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

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Action of Magnetism on Light Waves 123

The method of reasoning which led to the invention of this instrument may be of interest. We will suppose that, in order to throw the light in one spectrum, the diamond j>oint could be made to rule a grating with a section like that shown in Fig. 89, the distance between the steps being exactly equal and the surfaces of the grooves perfectly polished.

Suppose that the light came in the direction indicated nearly normal to the surface of the groove. The light would be reflected back in the opposite direction, and that

which came from each _

FIG. 89

successive groove

would differ in phase from that from the adjacent grooves by a number of waves corresponding to double the difference in path. The retardation, instead of being one wave, would be twice the number of waves in this distance. If the distance between the grooves were very large, the number of waves in this distance would also be very large, so that the order of the resulting spectrum would be correspondingly high. Further, almost all the light returns in one direction, so that the spectrum we are using will be as bright as possible.

We have thus shown, at least theoretically, the possibility of producing a very high order of spectrum, and at the same time of getting almost all the light in one spectrum. However, the necessary condition is that the distances between the grooves be equal within a very small fraction of a light wave. This is a difficult, but not a hopeless, problem. In fact, we may obtain the desired retardation


Light Waves and Their Uses

by piling up plates of glass of the same thickness. These plates of glass can be made originally of a single piece, as nearly uniform in thickness as possible. It has been possible to obtain plates, plane parallel, so accurate that the thickness was the same all over to within one-hundredth of a light wave; that is, less than one five-millionth of an inch. If we could place a number of such plates in contact with each other, we should have the means of producing any desired retardation of light reflected from one surface over the light reflected from the next nearest surface, and should be able to make this retardation exactly the same number of waves for all the intervals. The difficulty lies in the fact that we cannot place the plates in contact even by applying a pressure large enough to distort the glasses, because of dust particles. The thickness of such particles is of the order of a light wave. It is therefore difficult to get the plates much closer together than about three waves. If this distance were constant, no harm would be done, but it varies in different cases; so the extreme accuracy of the thickness of the glass is practically valueless.

Fortunately there is a way of getting around the difficulty, and this way has, at the same time, other advantages. Suppose that, instead of reflecting the light from such a pile of glass plates, we allow it to go through. The light travels more slowly in glass than in air-β€”in the ratio of one and one-half to one β€” and the retardations produced by the successive plates in the light which has passed through are now exactly the same. In this way it has been found possible to utilize as many as twenty or thirty of such plates, and the retardation produced by each plate would correspond to the difference in the optical path between a layer of air and an equally thick layer of glass. Some of these plates have been made as thick as one inch. Roughly speaking, there are 50,000 waves in an inch of air; the number in an equal thickness of