The passage of light in the universe: absolute or relative motion?

By Clifford Denton MA (Cantab), D.Phil. (Oxon), P.G.C.E.

The foundational assumptions of the Theory of Special Relativity (SR) bypass the need for a Background Medium in the universe to carry light. By reinterpreting these assumptions, we open the way for a fresh exploration of the passage of light within a fixed frame of reference. We show that the measurement of the speed of light, carried by such a medium, will always give the same result independent of the motion of the observer. The results of SR relating to time dilation and length contraction, seen through a framework of absolute measurements, takes on a new perspective. This enquiry into the way light travels in the universe opens the way to re-examination of all aspects of SR, with the potential to also challenge the wider theory of General Relativity. Thereby, new proposals can be made concerning such things as light from distant stars and the age of the universe.


At the turn of the Twentieth Century there was a surprising result. Experiments were getting more sophisticated to examine the theory that a light bearing medium called the ether existed. It was considered that accurate measurements of the passage of light to and from a reflector would detect a change in the speed of light, giving evidence that the ether existed. When experiment after experiment seemed to show that at whatever speed a body moved, the speed of light seemed to be independent of the motion, and doubt was cast on the idea of an ether pervading all space. The 1881 experiment by Michelson and Morley is well known in this regard.1

The Lorentz Transformation Equations were proposed in 1892. They were developed over the next decade as a means of compensating for the paradox of the seeming invariance of the speed of light independent of the motion of a body.2 The idea that time is a variable depending on velocity was beginning to emerge, even though it was contrary to the accepted creation based absolute measurement of time relating to the rotation of the earth in relation to the sun.

Albert Einstein resolved the problems that he perceived in the experiments of the time by establishing a theory based on two axioms. One axiom ignored an ether and the other accepted without further question that the velocity of light was the same to all observers. This gave way for a new theory that, incorporating the Lorenz equations, led to a new way of looking at the universe.

Einstein’s two axioms of special relativity

In his 1905 paper,3 Einstein wrote, regarding “unsuccessful attempts to detect a motion of the earth relative to the ‘light medium’”:

  1. … not only the phenomena of mechanics but also of electrodynamics have no properties that correspond to the concept of absolute rest.
  2. … that light always propagates in empty space with a definite velocity c that is independent of the state of motion of the emitting body [emphases added].”4

Axiom (or ‘postulate’ as Einstein called it) number 1 is a statement that Relativity Theory will be independent of any fixed frame of reference or ether, whether it exists or not.

Axiom number 2 assumes that the universe has an extraordinary property that the velocity of light is always the same however an observer is moving. This is totally counter-intuitive and gives one the suspicion that it was an error made in seeking a new way forward, to break a deadlock. To illustrate the irrationality of this assumption, consider light from the sun, emitted at 186,000 mi/sec, being intercepted by a spaceship going towards it at 100,000 mi/sec (were it possible). The observer in the spaceship would expect to measure the speed of light arriving at the spaceship as the sum of the two velocities, 286,000 mi/sec. Einstein proposed that we accept that it would always be measured as an invariable value to all travellers as 186,000 mi/sec.

With such an assumption, despite all the physics that has been built on the Theory of Relativity with seeming success, we are wise to attempt alternative explanations for the results of experiments. Even if we cannot detect an ether, we can continue to examine why the speed of light does not change depending on the motion of a body. Indeed, it is known that Einstein himself went back to a luminiferous ether in 1920.5

Time dilation and length contraction

A consequence of following the logic of SR is that time is redefined giving rise to the result that in moving objects, time will slow down as clocks move. There is a similar result in General Relativity (GR) where time varies depending on the strength of gravitational pull at a certain point. The slowing of time is called Time Dilation. There does seem to be experimental evidence to support this. We introduce here the constant g, familiar to SR.

If a body is moving at speed v, and the speed of light is c

g 2= 1 – v2/c2

This is the factor by which, in SR, time dilates. Suppose two identical clocks record the same time at a given instant, but one is moving at speed v with respect to the other. An observer who is stationary with the first clock will read a passage of time as t on the stationary clock but gt on the moving clock. This is called time dilation as predicted by the Lorentz equations.

There is a similar result for the contraction of length in a body moving relative to another body. Suppose a body is measured as length L by a stationary observer. If it is then moved at speed v, the stationary observer will measure the body’s length as contracted to gL. This length contraction is predicted by the Lorentz equations.

These are well known results of SR, but mentioned here because we will take a subtly different approach. We will need to return to this later in this paper but for now, we will state our assumption, recognising what is useful from the results of SR.

Measurement of time and shrinkage of length in moving bodies

If there is a material pervading the universe called the ether, we agree that it may never be possible to detect it. Nevertheless, if it is plausible that it exists and is the medium where light is carried, we must build our hypotheses based on this assumption. In a given location of the universe it can be considered as a fixed frame of reference from which, theoretically, absolute measurements can be taken. This opens the way for much conjecture, as to whether this ether is the material that has been used since Creation whereby the Lord stretched out the heavens (Isaiah 40:22), and whether its ‘density’ varies across the universe. There are things we may never know but our scientific minds will go on making hypotheses. These hypotheses can take new directions if we accept the existence of the ether and of absolute rather than relative measurements.

For the discussion that follows, we will propose that the equations for time dilation and length contraction derived by the system of SR are valid but understood in a different way. If a clock moves in the universe, it would move through the ether and thereby be affected by it. It is not unreasonable to propose that the measurement of time on this clock changes by the factor g as in SR. According to the Lorentz-Einstein equations, the rates of all physical processes, including clock rates, change in a moving body. Similarly, the particles that make up a moving body are affected by motion through the ether in a way that causes lengths to contract, again by the factor g. This may seem to be the same as SR, but it is not. It is simply that a moving object interacts with the ether, affecting lengths and times due to the motion.6

By accepting this as an assumption to be followed up later in the paper, we are in a position to consider the passage of light through the ether, whose rest position is the frame of reference from which absolute measurements, theoretically, are made.

The velocity of light is constant for all observers, but for a different reason than proposed by SR.

First we must point out that there has been no experiment, nor could there be, that measures the speed of light in one direction. Every measurement of the speed of light is two way, to a reflector and back. We propose that this is the flaw in Einstein’s second postulate. He had no way of checking his assumption, so simply created a postulate that had the potential of error. If Einstein’s postulate is incorrect then this affects all the conclusions of SR, founded upon it. If we can demonstrate the plausibility of the constancy of a two way (to reflector and back) ‘average’ measurement of the velocity of light, we have an explanation for the paradox following the Michelson-Morley experiment. As a result we can build up an alternative to SR, based on absolute measurements.

Let us consider a light signal sent a distance L to a reflector and back as measured by instruments that are at rest with regard to the ether (at rest in an Absolute Frame of Reference (AFR)).

Light is transmitted from A to B a distance of L. There is no motion of measuring instruments at A or of the reflector at B, so there is no adjustment for motion in the Galilean/Newtonian sense of relative motion.7 Therefore, the time of travel of light from emitter at A to reflector at B and back is the sum of the time outward, L/c to the time of the reverse journey, L/c, giving a total time t

t = 2L/c

Now let us consider the situation where the same apparatus is moving at speed v, making calculations of time for the light to go out from the emitter at A to the reflector at B and back.

A clock at A, moving with the apparatus records the total time for the two-way journey of light from A to B. Since the entire apparatus is moving, the absolute distance between A and B will decrease due to the motion through the ether to a length L1.The calculation of time for the outward and return journey of light, A to B and back, by the principles of Galilean/Newtonian relativity gives:

Time outward A to B L1 /(c-v) Time back B to A L1 /(c+v)

If we call the absolute total time for the two-way travel of light t1,

t1 = L1 /(c-v) + L1 /(c+v) = 2cL1 /(c2 – v2) = 2cL1 /c2 (1 – v2/c2) = 2L1 /c(1 – v2/c2)

We recall thatg2= 1 – v2/c2

So we can rewrite the time as t1 = 2L1 /g2c

Now, we have assumed that contraction of length due to motion gives L1= gL

Giving t1 = 2gL /g2c = 2L /gc

We can now calculate the apparent speed of light for the two way journey from A to B and back,as measured by instruments moving at speed v through the AFR.

Considering length, the shrunk length from A to B is L1 = gL in absolute terms. However, the measuring instrument for length (the “ruler”) is also moving with the apparatus. It shrinks in length by the same proportion as the length AB itself. Though there is shrinkage, this will not be apparent when measured by the instruments in motion. Thus the length AB, used for calculating the speed of light in the two way journey, for the instruments in motion, will seem to be L not gL.

Considering time, t1is the absolute time of the two way journey of light. The time of travel, as measured by the moving clock, which slows by the factor g due to interaction with the ether, is therefore gt1 = g 2L /gc = 2L /c.

We can now calculate the speed of light as measured from readings on the moving instruments.

Average’ two way speed of light, apparent to a moving observer using the moving measuring instruments of length and time, total distance/total time, is:

2L /g t1 = 2L /(2L/c) = c

Using measurements based on an absolute frame of reference and assuming that this is the rest position of the ether, we see that whatever the speed of an observer, we always get the same value for c, as it appeared from the experiments of the early 20th Century. This interprets the postulates of SR, giving us a clearer view of the universe in terms of the Lorentz-Einstein equations.

We note also that this is a measurement of an averaged two-way journey of light. Einstein’s postulate was that light in one direction would remain constant to any observer, and this postulate would have to be reconsidered in the light of our new understanding.

God designed His universe to be based on relationships, not isolation

We used the result predicted by SR of time dilation and length contraction, rethinking them in absolute terms to be the slowing of clocks in motion through the ether and the actual shrinkage of length due to motion through the ether. We now need to justify this assumption. These are issues that can be investigated further, and the reasoning depends on one’s assumed model for matter. Conflicts between SR and quantum mechanics are well known. One tests a theory against another, and this will always be so. When we are dealing with high speeds and minute particles, we only have evidence and not proof, so the search will go on and be limited by the light that can be shed on this by the God who created all.

From our limited knowledge of the design of the constituent elements of matter we would accept that at the smallest level, beyond the range of microscopes, there are particles of some kind that are in motion with respect to each other. They remain in a solid state due to their interaction with one another. Whatever the construction of the ether, they move through it and are held together by bonding signals that pass between them. This is like the emitter and the reflector of our discussion concerning the speed of light. It could be that all bonding signals, the forces of nature, work in this way whether by waves or particles or both, including all electromagnetism and gravity. Such speculation opens the way to asking questions and forming hypotheses concerning the nature of both matter and the space between matter, which carries the medium of communication.

It will depend on our model how we seek an explanation of length shrinkage and slowing of clocks due to motion. We imagine bonding signals travelling through the ether between particles and bodies, whose two-way motion is affected in a similar way to the passage of light from A to B in our discussion of the speed of light. It is reasonable, therefore, to expect adjustment of distance between constituent particles to preserve the harmony of time and distance which bonds the particles together. This will result in a discovery that the constant gis involved, just as in the above discussion.

Pym and Denton realised that they would need to consider this in their exploration of absolutes, similar to what is outlined in this paper.8 They could only illustrate a way of thinking through one model, in this case, of photon bonding. Their model did produce the expected result. This, at least, can be an encouragement to others to continue the enquiry based on whatever theory of the material universe they hold. We believe that, starting with the enquiry of the passage of light through the universe, we are free to consider absolute measurements again with confidence, rather than the more complicated measurements leading to SR and GR.

It is interesting, in this regard, that in 1895, H.A.Lorentz showed that according to Maxwell’s equations in an ether, a moving lattice of ions would shrink as it moved through the ether, shrinking by the exact amount that Einstein’s theory later showed from different postulates.9


We proposed that the two foundational postulates of Special Relativity be reinterpreted. The alternative view was expressed, that a light-conducting medium in the universe is still a plausible option. The key issue was addressed, namely, to show that the measurement of the speed of light by any observer will always be constant, based on absolute measurements. We discovered that this hypothesis is demonstrable, giving credit for the advances made via SR which suggest that clocks slow and lengths contract, in our case explicable by use of absolute measurements.

We make all our measurements in a closed universe, using instruments constructed from the matter of the universe. Only by observing from outside the universe could we see completely objectively. This is not our privilege, so our quest will go on within the wisdom that God alone, the Creator of all, can give.

We propose that a return to absolutes would be to the pleasure of the Creator, since relative thinking distorts our view of the universe. The Psalmist says in Psalm 19 that the heavens declare the glory of God. Such glory is seen through the things that the eye can see, and this must not be distorted by science founded on errors.

We recall that it is the two way “average” passage of light that we can measure. One way passage of light is open to fresh prayerful questioning. If the ether exists, we do not know how it was stretched out or how it continues to expand. We do not know if the local speed of light anywhere in the universe varies or has varied as the created universe settled. We may never know. We could speculate on local light speeds elsewhere in the universe, quite different from the 186,000 miles per second that is measured in our local environment; perhaps up to much higher speeds, in other local areas or in times past10. We may speculate on this and many other things and are free to do so. But in the end, it is faith in our Creator that pleases Him and knowledge within the bounds of revelation that He sets.

May our prayerful quest go on with all integrity and honour to the One who made all that is.


1. An accessible summary of the background and the theory of Special Relativity is Relativity for the Layman, James A Coleman, Pelican, 1959. The book was endorsed on the back cover by Albert Einstein, who said, that the book “Gives a really clear idea of the problem, especially the development of our knowledge concerning the propagation of light and the difficulties that arose from the apparently inevitable introduction of the ether.”

2. See, for example, Rindler, W., Essential Relativity, 2nd ed., Springer Verlag, New York, pp. 31–33, 1986.

3. A useful book that contains five papers written in 1905, two of which were the beginnings of Relativity Theory, is Einstein’s Miraculous Year, edited and introduced by John Stachel, Princeton University Press, 1998. The two postulates of Relativity are on p. 124.

4. These quotations are exactly as written by Einstein except that we have written the velocity of light as ‘c’ not ‘V’.

5. Einstein, A., “Ether and the theory of relativity” in Einstein, A., Sidelights on Relativity, Dover Publications Inc., New York, pp 3-24. Also see Humphreys, D. R., Starlight and Time, Master Books, Green Forest Arkansas,p. 84, 1994.

6. This idea has been proposed by others, e.g. by D. Russell Humphreys, op. Cit. p. 84 we read: “The speed of light would be constant with respect to such an ether, and then the equations of relativity would require that clocks and measuring rods moving with respect to the ether change in such a way as to give the same number for the speed of light every time. i.e., objects moving through the ether would be changed by that motion. Clocks would actually slow down, measuring rods would actually shorten, and the speed of light would seem to be independent of motion [Rindler, ref. 2, p. 7]. By re-affirming an absolute reference frame, this view of relativity dumps the philosophical baggage and resolves the paradoxes.”

7. This is quite different from SR. If two cars approach one another at speeds u and v, the speed each is approaching the other is u+v. If the second moves away from the first, the first closes on it at the speed u-v. In our fixed frame of reference, light is travelling in the ether at speed c. If the apparatus (light source and reflector) are moving in the ether, we add or subtract their speed of movement as applicable to find the relative speed of the instruments to the light that travels in the ether.

8. Pym, F. and Denton,C., Einstein’s Predicament, Two-Edged Sword Publications, Waterlooville, UK, pp. 37–49, 2005. An introduction to the theory is also available on Absolute Space and Time – YouTube

9. Lorentz, H.A., “Michelson’s Interference Experiment”, in Lorentz, H.A.,, The Principle of Relativity, Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1952, pp. 11-34.

10. For example, we might speculate that when a new star appeared on Day 4 of
Creation around 6,000 years ago, the universe would be in the early stages of
expansion. The light burst forth from the star and then continued its journey of
thousands of years to the earth through a changing universe that continued to
expand. A simple order of magnitude calculation can show that light leaving
the star might have travelled initially at 1,000 times the speed of light that we
measure today.

Reprinted with permissiom from The Journal of Creation 37 (2) 2023.