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

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The velocity of light is so enormously greater than anything with which we are accustomed to deal that the mind has some little difficulty in grasping it. A bullet travels at the rate of approximately half a mile a second. Sound, in a steel wire, travels at the rate of three miles a second. From this—if we agree to except the velocities of the heavenly bodies — there is no intermediate step to the velocity of light, which is about 186,000 miles a second. We can, perhaps, give a better idea of this velocity by saying that light will travel around the world seven times between two ticks of a clock.

Now, the velocity of wave propagation can be seen, without the aid of any mathematical analysis, to depend on the elasticity of the medium and its density; for we can see that if a medium is highly elastic the disturbance would be propagated at a great speed. Also, if the medium is dense the propagation would be slower than if it were rare. It can easily be shown that if the elasticity were represented by E, and the density by D, the velocity would be represented by the square root of E divided by D. So that, if the density of the medium which propagates light waves were as great as the density of steel, the elasticity, since the velocity of light is some 60,000 times as great as that of the propagation of sound in a steel wire, must be 60,000 squared times as great as the elasticity of steel. Thus, this medium which propagates light vibrations would have to have an elasticity of the order of 3,600,000,000 times the elasticity of steel. Or, if the elasticity of the medium were the same


The Ether


as that of steel, the density would have to be 3,600,000,000 times as small as that of steel, that is to say, roughly speaking, about 50,000 times as small as the density of hydrogen, the lightest known gas. Evidently, then, a medium which propagates vibrations with such an enormous velocity must have an enormously high elasticity or abnormally low density. In any case, its properties would be of an entirely different order from the properties of the substances with which we are accustomed to deal, so that it belongs in a category by itself.

Another course of reasoning which leads to this same conclusion — namely, that this medium is not any ordinary form of matter, such as air or gas or steel — is the following: Sound is produced by a bell under a receiver of an air pump. When the air has the same density inside the receiver as outside, the sound reaches the ear of an observer without difficulty. But when the air is gradually pumped out of the receiver, the sound becomes fainter and fainter until it ceases entirely. If the same thing were true of light, and we exhausted a vessel in which a source of light — an incandescent lamp, for example—had been placed, then, after a certain degree of exhaustion was reached, we ought to see the light less clearly than before. We know, however, that the contrary is the case, i. e.> that the light is actually brighter and clearer when the exhaustion of the receiver has been carried to the highest possible degree. The probabilities are enormously against the conclusion that light is transmitted by the very small quantity of residual gas. There are other theoretical reasons, into which we will not enter.

Whatever the process of reasoning, we are led to the same result. We know that light vibrations are transverse to the direction of propagation, while sound vibrations are in the direction of propagation. Wo know also that in the case of a solid body transverse vibrations can be readily trans-