Mighty Ether Has Struck Out

In the nineteenth century, physicists knew that light was a form of energy that was transmitted by waves. Sound, also transmitted by waves, required a medium (air, water, steel, etc.) to carry the waves, so the physicists extrapolated and came to the conclusion that light also required a medium in which to propagate. However, they knew that there was little or no air in space, yet the sun's light obviously reached earth. Their current state of understanding required a transmission medium for light to propagate, so they invented one: "ether." There was no evidence for ether, no mathematical equations required it; they knew it existed because, well, it just had to. Then, along come two scientists, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, who were just as convinced of the existence of ether as everyone else, and they devised an experiment to measure its effect. To their astonishment and chagrin, their experiment proved precisely the opposite: ether did not exist. Later it was discovered that light propagated by an entirely different mechanism than sound.

This poem was first published in the May/June 1997 issue of Quantum Magazine.

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Mighty Ether Has Struck Out
Copyright 1996 David Arns

The outlook wasn't brilliant for Al Michelson that day,
The project he'd been working on just wouldn't go his way.
With Morley, he'd been working on this simple apparatus
To indicate the speed of Earth through ether's rigid lattice.

You see, electromagnetism moves through outer space,
And it moves, as had been proven, at an astronomic pace.
And, of course, it was "self-evident," and "every schoolboy knew"
That wave motion needs a medium for it to vibrate through.

The speed at which a wave proceeds depends on the rigidity
Of the stuff it's going through, and hence, extreme rapidity
Requires a medium strange indeed: it must be inelastic,
While still allowing matter through--this stuff must be fantastic!

So even though no evidence had ever been presented,
The existence of this "ether" that the physics world invented
Had so taken scientists by storm that no one ever thought
The idea might be wrong, and it would shortly come to naught.

Well, Michelson and Morley, they believed it like the rest,
And set about to prove its truth, and so conceived a test
Which split a beam of light, and at right angles them aligned,
To show the interference patterns when they recombined.

So Michelson and Morley, they set up a granite slab,
And floated it on mercury they'd gotten from the lab.
They put a light source on the top, some mirrors, and a splitter;
With bated breath, they lit the lamp, their eyes were all a-glitter.

They looked upon the tiny screen at interference fringes
(When a pair of out-of-phase beams on a screen impinges).
But the fringes wouldn't shift at all, at that or any angle
To which they turned their optics bench, their massive stone rectangle.

This history-making failure was truly quite successful,
Although for these two scientists, I'm sure 'twas very stressful.
The lesson that I hope we've learned, as connoisseurs of science,
Is that truth, and not assumptions, make with us the best alliance.

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