Michelson–Morley experiment

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The Michelson–Morley experiment was performed in 1887 by Albert Michelson and Edward Morley at what is now Case Western Reserve University. Its results are generally considered to be the first strong evidence against the theory of a luminiferous aether. The experiment has also been referred to as "the moving-off point for the theoretical aspects of the Second Scientific Revolution".[1]


Measuring aether

Physics theories of the late 19th century postulated that, just as water waves must have a medium to move across (water), and audible sound waves require a medium to move through (such as air or water), so also light waves require a medium, the "luminiferous aether". Because light can travel through a vacuum, it was assumed that the vacuum must contain the medium of light. Because the speed of light is so great, designing an experiment to detect the presence and properties of this aether took considerable ingenuity.

Earth travels a tremendous distance in its orbit around the sun, at a speed of around 30 km/s or over 108,000 km per hour. The sun itself is travelling about the Galactic Center at even greater speeds, and there are other motions at higher levels of the structure of the universe. Since the Earth is in motion, it was expected that the flow of aether across the Earth should produce a detectable "aether wind". 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 analysing 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 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 number of physicists had attempted to make this measurement during the mid-19th century, but the accuracy demanded was simply too great for existing experimental setups. For instance, the Fizeau–Foucault apparatus could measure the speed of light to perhaps 5% accuracy, not nearly enough to make any sort of aether wind measurement.

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