Dayton C. Miller. Significance of the ether-drift experiments of 1925 at Mount Wilson //Science, Vol. 63 (1635), April 30, 1926

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[Vol. LXIII, No. 1635

It seemed desirable that further observations should be carried out at a much higher altitude, but numerous causes prevented the resumption of observations.

It was at this time that Einstein became interested; and in November, 1905, he published a paper on “The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.”4 This paper was the first of a long series of papers and treatises by Einstein and others, which has developed into the present theory of relativity. In this first paper, Einstein states the principle of the constancy of the velocity of light, postulating that for an observer on the moving earth, the measured velocity of light must be constant, regardless of the direction or amount of the earth's motion. The whole theory was related to physical phenomena, largely on the assumption that the ether-drift experiments of Michelson, Morley and Miller had given a definite and exact null result.

The deflection of light from the stars by the sun, as predicted by the theory of relativity, was put to the test at the time of the solar eclipse of 1919. The results were widely accepted as confirming the theory. This revived the writer's interest in the ether-drift experiments, the interpretation of which had never been acceptable to him.

The site of the Mount Wilson Observatory, near Pasadena, California, at an elevation of about six thousand feet, appeared to be a suitable place for further trials. An elaborate program of experimentation was prepared, and ample funds to cover the very considerable expense involved were very generously provided by Mr. Eckstein Case, of Cleveland. The president and trustees of Case School of Applied Science gave every possible assistance by allowing leave of absence to the writer at such times as were desirable for making the experiments and by providing an assistant for carrying on the very laborious work of calculating and analyzing the observations. Through the kindness of President Merriam, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and of Directors Hale and Adams, the ether-drift experiments have been carried on at the Mount Wilson Observatory during the past five years.

Observations were begun in March, 1921, using the apparatus and methods employed by Morley and Miller in 1904, 1905 and 1906, with certain modifications and developments in details. The very first observation gave a positive effect such as would be produced by a real ether-drift, corresponding to a relative motion of the earth and ether of about ten kilometers per second. But before announcing such a result it seemed necessary to study every possible cause which might produce a displacement of fringes similar to that caused by ether-drift; among the causes sug-

* Einstein, “Zur electrodynamik bewegter Korper, Ann. der Physih, 17, 891 (1905).

gested were magneto-striction and radiant heat. In order to test the latter the metal parts of the interferometer were completely covered with cork about one inch thick, and fifty sets of observations were made showing a periodic displacement of the fringes, as in the first observations, thus showing that radiant heat is not the cause of the observed effect.

In the summer of 1921 the steel frame of the interferometer was dismounted and a base of one piece of concrete, reinforced with brass, was cast in place on the mercury float. All the metal parts were made of aluminum or brass, thus the entire apparatus was free from magnetic effects and the possible effects due to heat were much reduced. In December, 1921, forty-two sets of observations were made with the non-magnetic interferometer. These show a positive effect as of an ether drift, which is entirely consistent with the observations of April, 1921. Many variations of incidental conditions' were tried at this epoch. Observations were made with rotations of the interferometer clockwise and counter-clockwise, with a rapid rotation and a very slow rotation, with the interferometer extremely out of level, due to the loading of the float on one side. Many variations of procedure in observing and recording were tried. The results of the observations were not affected by any of these changes.5

The entire apparatus was returned to the laboratory in Cleveland. During the years 1922 and 1923 many trials were made under various conditions which could be controlled and with many modifications of the arrangements of parts in the apparatus. An arrangement of prisms and mirrors was made so that the source of light could be placed outside of the observing room, and a further complication of mirrors was tried for observing the fringes from a stationary telescope. Methods of photographic registration by means of a motion picture camera were tried. Various sources of light were employed, inr cluding sunlight and the electric arc. Finally an arrangement was perfected for making observations with an astronomical telescope having an objective of five inches aperture and a magnification of fifty diameters. The source of light adopted was a large acetylene lamp of the kind commonly used for automobile headlights. An extended series of experiments was made to determine the influence of inequality of temperature and of radiant heat, and various insulating covers were provided for the base of the interferometer and for the light path. These experiments proved that under the conditions of actual observation the periodic displacement could not possibly be produced by temperature effects. An ex-

5 Miller, “Ether-drift Experiments at Mount Wilson Observatory, ’ ’ Phys. Bev., 19, 407 (1922); Science, 55, 496 (1922).

April 30, 1926]



tended investigation in the laboratory demonstrated that the full-period effect mentioned in the preliminary report of the Mount Wilson observations is a necessary geometrical consequence of the adjustment of mirrors when fringes of finite width are used and that the effect vanishes only for fringes of infinite width, as is presumed in the simple theory of the experiment.

In July, 1924, the interferometer was taken again to Mount Wilson and mounted on a new site where the temperature conditions were more favorable than those of 1921. The interferometer house was also mounted with a different orientation. Again the observations showed a real periodic displacement of the fringes, as in all the observations previously made at Mount Wilson and at Cleveland.

In spite of long-continued efforts it was impossible to account for these effects as being due to terrestrial causes or to experimental errors. Very extended calculations were made in the effort to reconcile the observed effects with the accepted theories of the ether and of the presumed motions of the earth in space. The observations were repeated at certain epochs to tests one after another of the hypotheses which were suggested. At the end of the year 1924, when a solution seemed impossible, a complete calculation of the then expected effects, for each month of the year, was made for the first time. This indicated that the effect should be a maximum about April first, and further that the direction of the effect should, in the course of the twenty-four hours of the day, rotate completely around the horizon. Observations were made for verifying these predictions in March and April, 1925. The effect was equal in magnitude to the largest so far observed; but it did not point successively to all points of the compass, that is, it did not point in directions 90° apart at intervals of six hours, nor point in opposite directions at intervals of twelve hours. Instead of this, the direction merely oscillated back and forth through an angle of about 60°, having, in general, a northwesterly direction.

Previous to 1925, the Michelson-Morley experiment has always been applied to test a specific hypothesis. The only theory of the ether which has been put to the test is that of the absolutely stationary ether through which the earth moves without in any way disturbing it. To this hypothesis the experiment gave a negative answer. The experiment was applied to test the question only in connection with specific assumed motions of the earth, namely, the axial and orbital motions combined with a constant motion of the solar system towards the constellation Hercules with the velocity of about nineteen kilometers per second. The results of the experiment did not agree with these presumed motions. The experiment was

applied to test the Lorentz-FitzGerald hypothesis that the dimensions of bodies are changed by their motions through the ether; it was applied to test the effects of magneto-striction, of radiant heat and of gravitational deformation of the frame of the interferometer. Throughout all these observations, extending over a period of years, while the answers to the various questions have been “no,” there has persisted a constant and consistent small effect which has not been explained.

The ether-drift interferometer is an instrument which is generally admitted to be suitable for determining the relative motion of the earth and the ether, that is, it is capable of indicating the direction and the magnitude of the absolute motion of the earth and the solar system in space. If observations were made for the determination of such an absolute motion, what would be the result, independent of any “expected” result? For the purpose of answering this general question, it was decided to make more extended observations at other epochs in 1925, and this was done in the months of July, August and September.

It may be asked: why was not such a procedure adopted before? The answer is, in part, that we were concerned with the verification of certain predictions of the so-called classical theories; and in part that it is not easy to develop a new hypothesis, however simple, in the absence of direct indication. Probably a considerable reason for the failure is the great difficulty involved in making the observations at all times of day at any one epoch. I think I am not egotistical, but am merely stating a fact when it is remarked that the ether-drift observations are the most trying and fatiguing, as regards physical, mental and nervous strain, of any scientific work with which I am acquainted. The mere adjustment of an interferometer for white-light fringes and the keeping of it in adjustment, when the light path is 214 feet, made up of sixteen different parts, and when it is in effect in the open air, requires patience as well as a steady “nerve” and a steady hand. Professor Morley once said, “Patience is a possession without which no one is likely to begin observation of this kind.” The observations must be made in the dark; in the daytime, the interferometer house is darkened with black paper shades; the observations must be made in a temperature which is exactly that of the out-of-door air; the observer has to walk around a circle about twenty feet in diameter, keeping his eye at the moving eyepiece of the telescope attached to the interferometer which is floating on mercury and is turning on its axis steadily, at the rate of about one turn a minute; the observer must not touch the interferometer in any way, and yet he must never lose sight of the interference fringes, which are seen only through the small