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

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Light Waves and Their Uses

The problem was practically solved by reflecting part of the light back and forth a number of times and then returning it to its starting-j)omt. The other path was at right angles to the first, and over it the light made a similar series of excursions, and was also reflected back to the starting-point. This starting-point was a separating plane in an interferometer, and the two paths at right angles were the two arms of an interferometer. Notwithstanding the very considerable difference in path, which must involve an exceedingly high order of accuracy in the reflecting surfaces and a constancy of temperature in the air between, it was possible to see fringes and to keep them in |>osition for several hours at a time.

These conditions having been fulfilled, the apparatus was mounted on a stone supjx>rt, about four feet square and one foot thick, and this stone was mounted 011 a circular disc of wood which floated in a tank of mercury. The resistance to motion is thus exceedingly small, so that by a very slight pressure on the circumference the whole could be kept in slow and continuous rotation. It would take, perhaps, five minutes to make one single turn. With this slight motion there is practically 110 oscillation; the observer has to follow around and at intervals to observe whether there is any displacement of the fringes.

It was found that there was no displacement of the interference fringes, so that the result of the experiment was negative and would, therefore, show that there is still a difficulty in the theory itself; and this difficulty, I may say, has not yet been satisfactorily explained. I am presenting the case, not so much for solution, but as an illustration of the applicability of light waves to new problems.

The actual arrangement of the experiment is shown in Fig. 107. A lens makes the rays nearly parallel. The dividing surface and the two paths are easily recognized. The telescope was furnished with a micrometer screw to determine

The Ether


the amount of displacement of the fringes, if there were any. The last mirror is mounted on a slide; so these two paths may be made equal to the necessary degree of accuracy— something of the order of one fifty-thousandth of an inch.

Fig. 108 represents the actual apparatus. The stone and the circular disc of wood sup-. porting the stone in the tank filled with mercury are readily recognized; also the dividing surface and the various mirrors.

It was considered that, if this experiment gave a positive result, it would determine the velocity, not merely of the earth in its orbit, but of the earth through the ether. With good reason it is supposed that the sun and all the planets as well are moving through space at a rate of perhaps twenty miles per second in a certain particular direction. The velocity is not very well determined, and it was hoped that with this experiment we could measure this velocity of the whole solar system through space. Since the result of the experiment was negative, this problem is still demanding a solution.

The experiment is to me historically interesting, because it was for the solution of this problem that the interferometer was devised. I think it will be admitted that the problem, by leading to the invention of the interferometer, more than compensated for the fact that this particular experiment gave a negative result.

From all that precedes it appears practically certain that there must be a medium whose proper function it is to transmit light waves. Such a medium is also necessary for the

FIG. 107