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This entry contributed by Leonardo Motta
After the development of Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism, several experiments were performed to prove the existence of ether and its motion relative to the Earth. The most famous and successful was the one now known as the Michelson-Morley experiment, performed by Albert Michelson Eric Weisstein's World of Biography (1852-1931) and Edward Morley Eric Weisstein's World of Biography (1838-1923) in 1887.
Michelson and Morley built a Michelson interferometer, which essentially consists of a light source, a half-silvered glass plate, two mirrors, and a telescope. Eric Weisstein's World of Astronomy The mirrors are placed at right angles to each other and at equal distance from the glass plate, which is obliquely oriented at an angle of 45° relative to the two mirrors. In the original device, the mirrors were mounted on a rigid base that rotates freely on a basin filled with liquid mercury in order to reduce friction.
Prevailing theories held that ether formed an absolute reference frame with respect to which the rest of the universe Eric Weisstein's World of Astronomy was stationary. It would therefore follow that it should appear to be moving from the perspective of an observer on the sun-orbiting Earth. As a result, light would sometimes travel in the same direction of the ether, and others times in the opposite direction. Thus, the idea was to measure the speed of light in different directions in order to measure speed of the ether relative to Earth, thus establishing its existence.
Michelson and Morley were able to measure the speed of light by looking for interference fringes between the light which had passed through the two perpendicular arms of their apparatus. These would occur since the light would travel faster along an arm if oriented in the "same" direction as the ether was moving, and slower if oriented in the opposite direction. Since the two arms were perpendicular, the only way that light would travel at the same speed in both arms and therefore arrive simultaneous at the telescope would be if the instrument were motionless with respect to the ether. If not, the crests and troughs of the light waves in the two arms would arrive and interfere slightly out of synchronization, producing a diminution of intensity. (Of course, the same effect would be achieved if the arms of the interferometer were not of the same length, but these could be adjusted accurately by looking for the intensity peak as one arm was moved. Changing the orientation of the instrument should then show fringes.)
Although Michelson and Morley were expecting measuring different speeds of light in each direction, they found no discernible fringes indicating a different speed in any orientation or at any position of the Earth in its annual orbit around the Sun.
In 1895, Lorentz Eric Weisstein's World of Biography concluded that the "null" result obtained by Michelson and Morley was caused by a effect of contraction made by the ether on their apparatus and introduced the length contraction equation
where L is the contracted length, is the rest length, v is the velocity of the frame of reference, and c is the speed of light. Although the main interpretation of Lorentz Eric Weisstein's World of Biography for this equation was rejected later, the equation is still correct and was the first of a sequence of new equations developed by Poincaré, Eric Weisstein's World of Biography Lorentz, Eric Weisstein's World of Biography and others, resulting in a new branch of physics ultimately brought to fruition by Albert Einstein Eric Weisstein's World of Biography in special relativity. Einstein's idea of space-time contraction replaced Lorentz's interpretation of the contraction equation, and once and for all relegated ether to the history books.
Ether, Michelson Interferometer, Speed of Light
Feynman, R. P.; Leighton, R. B.; and Sands, M. The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol. 1. Redwood City, CA: Addison-Wesley, pp. 15-3-15-4, 1989.
Fowler, M. "The Michelson-Morley Experiment." http://www.phys.virginia.edu/classes/109N/lectures/michelson.html
Lorentz, H. A. "Michelson's Interference Experiment." In Lorentz, H. A.; Einstein, A.; Minkowski, H.; and Weyl, H. The Principle of Relativity: A Collection of Original Memoirs on the Special and General Theory of Relativity. New York: Dover, pp. 3-7, 1952. Reprinted form Lorentz, H. A. Versuch einer Theorie der elektrischen und optischen Erscheinungen in bewegten Körpern. Leiden, 1895.
Michelson, A. A. "The Relative Motion of the Earth and the Luminiferous Aether." Amer. J. Sci. 22, 120-129, 1881.
Michelson, A. A. and Morley, E. W. "On the Relative Motion of the Earth and the Luminiferous Ether." Amer. J. Sci. 34, 333-345, 1887.
Michelson, A. A. and Morley, E. W. "On the Relative Motion of the Earth and the Luminiferous Aether." Philos. Mag. 24, 449-463, 1887.
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