Starts With A Bang

The Failed Experiment That Changed The World (Synopsis)

The original setup of the Michelson-Morley experiment, from 1887. Image credit: Case Western Reserve Archives.

“It appears, from all that precedes, reasonably certain that if there be any relative motion between the earth and the luminiferous ether, it must be small; quite small enough entirely to refute Fresnel’s explanation of aberration.” -Albert A. Michelson

In the 1880s, it was clear that something was wrong with Newton’s formulation of the Universe. Gravitation didn’t explain everything, objects behaved bizarrely close to the speed of light, and light was exhibiting wave-like properties. But surely, even if it were a wave, it required a medium to travel through, just like all other waves? That was the standard thinking, and the genius of Albert A. Michelson was put to work to test it.

The Earth, moving in its orbit around the Sun and spinning on its axis, should provide an extra motion if there’s any medium that light travels through. Image credit: Larry McNish, RASC Calgary.

Because, he reasoned, the Earth was moving around the Sun, the speed of light should get a boost in that forward direction, and then have to fight that boost on the return trip. The perpendicular direction, on the other hand, would be unaffected. This motion of light should be detectable in the form of interferometry, where light was split into two perpendicular components, sent on a journey, reflected, and then recombined.

If you split light into two perpendicular components and bring them back together, they’ll interfere. If you move in one direction versus another, that interference pattern will shift. Image credit: Wikimedia commons user Stigmatella aurantiaca.

The null results of this experiment changed the Universe, and the technology is still used today in experiments like LIGO. Come learn about the greatest failed experiment of all-time!