In the establishment of these theories, the language of ordinary optics has always been employed. The phenomena are looked upon as due to mechanical deformations or to movements governed by certain forces. The electromagnetic theory leads, as we have seen, to the employment of other images. M.H. Poincare, and, after him, Helmholtz, have both proposed electromagnetic theories of dispersion. On examining things closely, it will be found that there are not, in truth, in the two ways of regarding the problem, two equivalent translations of exterior reality. The electrical theory gives us to understand, much better than the mechanical one, that in vacuo the dispersion ought to be strictly null, and this absence of dispersion appears to be confirmed with extraordinary precision by astronomical observations. Thus the observation, often repeated, and at different times of year, proves that in the case of the star Algol, the light of which takes at least four years to reach us, no sensible difference in coloration accompanies the changes in brilliancy.
Purely mechanical considerations have therefore failed to give an entirely satisfactory interpretation of the phenomena in which even the simplest relations between matter and the ether appear. They would, evidently, be still more insufficient if used to explain certain effects produced on matter by light, which could not, without grave difficulties, be attributed to movement; for instance, the phenomena of electrification under the influence of certain radiations, or, again, chemical reactions such as photographic impressions.
The problem had to be approached by another road. The electromagnetic theory was a step in advance, but it comes to a standstill, so to speak, at the moment when the ether penetrates into matter. If we wish to go deeper into the inwardness of the phenomena, we must follow, for example, Professor Lorentz or Dr Larmor, and look with them for a mode of representation which appears, besides, to be a natural consequence of the fundamental ideas forming the basis of Hertz’s experiments.
The moment we look upon a wave in the ether as an electromagnetic wave, a molecule which emits light ought to be considered as a kind of excitant. We are thus led to suppose that in each radiating molecule there are one or several electrified particles, animated with a to-and-fro movement round their positions of equilibrium, and these particles are certainly identical with those electrons the existence of which we have already admitted for so many other reasons.
In the simplest theory, we will imagine an electron which may be displaced from its position of equilibrium in all directions, and is, in this displacement, submitted to attractions which communicate to it a vibration like a pendulum. These movements are equivalent to tiny currents, and the mobile electron, when animated with a considerable velocity, must be sensitive to the action of the magnet which modifies the form of the trajectory and the value of the period. This almost direct consequence was perceived by Lorentz, and it led him to the new idea that radiations emitted by a body ought to be modified by the action of a strong electromagnet.