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Pseudoscience is a tricky thing to define. In The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (University of Chicago Press, 2012), historian of science Michael Gordin argues that pseudoscience is hard to pin down; it isn’t a neat epistemological category easily distinguishable from real science. Rather, Gordin argues, pseudoscience is better thought of as a label used by scientists to ostracize certain ideas that they perceive as threatening their hard-earned authority to produce legitimate knowledge about the natural world.

Gordin expanded on the history and practice of pseudoscience in On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press, 2021), in which he defined—or, perhaps complicated—the idea of pseudoscience. “Pseudoscience is not a real thing[,]” Godin wrote. “The term is a negative category always ascribed to somebody else’s beliefs, not to characterize doctrines one holds dear oneself.” In On the Fringe Gordin explores the hazy borderland between science and pseudoscience. He categorizes fringe doctrines into four families: vestigial sciences, hyperpoliticized sciences, counterestablishment sciences, and what we may call parapsychological sciences, or, as he writes “the lineage of theories that have posited extraordinary powers of mind.” In this exhibit, we’ll focus on vestigial sciences, or how one scientist in particular, Ralph Vinton Lyon Hartley (1888-1970), tried to hold on to an older electromagnetic theory of the universe long after it had been supplanted—according to the scientific consensus—by Einstein’s theories of relativity.

Portrait of Ralph V.L. Hartley. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Hartley was by no means a bad scientist. Though he never held a doctorate, he was highly regarded in his own time as an electronics researcher, built some important inventions, and contributed to modern information theory. As someone who dedicated his life to electronics and engineering, Hartley had to be familiar with Maxwell’s equations, which, to put it simply, provide mathematical models of how electric and magnetic fields are generated. Using Maxwell’s equations, Hartley resurrected the aether theory, an older model of the propagation of light in space that had been largely abandoned during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. In doing so, he hoped to convince his colleagues to reject the theory of relativity, which, by the time Hartley finished his education in the 1910s, had become the commonly accepted framework for understanding the properties of light propagation. Hartley’s model proposed a dissipationless fluid that existed throughout the universe as the medium that allows for the propagation of electromagnetic forces. Relying on convoluted mathematics and Maxwell’s equations, Hartley tried to make a case for his model. He stubbornly held out against the scientific consensus until his death in 1970, long after the rise of Einsteinian relativity.

This exhibit explores Hartley’s multi-decade endeavor to publish his challenges to Einsteinian relativity. In his efforts, we see the process of scientific debate and closure that rendered the classical mechanical understanding of the propagation of light a vestigial science. This exhibit shows how a respected scientist conducted research on the fringe, and how Hartley fell out of a rapidly changing consensus. It also provides a behind-the-scenes look at the peer review process, illuminating the social dynamics at play in the production of scientific knowledge.

The Origins of Hartley’s Electromagnetic Theory of the Universe

This is one of the earliest documents available in the Hartley collection. Dating to 1928, it is the draft of an introduction to a paper about the state of Hartley’s research on electromagnetic phenomena. You can see some of his handwritten edits Hartley made throughout the document. This draft is the foundation of a scholarly pursuit to which Hartley would dedicate the next forty-two years: an attempt to bring physics back to the nineteenth century concept of an aether as the medium in which electromagnetic waves propagate in space.

The introduction summarizes the state of physics in the late-1920s. Relativity was ascendant, as older ideas about quantum behavior, conventional aether theory, and other descriptions of electromagnetic phenomena had been rejected in the wake of mounting evidence that pointed in the direction of Einstein’s theories of relativity. The Michelson-Morley experiment, which had been conducted in 1887, tested the aether theory. It failed to detect the aether when it found that there was no significant different in the speed of light through the proposed medium and when light moved at right-angles. Had aether existed, it would have produced a drag on light waves, which would have created a lag in the time that light was reflected back and forth if it was sent parallel to the aether rather than at a right angle. In failing to detect the aether, the Michelson-Morley experiment gave rise to an anomaly for which the classical mechanical understanding of light propagation could not account. Relativity would help rectify this and many other apparent anomalies in aether theory.

Hartley rejected relativity. In a handwritten correction on page two of this document, he argued against the theory, writing “[s]uch an identity would probably not have been arrived at by a priori reasoning. To that extent then we are justified in saying that such a physical interpretation of the assumed equation is not in accord with our intuitive ideas. To the extent that this condition exists regarding the physical interpretation of the equations; the picture of the nature of the universe to which they lead is unsatisfactory.” Relativity can indeed seem unintuitive, and many physicists at the time struggled with that; nonetheless, Einstein’s mathematical models still worked. Since the 1920s, the problem of intuitiveness remains a leading argument put forward by fringe thinkers who reject relativity. You can learn more about this in Episode 5 of Initial Conditions.

Refining Classical Mechanics in a Relativistic Age

This manuscript, which Hartley wrote in 1933, shows how he continued to refine his ideas about classical mechanics and Maxwell’s equations. It is the introduction to a much longer paper that he was preparing to submit to peer-reviewed journals. There are two things worth pointing out about this document. First, we see how committed Hartley was to classical mechanics, in which an aether—however strange its properties—can make sense, mathematically (though perhaps not intuitively). He refers to the aether on the first page, pointing out its “dissipationless” quality. He closes the introduction by invoking classical mechanics directly, writing “[t]he present paper will present a theoretical analysis of such a moving plate condenser carried out along strictly classical lines[.]”

Hartley was holding on to an increasingly antiquated model of the universe, but he was not being obtuse or obstinate. As we can see in this introduction, Hartley’s theoretical work on the aether emerged naturally from his training and interest in electronics. Hartley worked for Bell Laboratories at the time, which had an impressive Research and Development department focused on improving and developing new electronics. Hartley grounded his research in physical objects: the electric circuit, the condenser, and the A.C. generator. It is possible to speculate that working with devices that produced information he could see and measure gave Hartley more confidence in his increasingly unique understanding of the propagation of light.

Peer Review and the Scientific Fringe

Peer review is a clear example of the social nature of scientific research. Scientific ideas do not become established knowledge through the will of lone geniuses. Scientists collaborate, speak to one another, assess different ideas, and try to improve the quality of knowledge in their field together. Peer review is the process that scientific theories undergo to determine their legitimacy. It involves submitting papers to journal editors, who then find suitable, credentialed colleagues to read, comment on, and evaluate the papers. If a paper passes muster with the reviewers, then the editor determines what, if any, changes are necessary before sending it to press. As Michael Gordin points out in his books about pseudoscience, peer review is not perfect, but it does an adequate job allowing new ideas to filter in and keeping fringe theories out. In fact, peer review works well enough that Immanuel Velikovsky, perhaps the leading fringe theorist of the mid-twentieth century, adopted it as he and his followers tried to build a parallel field of scientific research.

In this letter, J.W. Buchta, the Assistant Editor for The Physical Review, which was published by The American Physical Society, informs Hartley that two of his papers were rejected by several referees. Buchta adds “[i]t appears that your material has not been presented in a way that our readers can understand their content.” This would be a common refrain from editors and colleagues to whom Hartley circulated his papers. Despite trying to develop a more intuitive model for quantum phenomena, Hartley’s complicated mathematics were often difficult for readers to grasp. Undaunted, Hartley continued to pursue his classical model, as we see in the next section.

Reconciling Relativity and Classical Mechanics

“In looking for a mechanical model it was not necessary to assume that all the possibilities of the concepts proposed in the past have been exhausted and that something entirely new must be devised. The procedure followed was rather to re-examine the rejected concepts of the past, using the greatly increased knowledge furnished by the currently accepted theories as a guide to the kind of changes to be made in them and as a means of checking the results of such changes.”

       —Ralp V.L. Hartley

Hartley did not believe that relativity and classical mechanics were necessarily in conflict with one another. He thought that his work reconciled those conflicts, or as he wrote “can we devise a model which itself conforms to Newtonian mechanics, and establish a correspondence between the behavior of the energy associated with some particular motion of it and that of mc2 times the material mass? The answer is yes.”

The quote above shows that Hartley understood he was reaching back into the past. While the scientific consensus had moved beyond the use of classical mechanics to explain electromagnetic behavior, Hartley adamantly supported older models, if they could be updated to include more recent findings.

Another Courteous Rejection

During the 1950s and 1960s, the final two decades of his life, Hartley remained as busy as ever trying to get his ideas published in peer reviewed journals. Based on the volume of documents available in his collection after 1950s, it seems that he was in fact more driven to disseminate his ideas than he had been previously. This was likely prompted by his retirement from Bell Laboratories in 1950, which would have given him more time to continue working on his theory of the universal dissipationless liquid.

The letter featured here is another rejection. Early on, editors of the journals where Hartley submitted his papers were usually willing to at least circulate them for peer review; as we will soon see, not every editor would be so generous. This letter comes from Philip Jones, then an associate editor at the Bell Systems Technical Journal. The Journal, as Jones notes, was usually reserved for articles about scientific and technological developments that would have been of interest to Bell Laboratories. Hartley’s paper, therefore, seems like an odd choice. Hartley might have assumed that as a former employee of Bell Laboratories, the editors would have at least been familiar with some of his contributions to the company and the field of electronics research. When the reviewers submitted their comments, Jones saw that Hartley’s paper would have been a poor fit for the journal.

Finding Colleagues on the Fringe

“The most satisfactory part of this work is the criticism of the General Theory of Relativity, which, as you will see, I consider poor stuff.”

       —Herbert Ives

As noted above, the scientific process relies on connections between scientists. Scientists share their ideas with one another, suggest areas of inquiry, and contribute their comments and criticism to strengthen the quality of other researchers’ theories and ideas. Hartley worked on the fringe of mainstream science, but even there, he could find receptive colleagues.

Portrait of Herbert Ives. Credit: Bell Laboratories / Alcatel-Lucent USA Inc., courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection.

Although Hartley continued struggling to have his ideas printed in peer reviewed journals, his work earned him a reputation that attracted other fringe thinkers. These two letters are just a sample of the correspondence between Hartley and Herbert Ives (1882-1953), likely initiated when Hartley sent Ives his earlier drafts for comments. Ives was well known for an experiment he conducted with G.R. Stilwell in 1938, which, in the opinion of the scientific community, confirmed time dilation according to the theory of relativity. Ives understood the results of his experiment differently. As a proponent of the aether theory, Ives believed that he had in fact disproven the theory of relativity, a position that he maintained until his death in 1953.

It makes sense that Hartley would contact Ives about his work. They shared a skepticism about the scientific consensus on the theory of relativity. While Hartley wrote guardedly about relativity, hoping to find a way to resolve it with classical mechanics, Ives was blunt about his disdain for the theory, as the quote above indicates. Both men agreed with English mathematician Lord Rayleigh (1842-1919) who Ives quotes as saying “the resources of classical physics had not been exhausted[.]”

Hartley Continues the Fight

“Thus, based on a misunderstanding nurtured by Ive’s [sic] stubborn fight against Lorentz and Einstein, the author proposes a step which would throw theoretical physics well back into the past century.”

       —Second Anonymous Reviewer

As far as his collection can tell us, Hartley received three more rejections from academic and technical journals between 1953 and 1957. The first came from The Physical Review, which was the journal to which Hartley had sent earlier versions of his papers on the dissipationless liquid in 1939. Back then, the associate editor made a general statement about the reviewers’ inability to fully understand Hartley’s complicated argument and mathematics. The difference between that letter and the first one in this group, dated September 3rd, 1953, is the tone the reviewers took. The first reviewer’s comments indicate the extent to which the theory of relativity was a settled matter when they wrote “I would not advise The Physical Review to reopen now a discussion on relativity, especially when the alternative theory proposed in this paper remains so vague and imprecise.” The second reviewer also took a highly critical tone, writing “[t]hese articles do not warrant publication in The Physical Review. The author, misunderstanding results of Ive’s [sic] campaign against the Lorentz transformations and the special theory of relativity, mistakenly argues we must return to classical mechanics for a relativity principle.”

In their letter dated October 13th, 1953, the editors of the Journal of Rational Mechanics and Analysis rejected Hartley’s paper on the same grounds as the editor of the Bell Systems Technical Journal had in 1951, stating that because their journal was primarily a mathematical one, Hartley’s “discussions of physical principles” were not appropriate for publication. Academic journals have different specializations and are tailored to different audiences. Especially with work such as Hartley’s—which was of a different century, fundamentally—it can be hard to find a journal willing to publish nontraditional (or perhaps too traditional) ideas.

The final rejection letter in this group, dated May 2nd, 1957, bluntly states that according to the reviewers, “the subject is one which was of great interest fifty years ago, but cannot be said to be in the forefront of interest today in light of other developments.” The brief letter concludes by implying that Hartley might find his ideas better suited in a historical monograph detailing the development of ideas that culminated in the theory of relativity, of which Hartley’s dissipationless liquid was an ancestor.


Portrait of George Thomson. Credit: Photograph by Edward Leigh, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Apart from submitting his article drafts to journals, Hartley continued to try to find likeminded colleagues with whom he could share his ideas. Without some support from scientists with stature in the field, Hartley would not be able to legitimize his theories about the aether. Again, this shows that science does not take place on the level of the individual. Science is a social activity, in which scientists participate in the process of legitimizing new knowledge. Fringe theorists usually find that the scientific community will not legitimate their ideas.

These documents show how Hartley tried to find allies to support his ideas. He sent his papers, which described how “the traditional ether is replaced by a highly turbulent, discipationless [sic] liquid, which conforms to Newtonian mechanics” to Sir George Thomson (whose name he unfortunately misspells), son of J.J. Thomson, who is widely credited with the discovery of the electron and who Hartley described as “illustrious.” Unfortunately for Hartley, the younger Thomson lacked the time to read the manuscript, as indicated by his very brief response.


Over the course of his lifetime Hartley witnessed the closure of debate on the theory of relativity. The aether theory, which was dealt a difficult blow by the 1887 Michelson-Morely experiment, one year before Hartley was born, had been supplanted by the theory of relativity to explain the propagation of electromagnetic properties in space. This letter shows how Hartley was increasingly a man out of his time. His colleague briefly explains the self-consistency of the theory of relativity, before describing himself as “a devout relativist.”

Last Attempts to Publish

In 1959, Hartley was able to publish one of his papers in the journal Philosophy of Science. He may have been unsatisfied with the reception, however, since Philosophy of Science was a more speculative journal that did not engage with theoretical physics as much as interesting ideas and questions from a philosophical perspective. He did receive some positive letters from readers and struck up correspondence with many of them. Yet the individuals who wrote enthusiastically about his work were students or the general public, rather than prominent and credible physicists. He tried once more to publish his idea about the turbulent, dissipationless liquid in 1964 when, on the advice of a colleague, he decided to send a draft to the recently established journal Physics.

Physics was created to publish papers that were considered too theoretical or avant-garde for traditional physics journals, while adhering to the same standards for peer review. Like the traditional journals, the intended audience for Physics consisted of physicists. It was still a fledgling journal when Hartley submitted his draft. In response to his submission, Hartley received a rejection form that stated “[y]ou will understand this material would not start off a struggling young journal in the best possible fashion, because of its controversial and off-the-main-stream character. I am afraid there is no question of our accepting it.”


Hartley was hardly a healthy man. Throughout his life he suffered from what he called “nerve exhaustion,” which often laid him up for months at a time, delaying his correspondence and research. Nevertheless, he continued working on his ideas about the turbulent dissipationless liquid, quixotically trying to keep a place for classical Newtonian mechanics in a community of scientists that had long accepted relativity.

What can we learn from Hartley’s struggle? First, even respected scientists can produce pseudoscience. Hartley is remembered for his contribution to information theory and electronics engineering, but we can see that much of his scholarly research, especially after retiring from Bell Laboratories in 1950, focused on nineteenth century ideas about the propagation of electromagnetic waves in the vacuum of space. This research was not a flight of fancy; it was solidly grounded in the electrical equipment that Hartley had spent his career studying. Regarding his research on the aether, Hartley was a man out of time. We might admire his persistence in the face of the establishment of consensus on the theory of relativity and the closure of debate.

Second, Hartley’s papers highlight some of the social dynamics inherent to the production of scientific knowledge. Hartley circulated his papers to colleagues. Usually, they responded politely, while sometimes attempting to dissuade him from pursuing his theories. In Herbert Ives, Hartley found a like-minded scientist, though one who was known in professional circles to have spent pointless time trying to refute the theory of relativity. After Ives died in 1953, Hartley found some support among a smattering of students and interested members of the public, but never anyone of Ives’s stature.

The tepid response to Hartley’s ideas within the scientific community did not discourage him from trying to publish his theories. In this case, though, the peer review process proved mostly effective at keeping vestigial science out of the mainstream. Publishing in peer reviewed scientific journals offers two advantages. First, it serves as a sign that one’s ideas have been legitimated by the scientific community. Second, it offers a wide readership among credentialed, practicing scientists in whatever field the journal serves. Despite the flaws and biases that commonly arise in the peer review process, it remains a powerful, if imperfect, tool that scientists and scholars of all disciplines can use to improve their body of knowledge.