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The Michelson-Morley Experiment

In response to:

Secrets of the Old One from the December 4, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

In his review titled “Secrets of the Old One” [NYR, December 4, 1986], Martin Gardner referred to the “famous Michelson-Morley experiment of 1881.” The correct year of the experiment is 1887, not 1881.

Next year in Cleveland, Ohio, where the experiment took place at what is now Case Western Reserve University, we will celebrate its centenary. Thirteen of the city’s cultural institutions, including the University and the Cleveland Museum of Art, will participate. The climax of the six-month celebration will be the world premiere by the Cleveland Orchestra, in October, of a commissioned work by Philip Glass, who also composed “Einstein on the Beach.”

Philip Taylor

Case Western Reserve University

Cleveland, Ohio

Martin Gardner replies:

Professor Taylor is right. The historic Michelson-Morley experiment was made in 1887. However, if one wants the date of the first test that showed the absence of an ether wind, it was made by Michelson in 1881 at the University of Berlin. He was so astonished by his failure to detect the wind that he repeated the experiment in 1887 with the help of Edward Morley, using more sophisticated equipment. The test was made in Morley’s basement laboratory at what was then called Western Reserve University.

Later, Michelson and Morley repeated the test with even better controls. No experiment, giving an unexpected negative result, has had such an impact on the history of physics. It was the first major confirmation of the theory that Einstein would propose in 1905.

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