Albert Michelson and Edward Morley’s 1887 investigation into the qualities of ‘luminiferous aether’, the medium through which light was popularly supposed to move, was, according to Waldy Tolliver, the narrator of John Wray’s mad but brilliant fourth novel, ‘the most spectacular failure in scientific history’. They assumed that the speed of light would vary according to the speed at which it was observed; their experiment instead proved that light always moved at near enough the same speed. Not only did this accidental discovery tell them nothing about the qualities of ‘luminiferous aether’, it also undermined the fundamental tenets of Newtonian mechanics. If the speed of light was constant, one or both of space and time couldn’t be.
Waldy’s family have been obsessed with ‘space-time’ since 1903, when his great-grandfather Ottokar, a Moravian pickle merchant and amateur physicist, died, leaving a cryptic note claiming to have solved the problems raised by Michelson and Morley, with vague but rapturous references to ‘Lost Time Accidents’. The Tollivers call this obsession