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

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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.

The Ether


The difficulty is met, however, by taking advantage of the excessive minuteness of light waves themselves. This double length of the water column is something like forty feet. In this forty feet there are, in round numbers, 14,000,000 waves. Hence the difference due to a velocity of twenty feet per second, which is the velocity of the water current, would produce a displacement of the interference fringes (produced by two beams, one of which passes down the column and the other up the column of the moving liquid) of about one-half a fringe, which corresponds to a difference of one-half a light wave in the paths. Reversing the water current should produce a shifting of one-half a fringe in the opposite direction, so that the total shifting would actually be of the order of one interference fringe. But we can easily observe one-tenth of a fringe, or in some cases even less than that. Now, one fringe would be the displacement if water is the medium which transmits the light waves. But this other medium we have been talking about moves, according to Fresnel, with a smaller velocity than the water, and the ratio of the velocity of the medium to the velocity of the water should be a particular fraction,^ namely, seven-sixteenths. In other words, then, instead of the whole fringe we ought to get a displacement of seven-sixteenths of a fringe by the reversal of the water current. The experiment was actually tried by Fizeau, and the result was that the fringes were shifted by a quantity less than they should have been if water had been the medium; and hence we conclude that the water was not the medium which carried the vibrations.

The arrangement of the apparatus which was used in the experiment is shown in Fig. 105. The light starts from a narrow slit S, is rendered parallel by a lens L, and separated into two pencils by apertures in front of the two tubes TT, which carry the column of water. Both tubes are closed by