Astronomy Cast Ep. 368: Searching for the Aether Wind: the Michelson–Morley Experiment

Waves move through a medium, like water or air. So it seemed logical to search for a medium that light waves move through. The Michelson-Morley Experiment attempted to search for this medium, known as the “luminiferous aether”. The experiment gave a negative result, and helped set the stage for the theory of General Relativity.

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19 Replies to “Astronomy Cast Ep. 368: Searching for the Aether Wind: the Michelson–Morley Experiment”

  1. Pamela… better lighting would work wonders. Think Gollywood? You too Frazer! Maka portable BG with more predictable lighting? Maybe even a green screen for projecting images and videos back of the commentary?

  2. While physics has its base rules, it also has anamolies science has comfronted and have no explanation (for the moment). Look, while light travels at the speed assigned it, what is the “direct opposite equal reaction (once light takes off)? “Waves move through a medium” cannpot be denied. My assertion (based on Gut Feeling) is that the beam of light is horizened by its own stream and thus can “Wave” (as it does) without the aid of any other medium. In effect, it supplies, creates and follows its own path as it travels. When comfronted with material that blocks, the light waves bounce (reflection) off it and continue to ‘Ad Infinitum’.

    1. That’s actually a really cool way to think about it! I’m no scientist but believe that I have a good grasp on visualizing complex physical events and that description of light basically (if I am to understand it correctly) has it picking itself up by it’s own bootstraps, makes conceptual sense to me. 😉

    2. Ponce, That is excellent thinking, IMHO. I am unsure of your meaning for “horizened,” though. And I think you need to explain precisely how a wave can move without a medium when no others do that. How and why does it supply, create, and follow its own path? Light waves, however, are not only reflected, they can be deflected (refraction) and absorbed as well.

  3. Fraser & Pamela. Great topic to tackle – luminiferous aether. Its a classic instance of a concept failing a test and opening the door to a new vision – new theory of the Cosmos. Furthermore, luminiferous aether has its parallels to today’s Dark Energy and Dark Matter. Dark E & M are something of placeholders for a forthcoming explanation and realization. The fall, that is the hard thud, of the concept of luminiferous aether resulted from the first wave of new experimentation and observations as the 21st century approached. We are presently in another incredible epoch of observations and experimentation that is showing cracks, showing weaknesses and missing explanations in old theories. Today’s technology is the byproduct of 20th century theory. Somewhere in the next half century, the observations will reach the flash point and leading minds will deliver new theory just as Einstein et al. did in the first two decades of the 20th Century. Present technology will turn old and new theory will lead to new technology, experimentation and observations and the cycle will begin anew.

    1. Yes, I totally agree. Part and parcel of the problem is the new religion called ‘scientificism’. The penance for the adherents is carrying the burden of proof with them as they vigorously perform their duty – that of patching the holes and cracks in accepted theory as they appear. The evolution of human wisdom is a long and convoluted road. Old ways die hard.

  4. I do not mean to offend you in any way, but I must disagree with you about this topic. I appreciate your blog, even though I seem to be talking to very few readers. That is due to my ideas, I believe, because they are new ground relating to what I think are relevant issues for review to help bring physics into the 21st century and out of its stupor or lack of new ideas based on simple logic.
    Conformity is the bane of all science disciplines, and especially all wrong for theoretical physics today, but I find its ugly head almost everywhere I look.
    The Michelson-Morley experiment (MMX) was a sound investment of time and effort, and an ingenious device was invented to help find the ether. It was thought it could be detected if they could measure a difference in the time it takes light to return to its source when it moves the same distance simultaneously across the ether “wind” at 90 degrees and also into the direction the earth is moving. The result was, everyone thought, proof that the ether does not exist. However, it did not prove any such thing.
    The speed of light had been researched by Galileo and A. A. Michelson in early 1879 measured it so accurate it held for 40 years. But not until Einstein’s Special Relativity did we learn light speed is constant in vacuum to all observers was it possible for all to know the MMX was faulty not in design but simply because no one knew then what E. did not discover until the early 1900s!
    To my astonishment, I could find nothing on that revelation! It seems no one picked up on it at all. I hope I’m wrong on that because if so , it is proof that conformity reigns in physics today. Even now, no one else has made note that the MMX result could not have come out differently.

    1. Interesting, I have thought out loud for many years on this site that it is fallacy to write of DM and DE as though such things exist (as did writing of the Aether). It seems to me that introspection of gravity and the vacuum of our local spacetime may eventually hold the key to an enlightened understanding of the mismatch of classical, quantum and particle physics on micro and macro scales.

    2. MMX has been repeated multiple times. Other experiments also have shown: No eather.

      Wikipedia: “Michelson–Morley type experiments have been repeated many times with steadily increasing sensitivity. These include experiments from 1902 to 1905, and a series of experiments in the 1920s. In addition, recent resonator experiments have confirmed the absence of any aether wind at the 10?17 level.[2][3] Together with the Ives–Stilwell and Kennedy–Thorndike experiments, the Michelson–Morley experiment forms one of the fundamental tests of special relativity theory.[A 3]”

      1. I am aware. The same can currently be said about the search for DM (experiments being repeated with increasing sensitivity but failing to identify DM). However I do recognize that DM and DE are important placeholders and a starting point for reconciling observation with theory (mainly current particle physics based on GR). And I find an interesting parallel to Aether being the placeholder of its day to reconcile how light could refract in a vacuum; as DM and DE are evoked to reconcile galactic rotation and cosmic expansion (respectively). I also concede that it is possible these DM or DE could be discovered. I reserve judgement and keenly await more research, experiments and observation.

        I am not a physicist by trade – mainly the armchair variety and keen amateur astronomer. But I will say that I believe a plank of Einstein’s research seems to be overlooked in this quest: Dynamic Equilibrium.

        I have read recent papers on phase transitions in large N Gauge theory that seem a good fit for Dynamic Equilibrium in modern particle physics.

      2. Weeasle, I appreciate your POV and hope you are right in that one day we will be able to confirm much more about the U. than has been done to date. I am also not a physicist, but I had to work out the riddles only to satisfy my inquiring mind. I began this trip long ago and new ideas have made me extremely happy in my life. I know nothing about Dynamic Equilibrium, as that road has not yet come into my fields of thought. Tanx 4 ur response.

      3. My point, Olaf, is why did they not realize the MMXs can not detect the ether because it can not be detected by that experiment? After Einstein’s SR came out, everyone should have immediately realized it is not possible for the MMX to detect the ether wind.
        I propose in my essays that there is an ether but no ether wind because the ether is space itself, being comprised of -masses such as positrons that are at rest! They cannot move on their own because they lack energy. They react to light waves upon contact by turning into electrons. As each em wave passes through an electron, it takes its energy with it, causing the electron to revert back into a -mass. I contend there are no particle pair annihilations, on the basis that the concept of random appearance of antiparticles is incorrect and illogical, IMO.
        Obviously, if that is so, no MMX apparatus can detect the ether, let alone the ether wind! Space is transparent to us, like dark matter and dark energy, which may be the same thing.

      4. You have not read that part from wikipedia:

        They DID other experiments, RECENTLY, with different techniques: They all say NO to aether.

        Wikipedia “In addition, RECENT RESONATOR experiments have confirmed the ABSENCE of any aether wind at the 10?17 level.”

        Or put it in other words: “even if the aether would exist, it is so low below the threshold noise level that it has absolutely no effect on this universe.”

        It is pointless to debate the existence or not, if multiple and even recent experiments clearly show that “Nope no aether”

      5. Olaf, I did read that part abut resonator experiments. I rebutted that in saying that the ether wind does not exist, so it makes no noise to be detected, but the ether exists, motionless and comprising space, as Dirac and George Gamow believed too.
        As for it having no effect, how does the author know that? To defend that argument, s/he must explain that belief using logical premises=conclusion as I defend my ideas.
        It is pointless, IMO, to argue that experiments prove “no ether” on the basis they found none.
        Just saying it don’t make it so, right?
        Please think about it a little more, and thanks for your response.

  5. Hello, T2! Obviously you’ve been thinking outside of the proverbial box, and that’s a great thing. Eventually, though, the results of that thinking need to be held up to what evidence we currently have, or it turns into a TV show by Chuck Lorre instead of the prevailing creation philosophy of the day. In that spirit, then, here are three areas where your theory (as you presented) needs adjustment, IMO:

    1) I propose … the ether is space itself, being comprised of -masses such as positrons that are at rest!
    Positrons, while negative in electrical charge, are not negative in mass. Were space itself composed of particles like positrons, or neutrinos, or even things as small as the quarks of which they are composed, space would not appear ’empty’ but rather a soup of particles closely resembling the (alleged) milliseconds following the (alleged) Big Bang. (Hedging my bets, yo.) This ends up being true no matter how small a baryon you are proposing as a medium, and it would NOT be a friendly place for anything, really, let alone life as we understand it.

    2)They react to light waves upon contact by turning into electrons. As each em wave passes through an electron, it takes its energy with it, causing the electron to revert back into a -mass.
    Particles of matter such as electrons & positrons do not change amount nor quality of charge (ever), nor does their mass vary in the presence of EM alone. Basic things like [2H + O] = [water + much heat] and paying for food by weight at the market would not work as they do if they were subject to change just by turning a light on/off. Also, photons don’t move through actual particles of matter; they either impact — being either absorbed (increasing the energy of the absorbing matter, which energy may then be re-radiated, a la the Aurora Borealis, or for preference, the neon lights of Aurora, IL) or reflected (also changing the vector/position of the particle, thank YOU, Dr. Heisenberg!) — or they miss each other entirely. (Remember that atoms contain a greater percentage of empty space than the solar system!) Neutrino detectors, X-ray machines and AM/FM radios all function as they do according to these limited possibilities.

    3) If light is a compression/vibrational wave displacing an as-yet unknown medium, then it must always behave as such, according to the properties of that medium. Instead, just as there are classic experiments which ‘prove’ it MUST be a wave, there are also classic experiments which ‘prove’ it must NOT be a wave, but rather a discrete particle. Luminiferous aether and related theories have generally (resoundingly) failed to address this duality — the potential problems with previous aether detection experiments notwithstanding.

    Forming space-time out of some physical substance is just not an option based on the evidence we have, and so light cannot be a wave within that theoretical medium. That said, the idea of light being a property of space-time itself — meaning that all its interactions with matter are really interactions between stuff IN the universe with the fabric OF the universe — is actually kind of intriguing. Stick to that angle, and keep thinking!

    1. Hello, Smokey, and tanx 4 the nice words. Your points are well-taken, so allow me to explain myself as best I can.
      1. How do you know positrons are not negative in mass? Please defend your rebuttal. Read my arguments for it again to find any false premises that misled me to my conclusions, if you will. Reread where I claim that -masses are not observable because they are transparent the same as space, dark matter, and dark energy. Remember that matter cannot be destroyed, but only changed in form and state.
      2. I claim particles do change from positive to negative masses all the time, back and forth. I claim space did not exit the BB, but existed as absolute space comprised of energy-less and thus motionless -masses until the energy from the BB began moving through space creating light. I know all this is blasphemous utterings to Modern Physics, but I stand by my research and logical arguments that resolve some of the riddles we have ourselves created. I stand ready to accept correction, but it must be by finding false premises in my claims. Otherwise, mine are at least as good as anyone else’s conclusions.
      Positrons are not matter particles because they have no energy, while matter must have both mass and energy. I did not say positron masses vary at all. I did not say photons move through matter.
      3. In my mind, I have solved the dual-nature -of-light riddle in my contending that light is created not by being both simultaneously a wave and a particle, but by being a wave of dark em energy that moves through positrons and changes them into electrons briefly and then moves on, taking its energy from the electron, which without energy must revert into a -mass, emitting 2 photons that combine with the others being emitted to light our universe. Remember you read this here first.
      I agree that forming space time is not an option here, but that is only because light is a physical reality, while space-time is only a mental math construct we use as a tool. The s-t continuum is not real – all should stop believing it is!

      1. I tell you what, rather than speaking further on your theory as a whole, I’d invite you to do some more research on what, exactly, a positron IS, because there seems to be a whole lot of misunderstanding there. To be clear, look for information regarding what’s been observed, rather than postulated about them by theory or mathematics. I always prefer results over predictions anyway. Also, you might investigate what a PET scan is and how it works.

        Nice talking to you!

      2. Same here, Smokey. I advise you to do your own research in order to argue as specifically as possible, just what do you disagree with? I have done my research and you must do yours too. If you need more explanation to help you with any misunderstandings, please just tell me what you don’t agree with and I will try my best to better clarity these difficult ideas, but if you are a fan of science, or more than that, it is important to find arguments against my claims. But they must be specific and confirmed facts; opinions don’t cut it, Im afraid. Simple logic, with true premises equals good theoretical research, no?
        Paul Dirac and George Gamow are in Wikipedia, and though it is not always factual, they provide good information.
        Remember, though, my ideas follow from the works of such giants; I support my claims in my ebook essay (see my profile) with citations. My ideas are all new, but they are continuations from what has already been discovered.
        Thus, my premises are true and my conclusions do not contradict them. The best way to find me wrong is to catch me making an illogical conclusion that conflicts with the facts or one that does not follow from the facts.
        So come on, please, folks, the name of the game is “Question Everything!” Don’t be led by your nose rings. Get those naked emperors down from their tenure towers and help the human race evolve faster!

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