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Michelson–Morley experiment



The Michelson–Morley experiment was published in 1887 by Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley and performed at what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.[1] It compared the speed of light in perpendicular directions, in an attempt to detect the relative motion of matter through the stationary luminiferous aether ("aether wind"). The negative results are generally considered to be the first strong evidence against the then-prevalent aether theory, and initiated a line of research that eventually led to special relativity, in which the stationary aether concept has no role.[A 1] The experiment has been referred to as "the moving-off point for the theoretical aspects of the Second Scientific Revolution".[A 2]


Michelson–Morley type experiments have been repeated many times with steadily increasing sensitivity. These include experiments from 1902 to 1905, and a series of experiments in the 1920s. In addition, recent resonator experiments have confirmed the absence of any aether wind at the 10−17 level.[2][3] Together with the Ives–Stilwell and Kennedy–Thorndike experiments, the Michelson–Morley experiment forms one of the fundamental tests of special relativity theory.[A 3]


Figure 1. Michelson and Morley's interferometric setup, mounted on a stone slab and floating in a pool of mercury.
Figure 1. Michelson and Morley's interferometric setup, mounted on a stone slab and floating in a pool of mercury.

Detecting the aether

Physics theories of the late 19th century assumed that just as surface water waves must have a supporting substance, i.e. a "medium", to move across (in this case water), and audible sound requires a medium to transmit its wave motions (such as air or water), so light must also require a medium, the "luminiferous aether", to transmit its wave motions. Because light can travel through a vacuum, it was assumed that even a vacuum must be filled with aether. Because the speed of light is so great, and because material bodies pass through the aether without obvious friction or drag, it was assumed to have a highly unusual combination of properties. Designing experiments to test the properties of the aether was a high priority of 19th century physics.[A 4]:411ff  Earth orbits around the Sun at a speed of around 30 km/s (18.75 mi/s) or over 108,000 km/h (67,500 mi/hr). The Earth is in motion, so two main possibilities were considered: (1) The aether is stationary and only partially dragged by Earth (proposed by Augustin-Jean Fresnel in 1818), or (2) the aether is completely dragged by Earth and thus shares its motion at Earth's surface (proposed by George Gabriel Stokes in 1844).[A 5] In addition, James Clerk Maxwell (1865) recognized the electromagnetic nature of light and developed what are now called Maxwell's equations, but these equations were still interpreted as describing the motion of waves through an aether, whose state of motion was unknown. Eventually, Fresnel's idea of an (almost) stationary aether was preferred because it appeared to be confirmed by the Fizeau experiment (1851) and the aberration of star light.[A 5]

According to this hypothesis, Earth and the aether are in relative motion, implying that a so-called "aether wind" (Fig. 2) should exist. Although it would be possible, in theory, for the Earth's motion to match that of the aether at one moment in time, it was not possible for the Earth to remain at rest with respect to the aether at all times, because of the variation in both the direction and the speed of the motion. At any given point on the Earth's surface, the magnitude and direction of the wind would vary with time of day and season. By analyzing the return speed of light in different directions at various different times, it was thought to be possible to measure the motion of the Earth relative to the aether. The expected relative difference in the measured speed of light was quite small, given that the velocity of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun was about one hundredth of one percent of the speed of light.[A 4]:417ff

During the mid-19th century, measurements of aether wind effects of first order i.e. effects proportional to v/c (v being Earth's velocity, c the speed of light) were thought to be possible, but no direct measurement of the speed of light was possible with the accuracy required. For instance, the Fizeau–Foucault apparatus could measure the speed of light to perhaps 5% accuracy, which was quite inadequate for measuring directly a first-order 0.01% change in the speed of light. A number of physicists therefore attempted to make measurements of indirect first-order effects not of the speed of light itself, but of variations in the speed of light (see First order aether-drift experiments). The Hoek experiment, for example, was intended to detect interferometric fringe shifts due to speed differences of oppositely propagating light waves through water at rest. The results of such experiments were all negative.[A 6] This could be explained by using Fresnel's dragging coefficient, according to which the aether and thus light are partially dragged by moving matter. Partial aether-dragging would thwart attempts to measure any first order change in the speed of light. As pointed out by Maxwell (1878), only experimental arrangements capable of measuring second order effects would have any hope of detecting aether drift, i.e. effects proportional to v2/c2.[A 7][A 8] Existing experimental setups, however, were not sensitive enough to measure effects of that size.

1881 and 1887 experiments

Michelson experiment (1881)

Michelson had a solution to the problem of how to construct a device sufficiently accurate to detect aether flow. In 1877, while teaching at his alma mater, the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Michelson conducted his first known light speed experiments as a part of a classroom demonstration. In 1881, he left active U.S. Naval service while in Germany concluding his studies. In that year, Michelson used a prototype experimental device to make several more measurements.

The device he designed, later known as a Michelson interferometer, sent yellow light from a sodium flame (for alignment), or white light (for the actual observations), through a half-silvered mirror that was used to split it into two beams traveling at right angles to one another. After leaving the splitter, the beams traveled out to the ends of long arms where they were reflected back into the middle by small mirrors. They then recombined on the far side of the splitter in an eyepiece, producing a pattern of constructive and destructive interference whose transverse displacement would depend on the relative time it takes light to transit the longitudinal vs. the transverse arms. If the Earth is traveling through an aether medium, a beam reflecting back and forth parallel to the flow of aether would take longer than a beam reflecting perpendicular to the aether because the time gained from traveling downwind is less than that lost traveling upwind. Michelson expected that the Earth's motion would produce a fringe shift equal to .04 fringes—that is, of the separation between areas of the same intensity. He did not observe the expected shift; the greatest average deviation that he measured (in the northwest direction) was only 0.018 fringes; most of his measurements were much less. His conclusion was that Fresnel's hypothesis of a stationary aether with partial aether dragging would have to be rejected, and thus he confirmed Stokes' hypothesis of complete aether dragging.[4]

However, Alfred Potier (and later Hendrik Lorentz) pointed out to Michelson that he had made an error of calculation, and that the expected fringe shift should have been only 0.02 fringes. Michelson's apparatus was subject to experimental errors far too large to say anything conclusive about the aether wind. Definitive measurement of the aether wind would require an experiment with greater accuracy and better controls than the original. Nevertheless the prototype was successful in demonstrating that the basic method was feasible.[A 5][A 9]

Figure 3. Michelson's 1881 interferometer. Although ultimately it proved incapable of distinguishing between differing theories of aether-dragging, its construction provided important lessons for the design of Michelson and Morley's 1887 instrument
Figure 3. Michelson's 1881 interferometer. Although ultimately it proved incapable of distinguishing between differing theories of aether-dragging, its construction provided important lessons for the design of Michelson and Morley's 1887 instrument

Among other lessons was the need to control for vibration. Michelson (1881) wrote:

"owing to the extreme sensitiveness of the instrument to vibrations, the work could not be carried on during the day. Next, the experiment was tried at night. When the mirrors were placed half-way on the arms the fringes were visible, but their position could not be measured till after twelve o'clock, and then only at intervals. When the mirrors were moved out to the ends of the arms, the fringes were only occasionally visible. It thus appeared that the experiments could not be performed in Berlin, and the apparatus was accordingly removed to the Astrophysicalisches Observatorium in Potsdam. Here, the fringes under ordinary circumstances were sufficiently quiet to measure, but so extraordinarily sensitive was the instrument that the stamping of the pavement, about 100 meters from the observatory, made the fringes disappear entirely!"

Michelson–Morley experiment (1887)

In 1885, Michelson began a collaboration with Edward Morley, spending considerable time and money to confirm with higher accuracy Fizeau's 1851 experiment on Fresnel's drag coefficient,[5] to improve on Michelson's 1881 experiment,[1] and to establish the wavelength of light as a standard of length.[6][7] At this time Michelson was professor of physics at the Case School of Applied Science, and Morley was professor of chemistry at Western Reserve University (WRU), which shared a campus with the Case School on the eastern edge of Cleveland. Michelson suffered a nervous breakdown in September 1885, from which he recovered by October 1885. Morley ascribed this breakdown to the intense work of Michelson during the preparation of the experiments. In 1886, Michelson and Morley successfully confirmed Fresnel's drag coefficient – this result was also considered as a confirmation of the stationary aether concept.[A 1]

This result strengthened their hope of finding the aether wind. Michelson and Morley created an improved version of the Michelson experiment with more than enough accuracy to detect this hypothetical effect. The experiment was performed in several periods of concentrated observations between April and July 1887, in the basement of Adelbert Dormitory of WRU (later renamed Pierce Hall, demolished in 1962).[A 10][A 11]

As shown in Fig. 5, the light was repeatedly reflected back and forth along the arms of the interferometer, increasing the path length to 11 m. At this length, the drift would be about 0.4 fringes. To make that easily detectable, the apparatus was assembled in a closed room in the basement of the heavy stone dormitory, eliminating most thermal and vibrational effects. Vibrations were further reduced by building the apparatus on top of a large block of sandstone (Fig. 1), about a foot thick and five feet square, which was then floated in an annular trough of mercury. They estimated that effects of about 1/100 of a fringe would be detectable.

Figure 5. This figure illustrates the folded light path used in the Michelson–Morley interferometer that enabled a path length of 11 m. a is the light source, an oil lamp. b is a beam splitter. c is a compensating plate so that both the reflected and transmitted beams travel through the same amount of glass (important since experiments were run with white light which has an extremely short coherence length requiring precise matching of optical path lengths for fringes to be visible; monochromatic sodium light was used only for initial alignment[4][note 2]). d, d' and e are mirrors. e' is a fine adjustment mirror. f is a telescope.

Figure 6. Fringe pattern produced with a Michelson interferometer using white light. As configured here, the central fringe is white rather than black.
Figure 6. Fringe pattern produced with a Michelson interferometer using white light. As configured here, the central fringe is white rather than black.


Michelson and Morley and other early experimentalists using interferometric techniques in an attempt to measure the properties of the luminiferous aether, used (partially) monochromatic light only for initially setting up their equipment, always switching to white light for the actual measurements. The reason is that measurements were recorded visually. Purely monochromatic light would result in a uniform fringe pattern. Lacking modern means of environmental temperature control, experimentalists struggled with continual fringe drift even though the interferometer might be set up in a basement. Because the fringes would occasionally disappear due to vibrations caused by passing horse traffic, distant thunderstorms and the like, an observer could easily "get lost" when the fringes returned to visibility. The advantages of white light, which produced a distinctive colored fringe pattern, far outweighed the difficulties of aligning the apparatus due to its low coherence length. As Dayton Miller wrote, "White light fringes were chosen for the observations because they consist of a small group of fringes having a central, sharply defined black fringe which forms a permanent zero reference mark for all readings."[A 12][note 3] Use of partially monochromatic light (yellow sodium light) during initial alignment enabled the researchers to locate the position of equal path length, more or less easily, before switching to white light.[note 4]


The mercury trough allowed the device to turn with close to zero friction, so that once having given the sandstone block a single push it would slowly rotate through the entire range of possible angles to the "aether wind," while measurements were continuously observed by looking through the eyepiece. The hypothesis of aether drift implies that because one of the arms would inevitably turn into the direction of the wind at the same time that another arm was turning perpendicularly to the wind, an effect should be noticeable even over a period of minutes.

The expectation was that the effect would be graphable as a sine wave with two peaks and two troughs per rotation of the device. This result could have been expected because during each full rotation, each arm would be parallel to the wind twice (facing into and away from the wind giving identical readings) and perpendicular to the wind twice. Additionally, due to the Earth's rotation, the wind would be expected to show periodic changes in direction and magnitude during the course of a sidereal day.

Because of the motion of the Earth around the Sun, the measured data were also expected to show annual variations.



Most famous "failed" experiment

After all this thought and preparation, the experiment became what has been called the most famous failed experiment in history.[A 13] Instead of providing insight into the properties of the aether, Michelson and Morley's article in the American Journal of Science reported the measurement to be as small as one-fortieth of the expected displacement (Fig. 7), but "since the displacement is proportional to the square of the velocity" they concluded that the measured velocity was "probably less than one-sixth" of the expected velocity of the Earth's motion in orbit and "certainly less than one-fourth."[1] (Afterward, Michelson and Morley ceased their aether drift measurements and started to use their newly developed technique to establish the wavelength of light as a standard of length.[6][7]) Although this small "velocity" was measured, it was considered far too small to be used as evidence of speed relative to the aether, and it was understood to be within the range of an experimental error that would allow the speed to actually be zero.[A 1] For instance, Michelson wrote about the "decidedly negative result" in a letter to Lord Rayleigh in August 1887:[A 14]

The Experiments on the relative motion of the earth and ether have been completed and the result decidedly negative. The expected deviation of the interference fringes from the zero should have been 0.40 of a fringe – the maximum displacement was 0.02 and the average much less than 0.01 – and then not in the right place. As displacement is proportional to squares of the relative velocities it follows that if the ether does slip past the relative velocity is less than one sixth of the earth’s velocity.

From the standpoint of the then current aether models, the experimental results were conflicting. The Fizeau experiment and its 1886 repetition by Michelson and Morley apparently confirmed the stationary aether with partial aether dragging, and refuted complete aether dragging. On the other hand, the much more precise Michelson–Morley experiment (1887) apparently confirmed complete aether dragging and refuted the stationary aether.[A 5] In addition, the Michelson–Morley null result was further substantiated by the null results of other second-order experiments of different kind, namely the Trouton–Noble experiment (1903) and the Experiments of Rayleigh and Brace (1902–1904). These problems and their solution led to the development of the Lorentz transformation and special relativity.

Figure 7. Michelson and Morley's results. The upper solid line is the curve for their observations at noon, and the lower solid line is that for their evening observations. Note that the theoretical curves and the observed curves are not plotted at the same scale: the dotted curves, in fact, represent only one-eighth of the theoretical displacements.

Light path analysis and consequences

Comming soon