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

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Light Waves and Their Uses

mittedf Thus, if we have a long cylindrical rod and we give one end of it a twist, the twist will travel along from one end to the other. If the' medium, instead of being a solid rod, were a tube of liquid, and were twisted at one end, there would be no corresponding transmission of the twist to the other end, for a liquid cannot transmit a torsional strain. Hence this reasoning leads to the conclusion that if the medium which propagates light vibrations has the properties of ordinary matter, it must be considered to be an elastic solid rather than a fluid.

This conclusion was considered one of the most formidable objections to the undulatory theory that light consists of waves. For this medium, notwithstanding the necessity for the assumption that it has the properties of a solid, must yet be of such a nature as to offer little resistance to the motion of a body through it. Take, for example, the motion of the planets around the sun. The resistance of the medium is so small that the earth has been traveling around the sun millions of years without any appreciable increase in the length of the year. Even the vastly lighter and more attenuated comets return to the same point periodically, and the time of such periodical returns has been carefully noted from the earliest historical times, and yet no appreciable increase in it has been detected. We are thus confronted with the apparent inconsistency of a solid body which must at the same time possess in such a marked degree the properties of a perfect fluid as to offer no appreciable resistance to the motion of bodies so very light and extended as the comets. We are, however, not without analogies, for, as was stated in the first lecture, substances such as shoemaker’s wax show the properties of an elastic solid when reacting against rapid motions, but act like a liquid under pressures.

In the case of shoemaker’s wax both of these contradictory

The Ether


properties are very imperfectly realized, but we can argue from this fact that the medium which we are considering might have the various properties which it must possess in an enormously exaggerated degree. It is, at any rate, not at all inconceivable that such a medium should at the same time possess both properties. We know that the air itself does not possess such properties, and that no matter which we know possesses them in sufficient degree to account for the propagation of light. Hence the conclusion that light vibrations are not propagated by ordinary matter, but by something else. Cogent as these three lines of reasoning may be, it is undoubtedly true that they do not always carry conviction. There is, so far as I am aware, 110 process of reasoning upon this subject which leads to a result which is free from objection and absolutely conclusive.

But these are not the only paradoxes connected with the medium which transmits light. There was an observation made by Bradley a great many years ago, for quite another purpose. He found that when we observe the position of a star by means of the telescope, the star seems shifted from its actual position, by a certain small angle called the angle of aberration. He attributed this effect to the motion of the earth in its orbit, and gave an explanation of the phenomenon which is based on the corpuscular theory and is apparently very simple. We will give this explanation, notwithstanding the fact that we know the corpuscular theory to be erroneous.

Let us suppose a raindrop to be falling vertically and an observer to be carrying, say, a gun, the barrel being as nearly vertical as he can hold it. If the observer is not moving and the raindrop falls in the center of the upper end of the barrel, it will fall centrally through the lower end. Suppose, however, that the observer is in motion