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The present knowledge of electromagnetism says that a time-varying electric field generates a time-varying magnetic field and vice versa; this would result in an electromagnetic wave. Maxwell was one the greats who summed up all the seemingly disparate experimental observations into a mathematical language and ended up unifying electric and magnetic fields and predicting the existence of electromagnetic waves.

Aether played an important role in the mathematical derivation and Maxwell's model of electromagnetism where aether was taken to be a medium for the propagation of the electromagnetic wave. Maxwell also tried to come up with a working physical model(s) of aether. Didn't Maxwell see that both electric and magnetic fields can give rise to each other and propagate outward without the need of any separate medium? Why did he need aether at all? Is it possible that he didn't properly realize or visualize that electric and magnetic fields generate each other?

I think that he visualized both fields as some kind of mysterious entities or disturbances in the aether, where one disturbance gives rise to another disturbance in aether and so on. Later when aether was ruled out, those mysterious fluctuating disturbances were considered to be fluctuations and medium in one, i.e. fields. Do I make any sense?

Could you please guide me with it? Thank you!

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    $\begingroup$ Maxwell didn't propose the idea of aether $\endgroup$ Mar 20 '20 at 6:16
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you. I understand that Maxwell didn't propose the idea of aether. It was already there. But when Maxwell did the math, didn't he realize that he could do without the aether? I understand that looking at it in hindsight makes it easier to think aether was not needed. With sound waves, it was different and more obvious. $\endgroup$
    – PG1995
    Mar 20 '20 at 6:20
  • $\begingroup$ "a time varying electric field generates a time varying magnetic field and vice versa" This is not correct. $\endgroup$
    – my2cts
    Mar 20 '20 at 7:05
  • $\begingroup$ @my2cts Could you please let me know how I have it wrong? $\endgroup$
    – PG1995
    Mar 20 '20 at 7:22
  • $\begingroup$ You may enjoy reading the article on the aether that Maxwell wrote for the Encyclopedia Brittanica. $\endgroup$
    – PM 2Ring
    Mar 20 '20 at 7:29
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During those days, the idea of Transverse waves was not available/widely accepted. So Light was thought to be a longitudinal wave(just like sound). But longitudinal waves need an elastic medium for their propagation. Hence the idea of aether was developed. A highly elastic low density medium.

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    $\begingroup$ Maxwell didn't need the idea of Aether at all. He showed that light is an electromagnetic wave which doesn't require any such medium $\endgroup$ Mar 20 '20 at 6:23
  • $\begingroup$ No he did not show that. Maxwell's equation s do not rule out an aether. On the contrary, they strongly suggest one since they are formulated with material media in mind. $\endgroup$
    – my2cts
    Mar 20 '20 at 7:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Vilvanesh I'm sorry but you are mistaken. Maxwell tried his hard to prove the medium. On a side note, I'm surprised that you didn't see the details of my question carefully. $\endgroup$
    – PG1995
    Mar 20 '20 at 7:12
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    $\begingroup$ I think that this question should have been asked in history of science forum. Could someone please move it there? Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – PG1995
    Mar 20 '20 at 7:15
  • $\begingroup$ Physicists of that era were certainly familiar with transverse waves! But they knew that gases can't act as a medium for transverse waves. Sound in air is longitudinal, but in solids there are also transverse waves, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound#Longitudinal_and_transverse_waves $\endgroup$
    – PM 2Ring
    Mar 20 '20 at 7:36

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