Michelson, Morley and LIGO

Two teams of scientists, 128 years apart.  The first team, two men, got a negative result that shattered a long-standing theory.  The second team, a thousand strong, got a positive result that provided final confirmation of another long-standing theory.  Both teams used instruments based on the same physical phenomenon.  Each team’s innovations created whole new fields of science and technology.

Interferometer 1Their common experimental strategy sounds simple enough — compare two beams of light that had traveled along different paths

Light (preferably nice pure laser light, but Albert Michelson didn’t have a laser when he invented interferometry in 1887) comes in from the source at left and strikes the “beam splitter” — typically, a partially-silvered mirror that reflects half the light and lets the rest through.  One beam goes up the y-arm to a mirror that reflects it back down through the half-silvered mirror to the detector.  The other beam goes on its own round-trip journey in the x-direction.  The detector (Michelson’s eye or a photocell or a fancy-dancy research-quality CCD) registers activity if the waves in the two beams are in step when they hit it.  On the other hand, if the waves cancel then there’s only darkness.

Getting the two waves in step requires careful adjustment of the x- and y-mirrors, because the waves are small.  The yellow sodium light Michelson used has a peak-to-peak wavelength of 589 nanometers.  If he twitched one mirror 0.0003 millimeter away from optimal position the valleys of one wave would cancel the peaks of the other.

So much for principles.  The specifics of each team’s device relate to the theory being tested.  Michelson was confronting the æther theory, the proposition that if light is a wave then there must be some substance, the æther, that vibrates to carry the wave.  We see sunlight and starlight, so  the æther must pervade the transparent Universe.  The Earth must be plowing through the æther as it circles the Sun.  Furthermore, we must move either with or across or against the æther as we and the Earth rotate about its axis.  If we’re moving against the æther then lightwave peaks must appear closer together (shorter wavelengths) than if we’re moving with it.Michelson-Moreley device

Michelson designed his device to test that chain of logic. His optical apparatus was all firmly bolted to a 4′-square block of stone resting on a wooden ring floating on a pool of mercury.  The whole thing could be put into slow rotation to enable comparison of the x– and y-arms at each point of the compass.

Interferometer 3

Suppose the æther theory is correct. Michelson should see lightwaves cancel at some orientations.

According to the æther theory, Michelson and his co-worker Edward Morley should have seen alternating light and dark as he rotated his device.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead, he saw no significant variation in the optical behavior around the full 360o rotation, whether at noon or at 6:00 PM.

Cross off the æther theory.

Michelson’s strategy depended on light waves getting out of step if something happened to the beams as they traveled through the apparatus.  Alternatively, the beams could charge along just fine but something could happen to the apparatus itself.  That’s how the LIGO team rolled.

Interferometer 2

Suppose Einstein’s GR theory is correct. Gravitational wave stretching and compression should change the relative lengths of the two arms.

Einstein’s theory of General Relativity predicts that space itself is squeezed and stretched by mass.  Miles get shorter near a black hole.  Furthermore, if the mass configuration changes, waves of compressive and expansive forces will travel outward at the speed of light.  If such a wave were to encounter a suitable interferometer in the right orientation (near-parallel to one arm, near-perpendicular to the other), that would alter the phase relationship between the two beams.

The trick was in the word “suitable.”  The expected percentage-wise length change was so small that eLIGO needed 4-kilometer arms to see movement a tiny fraction of a proton’s width.  Furthermore, the LIGO designers flipped the classical detection logic.  Instead of looking for a darkened beam, they set the beams to cancel at the detector and looked for even a trace of light.

eLIGO saw the light, and confirmed Einstein’s theory.

~~ Rich Olcott


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