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

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In the last lecture we considered the limitations of the telescope and microscope when used as measuring instruments, and showed how they may be transformed so that the diffraction and interference fringes which place the limit upon their resolving power may be made use of to increase the accuracy of measurements of length and of angle. We have named these new forms of instrument interferometers and illustrated many of the forms in which they may be made.

It has been found that the particular form of interferometer described on p. 40 is the most generally useful, and the principal subject of this lecture will be to illustrate the applications which have already been made of this instrument.

But before passing to the first application of the interferometer, we may make a little digression, and consider briefly the two theories which have been proposed to account for the various phenomena of light. One of these is the undulatory theory, which has already been explained; the other is the corpuscular theory, which for a long time held its ground against the undulatory theory, principally in consequence of the support of Newton.

The corpuscular theory supposes that a luminous body shines in virtue of the emission of minute particles. These corpuscles are shot out in all directions, and are supposed to produce the sensation of vision when they strike the retina. The corpuscular theory was for a long time felt to be unsatisfactory because, whenever a new fact regarding light was discovered, it was always necessary to make some supplemen-


Application of Interference Methods 45

tary hypothesis to strengthen the theory; whereas the undulatory theory was competent to explain everything without the addition of extra hypotheses. Nevertheless, Newton objected to the undulatory theory on the ground that it was difficult to conceive that a medium which offers no resistance to the motion of the planets could propagate vibrations which are transverse (and we know that the light vibrations are transverse because of the phenomena of polarization), for such vibrations can be propagated only in a medium which has the properties of a solid. Thus, if the end of a metal rod be twisted, the twist travels along from one end to the other with considerable velocity. If the rod were made of sealing wax, the twist would rapidly subside. If such a rod could be made of liquid, it would offer virtually no elastic resistance to such a twist.

Notwithstanding this, the medium which propagates light waves, and which was supposed to resist after the fashion of an elastic solid, must offer no appreciable resistance to such enormous velocities as those of the planets revolving in their orbits around the sun. The earth, for example, moves with a velocity of something like twenty miles in a second, has been moving at that rate for millions of years, and yet, as far as we know, there is no considerable increase in the length of the year, such as would result if it moved in a resisting medium. There are other heavenly bodies far less dense than the earth, c. g., the comets, and it seems almost incredible that such enormously extended bodies with such an exceedingly small mass should not meet with some resistance in passing through their enormous orbits. The result of such resistance would be an increase in the period of revolution of the comets, and no such increase has been detected. We are thus required to postulate a medium far more solid than steel and far less viscous than the lightest known gas.