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physicist Isaac Newton, Michelson-Morley experiment, orbital velocity, aberration of light, Newtonian mechanics

Physical laws generally accepted by scientists before the development of the theory of relativity, now called classical laws, were based on the principles of mechanics enunciated late in the 17th century by the English mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton. Newtonian mechanics and relativistic mechanics differ in fundamental assumptions and mathematical development, but in most cases do not differ appreciably in net results; the behavior of a billiard ball when struck by another billiard ball, for example, may be predicted by mathematical calculations based on either type of mechanics and produce approximately identical results. Inasmuch as the classical mathematics is enormously simpler than the relativistic, the former is the preferred basis for such a calculation. In cases of high speeds, however, assuming that one of the billiard balls was moving at a speed approaching that of light, the two theories would predict entirely different types of behavior, and scientists today are quite certain that the relativistic predictions would be verified and the classical predictions would be proved incorrect.

In general, the difference between two predictions on the behavior of any moving object involves a factor discovered by the Dutch physicist Hendrik Antoon Lorentz, and the Irish physicist George Francis FitzGerald late in the 19th century. This factor is generally represented by the Greek letter B (beta). The beta factor does not differ essentially from unity for any velocity that is ordinarily encountered; the highest velocity encountered in ordinary ballistics, for example, is about 1.6 km/sec (about 1 mi/sec), the highest velocity obtainable by a rocket propelled by ordinary chemicals is a few times that, and the velocity of the earth as it moves around the sun is about 29 km/sec (about 18 mi/sec); at the last-named speed, the value of beta differs from unity by only five billionths. Thus, for ordinary terrestrial phenomena, the relativistic corrections are of little importance. When velocities are very large, however, as is sometimes the case in astronomical phenomena, relativistic corrections become significant. Similarly, relativity is important in calculating very large distances or very large aggregations of matter. As the quantum theory applies to the very small, so the relativity theory applies to the very large.

Until 1887 no flaw had appeared in the rapidly developing body of classical physics. In that year, the Michelson-Morley experiment, named after the American physicist Albert Michelson and the American chemist Edward Williams Morley, was performed. It was an attempt to determine the rate of the motion of the earth through the ether, a hypothetical substance that was thought to transmit electromagnetic radiation, including light, and was assumed to permeate all space. If the sun is at absolute rest in space, then the earth must have a constant velocity of 29 km/sec (18 mi/sec), caused by its revolution about the sun; if the sun and the entire solar system are moving through space, however, the constantly changing direction of the earth's orbital velocity will cause this value of the earth's motion to be added to the velocity of the sun at certain times of the year and subtracted from it at others. The result of the experiment was entirely unexpected and inexplicable; the apparent velocity of the earth through this hypothetical ether was zero at all times of the year.

What the Michelson-Morley experiment actually measured was the velocity of light through space in two different directions. If a ray of light is moving through space at 300,000 km/sec (186,000 mi/sec), and an observer is moving in the same direction at 29 km/sec (18 mi/sec), then the light should move past the observer at the rate of 299,971 km/sec (185,982 mi/sec); if the observer is moving in the opposite direction, the light should move past the observer at 300,029 km/sec (186,018 mi/sec). It was this difference that the Michelson-Morley experiment failed to detect. This failure could not be explained on the hypothesis that the passage of light is not affected by the motion of the earth, because such an effect had been observed in the phenomenon of the aberration of light; see Interference; Interferometer; Wave Motion.

In the 1890s FitzGerald and Lorentz advanced the hypothesis that when any object moves through space, its length in the direction of its motion is altered by the factor beta. The negative result of the Michelson-Morley experiment was explained by the assumption that the light actually traversed a shorter distance in the same time (that is, moved more slowly), but that this effect was masked because the distance was measured of necessity by some mechanical device which also underwent the same shortening, just as when an object 2 m long is measured with a 3-m tape measure which has shrunk to 2 m, the object will appear to be 3 m in length. Thus, in the Michelson-Morley experiment, the distance which light traveled in 1 sec appeared to be 300,000 km (186,000 mi) regardless of how fast the light actually traveled. The Lorentz-FitzGerald contraction was considered by scientists to be an unsatisfactory hypothesis because it could not be applied to any problem in which measurements of absolute motion could be made.

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