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June 18, 2004
Albert Michelson persuades President Grant to fix him up with a scientific education and makes good use of it

I've been reading Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, and I think it is very good. In fact if you want to educate yourself, chattily and relatively painlessly, about the entire history of science, no less, this could be just the book for you.

Here is Bryson's description of the education and achievement of America's first Nobel Prize winner.

Michelson2.jpgIf you needed to illustrate the idea of nineteenth-century America as a land of opportunity, you could hardly improve on the life of Albert Michelson. Born in 1852 on the German-Polish border to a family of poor Jewish merchants, he came to the United States with his family as an infant and grew up in a mining camp in California's gold rush country where his father ran a dry goods business. Too poor to pay for college, he travelled to Washington, DC, and took to loitering by the front door of the White House so that he could fall in beside Ulysses S. Grant when the President emerged for his daily constitutional. (It was clearly a more innocent age.) In the course of these walks, Michelson so ingratiated himself with the President that Grant agreed to secure for him a free place at the US Naval Academy. It was there that Michelson learned his physics.

Ten years later, by now a professor at the Case School in Cleveland, Michelson became interested in trying to measure something called the ether drift - a kind of headwind produced by moving objects as they ploughed through space. One of the predictions of Newtonian physics was that the speed of light as it pushed through the ether should vary with respect to an observer depending on whether the observer was moving towards the source of light or away from it, but no-one had figured out a way to measure this.

It occurred to Michelson that for half the year the Earth is travelling towards the Sun and for half the year it is moving away from it, and he reasoned that if you took careful enough measurements at opposite seasons, and compared light's travel time between the two, you would have your answer.

Michelson talked Alexander Graham Bell, newly enriched inventor of the telephone, into providing the funds to build an ingenious and sensitive instrument of Michelson's own devising called an interferometer, which could measure the velocity of light with great precision. Then, assisted by the genial but shadowy Morley, Michelson embarked on years of fastidious measurements. The work was delicate and exhausting, and had to be suspended for a time to permit Michelson a brief but comprehensive nervous breakdown, but by 1887 they had their results. They were not at all what the two scientists had expected to find.

As Caltech astrophysicist Kip S. Thorne has written: 'The speed of light turned out to be the same in all directions and at all seasons.' It was the first hint in two hundred years in exactly two hundred years, in fact that Newton's laws might not apply all the time everywhere. The Michelson-Morley outcome became, in the words of William H. Cropper, 'probably the most famous negative result in the history of physics'. Michelson was awarded a Nobel Prize in physics for the work the first American so honoured but not for twenty years. Meanwhile, the Michelson-Morley experiments would hover unpleasantly, like a musty odour, in the background of scientific thought.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:21 PM
Category: Famous educations

It was the first hint in two hundred years in exactly two hundred years, in fact that Newton's laws might not apply all the time everywhere.

This isn't strictly true. The breakdown of Newton's laws were already implicit in Maxwell's equations, which had been published several years earlier in 1873.

Comment by: Andy Wood on June 19, 2004 11:41 AM
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