distance, and has at another time required electric and magnetic attrac
tion to be continuous action in an aether.
During the seventeenth aDd early eighteentb centuries action at a distance
was regrded with suspicion. Leibniz attacked it in his long correspondence
with Samuel C!arke, describing it as a means of communication which is "in
visible, intangble, not mechanical." Clarke might as well bave added, Leibniz
goes on, that it u"inexplicable, unintelligible, precarious, groundless and unex
ampled .... Of which sorts of things, the author seems to have still a go
stock in his head .... 'Tis a chimerical thing, a schoiastic occult quality."
T indictes the grounds of criticism: those who introduced aetioD at a dis
tance were accused of retuming to the Aristotelian habit of postulating an cd
10c quality for every new phenomenon, without showing tbat the quality ex
plaine the phenomenon in any way by relating it U other processes of nature.
When Newton's disciples were driven to spak of tbe means by which bdies
attract ech other as "invisible, intangible and non-mechanical," they seemed to
their contemporaries t be surrendering to the immaterial infuences and sym
patbies which h been banished from physics so recently and witb such dif
The new orthodoxy was Cartesianism, the frst thorough-going attempt to
physics on nothing but substance and motion. The physical model de
veloped by Descartes was that of the modon of a continuous fuid medium dif
ferentiated into particles of various sires forming gros matter, and a subtle,
insensible aether wbich fns the rest of space, allowing no void. Motion in such
a universe bad to be vortical, and action at a distante was not admitted.
Descartes gave explanations in these tenns of phenomena raoging from the
planetary orbits to chemical reaetions and the circulation of the blod, ex
planations which are ingenious and often picturesque, but he did not bave the
mathematica1 euipment t develop a complete hydro]ical theory which
would bave enabled bim to test the continuous fuid bypothesis against oh-
V by !m. such rubric as UConlldo an 0_
nl "
h1ch is lIoIl compar<d lo WlCOplc
0 mIo .. but la'e compred to Jngle mol
culos," (hat (h. efo 01 molecularity b
I lhed out. Bul Ibis prlkuLu appllloD Is
1rre1evan1 lo lbe polnl brin, 6 h, na"y,
Ihal IhOfe "Isu a matbtlcal theory whlch
Q "
ilh actlon W a cnlinunus r<dlur,
And ",hicb cD h ten W A moel tor aU sucb
T. W

c! $d"' Lk 8 (London,
1738), 11th QQ Vol. I, 68.
MARYB. H888f
servation. Having c such a thery Newton able to MOW easily
eouJh that vorte lhory of 0 solar syste d nol accunt for tbe
planetary motkn!
position of Newton mlf witb Od U tbe altemative mol lor
action is ambiguous, lor although bis theory ol gavitation is Uprototyp ol
action al a distance theories, he bimseJ( of the opinion that it migbt u1tJ
mately be possible to eplain action al a distance in terms el impacto Mathe
matically the theory ol gravitation is a spedal 1 o lhe tbeory ol central
forces (ar "centrpta!" forces a Newton called them), and tbis theory is an
immediate consequence ol Newtoo's defnition ol centripetal force as "that
by which bodies are drawn ar implled, er in any way tend, towards a point
as lo a centre." Newton gives as examples gravity, Uetism, the force
oo a stone whirled in a sling. His defnition abstracts from physieal me&
wbereby U force is eerted, and concems itslf oly witb the resulting tend
eney of tbe boy to move tMds tbe centre:
, . , U W uot Imm, tht . . . anywhere eUQ me &5nc
kd, or uc M of any p t Cor t pyic tf,
or thal attribte force, in a troe and physical %, U Oin centre (whicb
B only maticl poinu); wbe at any \W1 happen to sk 01 cntre
a attractlng, or a endowed with attractive poers.'
Newton held !hat tbis tbery o forces does not imply anything about tbe
physical means by which tbey are produced. Tbe attractive force was de
nw immediateJy fmm phenomena, since if !he M and acceleration o a
moving body Mgiven, tbe magnitude of tbe force acting Qit \ b found
from tbe wof motion, and mmsense thery of gravitation was not a
bypotbeis, but a of decribing phenW and a nerr pre
liminary to attempt to fnd tbe pbysical caus of atVon. Nemon theu
fore denied that attraction was in any > an "o t quaJity" of boies, like
te qualities pstulated by te Aristotelians, lor attractive rorce could b m
to derive tbe motions of boies, whereas the Aristote l ian qualities were mere
names which eplained notbing. In Newton's view, and V a greater extent in
tbe view oi his wp Cotes, no elplanation of attracting forces was neces
sary to a physical system, but in some of bis writings ' Newton allows himself
to speculate upon !he possible efecls of a "suhtle suhstance" whose aclion
upon gross matter might produce in boies the apparance ol attracting one
another. And in a leter to Bentley dated 163 he denitely asserts !hat it u
absurd lO suppose !hat gavity is innate and acu without a medium, eitber
material or mmaterial.l'
On the nature pre propertie of m "material or immalerial"
rium, bowever, NeW mle to do more Umue tentatve su@
tiOM. suggestion that the medium might not have the proprties of ordi
nary matter could not be taken into an increingly mathematical phycs
Fm1c#M N/' TmMclc-
u(Londol. ,687), Book II,bmu
Ibld., Q. l. dnlllOD . .
I lb/d., . 8, dcmun vii .
"IU D Boy Lo=m oJ SU
tic M c/ lk wH~ Ik m
RllUd (<lord, '14'), v I. 1I, p. 40. HIWW
0 Benley. Ti W / Ri"",d BenIIey
(London 8l8). vol. m.
"Ib., 2I1.
until tbe notion of "immaterial" was divested o its tion witb spirits,
vapors, emanations and te like, which stm lingered from istc physic,
and given a forro which could be exprmaUtically. This h t wait
lor tbe nineteenth century.
A physical science consolidated its pition and as empirical philosopby
became more infuential, metaphysical objections to action at a distance lot
most of tbeir plausibility. In 1763 Boscovitch could so far tum Leibnizian
arguments against their author as to assert boldly tbat actiO at a distance was
a necessary conseuence of Leibniz's M "law 01 continuity." He conclude
tbat tbe ultimate particles o matter cannot be fnite, bm tbat would in
volve a discontinuous change of density at tbeir boundarie; matter therefore
consists of points of no extent having inertia and exerting forces on one an
other depending M tbeir mutual distances. In 0way are explaine gravita
tional, electric and magnetic attraction, te cohesion and stability of agre
gates of point mW , and the repulsive force exhibite in impact, min terlO
o force acting at a distance.
Boscovitch claime tbat U forees were not mysterious qualities, but
simply the ideas of propensity to approach and t recede:
. . . the various motions tat arise lI force ol U lind, 5Uth a when ane
body colJides wilb aoother boy, when one part 01 a slid is seized and another
part follow5 it, wben U prtic1e ol gass, and ol spring, tepl M aoother,
when Wy bie dCnd, thes motions, sy, are ol everyday w NO
fore our eyes . . . . In all ol U there Unothing mysteious; on the contrary
tbey all tend Umake the lw of force ol this kind perlt1y plain.l1
By tbe beginning of tbe ninetenth century tbere were, generally speaking,
two fundamental teories in physics, one accounting for tbe prqtion o
light by postulating an aether, and the other W ting action at a distance as
tbe basis of gravitation and e1ectric and magnetic attractions, though the pos_
sibility of an ultimate explanation of tbese by aetber action was not denie.
The mathematical theory o attractions was developd b Laplace and Poisson,
who treated the space surrounding centre of force as the feld of a potential
function, so tbat at any point a value could be given to the force tbat wouId be
exerted on a body place at that pint. This was merely a mathematical de
vice, and not an attempt to assig propertie to any aetheriaI meium flling
the ield, so that, physicaUy speaking, actioo was still regarded as exerted at a
disW by tbe centres 01 force. It was Faraday who frst challenge the ade
quacy of this; he was oot satisfed with pure actioo at a distance, but wished
t picture the physical events going on in the interening meium more con
cretely than was allowed for by the potential functions.
Faraday's contributioos to tbeoretical physics lay io his ability to think in
physical pictures rather than in maUatical terms. He freely admits that
he is not comptent to judge such work as Poisson's treatmet o electric and
"Tmcm Thmc#M Ndl"r (trt .d. Vnna, 1,63), En. tI Chid (Chlo,
'9>2), p. 95.

MAY B. f888
magnetic feld theory, but later, in the hands o Kelvin and Maxwell, bis own
pictures of "lines ol force" emanating from charged conductors and from
magnets became the basis o further malhematical developments. Faraday's
use oi pictorial represetations loo him to discussion and reinterpretation o
the fundamental concepts o actioo by contact and action at a distance.
It was in regard to electric inductioo that Faraday frst me convinced
that the action was prpte through a medium and WI at a distance. His
experimental researches led to three condusions which seemed to point to the
existence ol an active medium:
(i) The inductioo o electric charge betwen conductors across an insulating
medium depends quantitatively M the nature oC the insulator.
(ii) If the insulator is cut and the parts separated, opposite cbarges a@on
lhe two separated surfaces,"
The lines of induction are curved, as ilJustrated by the spark of a dis
charge, and by experiments showing how the force on a charged hall due
to a charged insulator is afected by the presence and shape of interveing
conductors, wbicb may make induction "turn a corner."
Faraday concluded that the insulating medium propagates the electric in
duction by reans of its own particle, each of which is itseU a conductor and
bmes polarized, one side having a negative charge and the other a positive
charge. This action takes plac betwen contiguous particles along curved
lines, and Faraday thinks that the faet that the lines are curved is strong proof
that induction is "an action of continuous partieles afeting eab other in turn,
and not an action at a distance." 14 Elsewbere he speaks of action betwen
"contiguous partcles" and explains more carefully what be Ms by "coo
The Wrd 0DW0W1 uperhap not the bet that might 0W be us D and
elsewhere; for & pd 0 Dot WO otr it U not stricUy crreto . . .
By ctol parc 1mO U0 wbich are nezt.15
So that uitimately it seems that even Uaction is at a distance if regarde on
the atomic scale. Faraday is explicit about this in correspondence with Dr. R.
Hare of Pennsylvania.lt Dr. Hare had objected that rarefcation of tbe air be
tween conductors dos not afect the transmission ol electric induction, and
tbat tberelore the material medium cannot be essential. He suggested that an
imponderable matler should be postulated, so tbat the polariztion ol tbis
matter betwen conductors would "1 t otherwise imperfect chain of
causes." Fy replies tbat bis use of "contiguous" ineludes a vacuum in
which the particIes O air may be separated by distances ol the order ol half
an inch, but he will not commit himself here on the hypthesis of an impnder
able aether. Two years earlier, however, he bad had the same idea: "May
inductive action be transmitted by other particIes U those of ponderable
matter, as by tbe particIes ol the supposed ether?"
1 Induction could not
.. D".. (LondoD, '933), voL IIr. p. ,.1.
"xW t.! Ruelu. M EltClridty
(LondOD, ,839), vol. 1, pa. '' -
"Di, vl. nr, p. .
"T#W mm Bwmk~, Y1, para. 116,
`"WM vo1. II,pp. 'S,I.
"Diory, voL IIr, p. "J.
then take place in a perfect vacuum, devoid o air and aether, but there was o
course no means ol checking that hypoU a long as tbere was no iode
pendent means o detecting the supposed aether. The only tbing in favor of it
at the time was a prejudice against action at a distanc.
It is noticeable, however, tbat the meaning of "action by contact" has come
to be modifed in Faraday's work. It is neither action by impact nor aclion in
a continuous medium as U have been defned aboye, but aclion at a distance
between particles at "insensihle" distances aparto The question as to whether
transmission of induction in a vacuum requires the postulation o an aetber t
save the principIe o action by contact is left undecided. Although this new
conception o action by conta:t gives perhaps a more stisying physical pie
ture o the c o Clusality, its introduction makes no diference to the
mathematical tochnique employe, which are still essentially those o central
forces varying according to the inverse-square law. Physically, action at a dis
tance on the atomic scale is retained by Faraday, bu he regards eah
plrticle o the intervening medium as being itself a conductor, and the propr
ties o insulators as arising rom the assumption tbat the conducling particles
are mI in contact with each otber. If they were in contact, there wou1d be
no insulators.
Maxwell, however, interpreted Faraday's work as a rement of concepts
of aclion at a distance by continuous action in a diferent sense:
Faraday, in bis mind's eye, swlines cfforce travsing mQwbere the matb
matkians sw cntre C force attracling al a distaoce: Faraday sw a medium
where they sw nothing but distance: Faraday sought tbe sel of t pbenomea
in w aclions gaing on in medium, they were slisfe that tbey had louDd
it ma pwer cfaction al a distance ipr on e1ectric fuids.1S
And again:
This [ooncption o m C lorce J is quite a Dew cncelion of aclion at a dls
W, reducing it to a phenomeoD oi tb sme kind a that actiOD al a distance
which is mO by mof tesions of and t pI re cfrods."
This brings us to a consideration of Faraday's magetic lines ol force. and to
the question o how lar bis tbeory c eletromagetism is base on the pbysical
model o stresses strains in an elastic medium. If Uwere tbe physcal
moel for magnelic action, then Faraday would have reduce< magnetic action
at a distance to action in a continuous meium, just as his contemporarles were
attempting l describe the transmission of ligbt by theories o an elastic aether.
However, hop to show that a continous elastie medium can bsaid t be a
model in Faraday's work only in a very general sense.
Faraday's attitude towards speculative hypotheses similar t that o
Newton. He is not prto make any defnite statement about tbe ultimate
nature of the lines of force, although he is sometimes prepare<, witb apolo
gies,1G to make suggestions about it. It is only necessry to regard lines of
'Eelty "'" l"pttw (Ofor, ,&3
vol 1, ]. 7 -
5Il F#t vol n, p. zo.
>Apapc '" Wpya Ow o1
m m ot #U 1m, 1# l 1-
rm, 1. IU, p, 4o], ad "U o By
NmW, M w U te Roya lnll tu_
tln IttM p, z),
WAY B. B8888
for a a pictorial representation MUdirectlon ol tbe force at any pint ol
magetic feld:
Tbe tenn n oJ mHcJorce Mntended UWU smply direction of U
forc in any givcn plce, and not any physical ide or Dotion 0 rner in
whih t force may U ertedj Q aem at W mun~, or pulsations,
ar Ny or a WI, O.hat
The liDes ol force simply what would be represented by i ron fling seat
ure< in the feld.
NoFaraday M a temlog in spaking abut the liDes of force whic
is derived from le idea o a bundle o elastic string stretcbed under tension
rom pint to piot o the fe1d. Thus he speaks o "unsion" and "the number
ol lines" cut by a body moving in the feld. Remembring mdiscussion about
ccntiguous partides o a dielectric medium, ont must think o tbe strings as
stretchi ng rom ont partJcle ol the medium to tb next in a straight line, tbe
distance bw particles biog so small that tbe m # as a sm
curve. Ho serious1y dos be ummol? Coy lbe bundle ofelatc
strings is nothing Iike u L buy at lbe store. T"number 0 lines"
does nOI reler to a defnite number ol discrete mum entitie, bul t the
amount of force nerted over a given area in tbe feId. It wou1d not make sense
to assign points lbrough wbicb a line g s and points which are free from
a line. The feld of force Wcontinuous. Again, a coducting wire L cut tbese
IInes and they remaln unbroken. There u no ned V labor lbe pint that
tbe lines of forc are nol to be rerded as material entite. But tbe terminol
og o elastc strings may indicte that "hat ubg m W a continuous
elastic meum "h0e streses and strains prouce mc action; in other
"orc, Faraday may b usng a mathmatical model of the eJastic r. This,
however, W derly not lbe case, for lere is no development of U m
mallal theory ol eJasticlt in Faraday's work.
The physleal model lhat Faraday is uslng is simply lbe pattem into whicb
iron fljngs fall whe they are scatlered in a mtic feld. In other words his
Unes of forc are not in tbmselves an attempl IO e tb nature of mag
netic action, bul only a convenient way of picturing m exprimental facts
about tbe foree acting in tbe neighborhod of magnets and detric currents.
In addition 1 the dastle string terminology Faraday us pbI Iike "con
ducting power," which express an anaIog bet magnetic forc and eIelric
currents. Bul bere again all that is inteded is a conveent way ol stating the
fael that iron concentrates the lines of force by saying tbat iron is a better
conductor of mtic force U is airo T analogy 1 ot nKessarily in
volve the further statement lbat some is traveIling along lbe lines ol force
as cbarges te aloo Iines of L t How, although it may suggesl that m
$ a proftable hypthesls. In moem tenninolog the word "teon" has b
retaine in speaking of lioes of force, while the phrase "conducting pe" m
not, but both M "dead metaphors," in the seose lbat they do nol involve any
l x#Hm~tw 1c k1, V. III, ] 1] aW p, 3.af.
imprtant physical analog betwee elastie strings and Iines of force, or b
tween electric eurrents and lines 01 force. There M important mctmmct cl
analogies whieb were worked out later on basis 01 Faraday's suggestiOIl.
and which we shall consider in eonnetion with the work 01 Kelvin aOO Ma
Wben Faraday speaks about action at a distance and continuous action, be
is thinking pbysically rather U matbematically. Later on, as we shall W y
e concepts bave to be exprdiferetly to take aceount 01 new mathe
matical theories, but, althougb Faraday paved the way for U restatement.
bis own discussions of tbe ultimate nature 01 action are still in terms 01 tbe tra
ditional medium. which may be continuous or discreteo and the traditional
atoms, which may be "billiard balls" or point-centers of fotee. The represeta
don in terms of lines of force dos not in itseU commit him to any decision
between these alternatives, and inded he sees that this is one ol the advantages
of the representation. The arguments he uses about the nature 01 action are
b on diferent physical cOllideratiol, and they raise the question 01
action at a distance with a new c1arity and a new relevance to the physics ol
Faraday's time, I shall describe them in se detail.
We bave seen how the proprties of eletric induction led Faraday to tbe
view that !bis is not an action at sensible distances. but requires tbe interven
tion of a material medium. He is concerned to discover whether the same can
be said ol magnetic action:
How t ragnetic lor $ traferred thugh bor througb QO we X0
not: _ wbether reull Urerely 8at W distante, WU U of gvity;
or 0j mOnIeiate agency, M U tb CC of ligbt, beat, the eletric Of-
nI,md (a I believe) static electric action.u
In a paper entitled "On the pbysical character 01 the lines of Uetic force,"
in whicb Faraday remarks that he is leaving "the striet line 01 reaoning" and
entering upn "a few spculations." he suggets sor eriteria by which difer
et kinds ol action may be rDize:
(i) Can trall5mission 01 action be afecte by changes in U intervening
meium, regards, for instance, a bending o the mor plarity efects?
(H) Otbe Uission take time?
(ili) Oit depend upon the "receiving" end?
These quetiOll5 are answered with respect to gravity, radiation, and elec
trie and magnetic fotee.
First, with respect Mgravity:
(i) Nothing in the intervening meium afects a line of gravitational force b
tween two partic1es. The line is straight, no matter what other particles
may be in mfeld, and tbe action between any pair of particles is inde
pndent of tbat between any other pair.
(ii) It sems impossible to prove whetber or not gavity take time. "If it <id,
0td. Q __.
0m. , @},