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

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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


Light Waves and Their Uses

are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote. Nevertheless, it has been found that there are apparent exceptions to most of these laws, and this is particularly true when the observations are pushed to a limit, i. whenever the circumstances of experiment are such that extreme cases can be examined. Such examination almost surely leads, not to the overthrow of the law, but to the discovery of other facts and laws whose action produces the apparent exceptions.

As instances of such discoveries, which are in most cases due to the increasing order of accuracy made possible by improvements in measuring instruments, may be mentioned: first, the departure of actual gases from the simple laws of the so-called perfect gas, one of the practical results being the liquefaction of air and all known gases; second, the discovery of the velocity of light by astronomical means, depending on the accuracy of telescopes and of astronomical clocks; third, the determination of distances of stars and the orbits of double stars, which depend on measurements of the order of accuracy of one-tenth of a second—an angle which may be represented as that which a pin’s head subtends at a distance of a mile. But perhaps the most striking of such instances are the discovery of a new planet by observations of the small irregularities noticed by Leverier in the motions of the planet Uranus, and the more recent brilliant discovery by Lord Rayleigh of a new element in the atmosphere through the minute but unexplained anomalies found in weighing a given volume of nitrogen. Many other instances might be cited, but these will suffice to justify the statement that “our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” It follows that every means which facilitates accuracy in measurement is a possible factor in a future discovery, and this will, I trust, be a sufficient excuse for bring