The failed experiment that lead to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity

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In physics, as in life, not everything works out. But sometimes it’s the failures that can lead to more important changes than they would have had they been successes. So it was that the failure of Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley’s ether-finding experiment set the basis for a revolution in physics.

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The ‘luminiferous ether’ was the name o a supposed substance that scientists believed filled all space. It was thought to be the medium through which light travels, much in the same way as we now know that sound travels through air. The idea of this ether was important, as it was believed to provide a single frame of reference for everything in our universe.

Michelson and Morley set out to measure the luminiferous ether. To do so they set up a giant cross with a half-silvered mirror in its center and a mirror on two adjacent arms. A single light bean could then be sent down one arm into the half-silvered mirror, which would split the beam in two, sending the beams into separate mirrors, which would then bounce them back into the silvered mirror and down the final arm, where a detector was. Here, they believed, the effects of the ether would cause the two light beams to vary slightly, leading to a fringe pattern on the detector.

albert-einstein theory or relativity fun facts

However, no result was found. The experiment was a dud. Despite tightening up the equipment, changing and upgrading it, trying it at different times of the year and multiple repeats, there was just nothing to be found.

luminiferous ether
As Maxwell’s equations were established in 1861, the wave characteristics of light were well accepted. It was then believed that just as sound waves have a medium they travel through, so must light. This medium was called the Ether (or æther). Although the medium was assumed to exist, it had never before been measured. Since light can travel through a vacuum, it was assumed that the Ether was present everywhere and was the absolute reference frame. Previous experiments such as the Fizeau experiment and experiments on the aberration of light suggested that the ether was stationary with respect to the earth. Thus, it was possible to detect the motion of the ether relative to the motion of the Earth with sensitive enough apparatus. Before Michelson’s invention of the interferometer, no instrument had been sensitive enough to be able to detect the ether’s presence.

More experiments by others some years later looking for the luminiferous ether also found nothing. While this disheartened them, the lack of any proof for the ether meant that when Einstein’s theory of relativity came to the fore, it was quickly adopted and ushered in a new era of physicists. 

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Gia G. Dixon
Gia G. Dixon

I’m Gia G. Dixon, an etiquette consultant certified under Royal Charter of King Charles III. Here is my guide to elegant style, high quality living, and little things that make your daily life glamorous.

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