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

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The Ether


More accurately, this angle is 20 ?445. The limit of accuracy of the telescope, as was pointed out in several of the preceding lectures, is about one-tenth of a second; but, by repeating these measurements under a great many variations in the conditions of the problem, this limit may be passed, and it is practically certain that this number is correct to the second decimal place.

When this variation in the apparent position of the stars was discovered, it was accounted for correctly by the assumption that light travels with a finite velocity, and that, by measuring the angle of aberration, and knowing the speed of the earth in its orbit, the velocity of light could be found. This velocity has since been determined much more accurately by experimental means, so that now we use the velocity of light to deduce the velocity of the earth and the radius of its orbit.

The objection to this explanation was, however, raised that if this angle were the ratio of the velocity of the earth in its orbit to the velocity of light, and if we filled a telescope with water, in which the velocity of light is known to be only three-fourths of what it is in air, it would take one and one-third times as long for the light to pass from the center of the objective to the cross-wires, and hence we ought to observe, not the actual angle of aberration, but one which should be one-third greater. The experiment was actually tried. A telescope was filled with water, and observations on various stars were continued throughout the greater part of the year, with the result that almost exactly the same value was found for the angle of aberration.

This result was considered a very serious objection to the undulatory theory until an explanation was found by Fresnel. He proposed that we consider that the medium which transmits the light vibrations is carried along by the motion of the water in the telescope in the direction of the motion of the


Light Waves and Their Uses

earth abound the sun. Now, if the light waves were carried along with the full velocity of the earth in its orbit, we should be in the same difficulty, or in a more serious difficulty, than before. Fresnel, however, made the further supposition that the velocity of the carrying along of the light waves by the motion of the medium was less than the actual velocity of the medium itself, by a quantity which depended on the index of refraction of the substance. In the case of water the value of this factor is seven-sixteenths.

This, at first sight, seems a rather forced explanation ; indeed, at the time it was pro[>osed it was treated with considerable incredulity. An experiment was made by Fizeau, however, to test the point-β€”in my opinion one of the most ingenious experiments that have ever been attempted in the whole domain of physics. The problem is to find the increase in the velocity of light due to a motion of the medium. We have an analogous problem in the case of sound, but in this case it is a very much simpler matter. We know by actual experiment, as we should infer without ex[>eri-nient, that the velocity of sound is increased by the velocity of a wind which carries the air in the same direction, or diminished if the w^ind moves in the opposite direction. But in the case of light waves the velocity is so enormously great that it would seem, at first sight, altogether out of the question to compare it with any velocity which we might be able to obtain in a transparent medium such as water or glass. The problem consists in finding the change in the velocity of light produced by the greatest velocity we can get β€” about twenty feet a second β€” in a column of water through which light waves pass. We thus have to find a difference of the order of twenty feet in 186,000 miles,

i. e., of one part in 50,000,000. Besides, we can get only a relatively small column of water to pass light through and still see the light when it returns.