Michelson A. A. Light waves and their uses (1903)

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Light Waves and Their Uses

inches’ focal length some twenty feet distant. About halfway a disc of about a quarter-inch diameter, and very smoothly and accurately turned, is suspended by three threads,1 so that its center is accurately in line with the pinhole and the center of the lens. The field of the lens will now be quite dark, except at the center of the shadow, where a bright point of light is seen.

We shall now attempt to show the analogue of the sound-shadow experiment by means of light waves. The light is

FIG. 18

concentrated on a very narrow slit A (Fig. 18), which may be supposed to act as the source of light waves. Another slit B, about an inch wide, is placed at a distance of about eight feet, and beyond this a screen C receives the light which has passed through B. The borders bb of the shadow of the slit B are quite sharply defined (though a very slight bending of the light around the edges may be observed by means of a lens focused on b). But if the slit be made narrow, as at B', the sharp boundary which should appear at cc is diffuse and colored, the light being bent into the geometrical shadow as indicated by the dotted lines. The narrower the second slit is made, the wider and more diffuse will be the image on the screen; that is to say, the greater will be the amount of bending into the shadow. An interesting variation of the experiment is made by using two slits instead of the second slit B. In this case, in addition to the

i The disc may be glued to a piece of optical glass, care beiDg taken that no trace of glue appears beyond the edge of the disc.

Microscope, Telescope, Interferometer 23

bending of the rays from their geometrical path, we have the interference of the light from the two slits, producing interference bands whose distance apart is greater the closer the two slits are together. If instead of two slits we have a very large number, such as would be produced by a number of very fine parallel wires, we have, in addition to the central, sharp image, two lateral, colored images, which, when carefully examined, show in their proper order all the colors of the spectrum. This arrangement is known as a diffraction grating, and, though mentioned here simply as an instance of diffraction or bending of the rays from their geometrical path, will be shown in a subsequent lecture to have a very important application in spectrum analysis.

We have thus shown that light consists of waves of exceeding minuteness, and have found approximate values of the lengths of the waves by measuring the very small interval between the surfaces at the thicker end of our air wedge. It can be shown also that this same measurement may be accomplished with a grating if we know the small interval between its lines. The question naturally arises: Might it not be advantageous to reverse the process, and, utilizing this extreme minuteness of light waves, make our measurements of length or angle with a correspondingly high order of accuracy? The principal object of these lectures is to illustrate the various means which have been devised for accomplishing this result.

Before entering into these details, however, it may be well to reply to the very natural question: What would be the use of such extreme refinement in the science of measurement? Very briefly and in general terms the answer would be that in this direction the greater part of all future discovery must lie. The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these