MICHELSON-MORLEY EXPERIMENT 1881
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, to improve on Michelson’s 1881 experiment, and to establish the wavelength of light as a standard of length. 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 (36 ft). 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 a circular trough of mercury. They estimated that effects of about 0.01 fringe would be detectable.
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 when the interferometer was 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.
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.