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

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Light Waves and Their Uses

jortion goes down one tube, is reflected twice by the total reflection prism P through the other tube, and passes, after necessary reflection, into the observing telescope. The other ray pursues the contrary path, and we see interference fringes in the telescope as before, but enormously brighter and more definite. This arrangement made it possible to make measurements of the displacement of the fringes which were very accurate. The result of the experiment was that the measured displacement was almost exactly seven-sixteenths of what it would have been had the medium which transmits the light waves moved with the velocity of the water.

It was at one time proposed to test this problem by utilizing the velocity of the earth in its orbit. Since this velocity is so very much greater than anything we can produce at the earth's surface, it was supposed that such measurements could be made with considerable ease; and they were actually tried in quite a considerable number of different ways and by very eminent men. The fact is, we cannot utilize the velocity of the earth in its orbit for such experiments, for the reason that we have to determine our directions by joints outside of the earth, and the only thing we have is the stars, and the stars are displaced by this very element which we want to measure; so the results would be entirely negative. It was pointed out by Lorentz that it is impossible by any measurements made on the surface of the earth to detect any effect of the earth’s motion.

Maxwell considered it possible, theoretically at least, to deal with the square of the ratio of the two velocities; that is, the square of -py^, or tuo„Joooo- He further indicated that if we made two measurements of the velocity of light, one in the direction in which the earth* is travel ing in its orbit, and one in a direction at right angles to this, then the time it takes light to pass over the same

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length of path is greater in the first case than in the second.

We can easily appreciate the fact that the time is greater in this case, l>y considering a man rowing in a boat, first in a smooth pond and then in a river. If he rows at the rate of four miles an hour, for example, and the distance between the stations is twelve miles, then it would take him three hours to pull there and three to pull back — six hours in all. This is his time when there is no current. If there is a current, suppose at the rate of one mile an hour, then the time it would take to go from one point to the other, would be, not 12 divided by 4, but 12 divided by 4 + 1, i. c., 2.4 hours. In coming back the time would be 12 divided by 4 — 1, which would be 4 hours, and this added to the other time equals 6.4 instead of 6 hours. It takes him longer, then, to pass back and forth when the medium is in motion than when the medium is at rest. We can understand, then, that it would take light longer to travel back and forth in the direction of the motion of the earth. The difference in the times is, however, so exceedingly small, being of the order of 1 in 100,000,000, that Maxwell considered it practically hopeless to attempt to detect it.

In spite of this apparently hopeless smallness of the quantities to be observed, it was thought that the minuteness of the light waves might again come to our rescue. As a matter of fact, an experiment was devised for detecting this small quantity. The conditions which the apparatus must fulfil are rather complex. The total distance traveled must be as great as possible, something of the order of one hundred million waves, for example. Another condition requires that we be able to interchange the direction without altering the adjustment by even the one hundredth-millionth part. Further, the apparatus must be absolutely free from vibration.