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Chapter 20. The Michelson-Morley Ether Experiment

To prove the existence of the ether, Michelson and Morley in 1887 put up one of histories most famous failed experiments, which eventually should lead to that the ether as a medium for light propagation was considered a superseded scientific theory. We shall recapitulate their experiment, and argue that denouncing the mass- and energy-less ether cannot be seen as a proof against the existence of an extremely dense K flux which embodies all the energy in the universe. Rather the proof against the mass-less ether may have derailed physics for 100 years, by preventing physicists looking at ether-like options for the unifying theory.

Before Maxwell, physicists assumed that light was a mechanical wave like sound and required an oscillatory medium to facilitate the transfer of energy. Light was later shown by Maxwell to be an electro-magnetic wave, but ether was still required because Maxwell’s equations required that all electromagnetic waves travel through the vacuum at a fixed speed ‘c’. This could only occur in one reference frame in Newtonian mechanics, so the ether was hypothesized as the absolute and unique frame of reference in which Maxwell's equations hold.

From their description, it is clear that classical physicists viewed the ether as something material that undulated in order to mediate the transmission of electromagnetic radiation. Although massless and without viscosity (to avoid affecting the orbits of the planets), these particles could still transfer momentum by the same process as radiation exerts pressure.

The motivation for the Michelson-Morley experiment came about by considering Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell’s electromagnetism. Under Galilean transformations, the equations of Newtonian dynamics are invariant, but those of electromagnetism are not. This means that although Newtonian physics should remain the same in all non-accelerated reference frames, light would not follow the same rules, as it is moving relative to the universal ‘ether frame’. The effects caused by this difference should be detectable. i.e. Since light was thought to always travel at a speed ‘c’ relative to the ether, the component of light moving parallel to and against the ether wind would have a slightly lower velocity in the Earth’s frame of reference to the component travelling perpendicular to it.

The Michelson-Morley experiment (1887) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michelson%E2%80%93Morley_experiment , set out to detect the ether by simultaneously measuring the velocity of light along the Earth’s direction of motion relative to the Sun and perpendicular to it, using an interferometer. The various ether theories suggested that an orbiting body such as the Earth should move through the stationary ether, creating the impression of an ‘ether wind’ on the Earth. Light would travel at slightly different speeds depending on whether its velocity was ‘parallel or perpendicular to this wind, meaning that the light rays parallel to the wind would take longer to traverse the arm of the interferometer than those perpendicular to it. The measured differences would change throughout the year as the Earth’s velocity relative to the ether changed.
Despite very careful measurements, they were unable to detect any differences, so the conclusion was clear; there was no ether of this kind.

In 1895 Lorentz attempted to explain these findings by asserting an effect of contraction on their apparatus by the ether, introducing the length contraction equation (later used by Einstein with a different interpretation). Then in 1905 Einstein came along, and further discredited the ether in his special theory of relativity. This was based on the postulates:

  1. That absolute motion cannot be detected.
  2. That the speed of light is independent of the motion of the source.

The first postulate effectively means that the Earth can be considered at rest and the velocity of light would be measured the same in every direction – as Michelson and Morley found. Einstein used the mathematics developed by Lorentz without any recourse to the ether, concluding that the null result obtained by Michelson and Morley was caused by a relativistic effect known as length contraction. At this point ether fell to the principle of Occam’s Razor. It should be noted that at this time the understanding of the elementary particles was still very poor, and the idea of something even smaller than EPs was so speculative that it could not have been taken seriously.

As quantum mechanics became established around 1924-26 it further contributed to the belief that the ether did not exist, since the classical ether was miles away from these new theories and the vast amount of empirical data that supported them.

With both relativists and quantum theorists using Lorentz invariance (the idea that the laws of physics should be the same in any inertial frame of reference) to build theories and account for observations, by 1930 the non-existence of the classical ether had been thoroughly proven. From this, it was natural to reach the conclusion that there is no kind of ether-like “medium”, since such a medium would have to be stationary with respect to any observer in the Universe to be compatible with Einstein’s first postulate, or else not exist. This is where physics lost its chance to understand nature at a more fundamental level, and instead had to resort to thumb rules and endless math. Statements like “there is no such thing as a quantum mechanical reality, at least not one that we can grasp with reference to our perception of our everyday world” is in the present spirit of thinking in physics.

The K-particles described herein are equivalent to ether in the sense that they pervade the whole of space and have, on average, no net velocity relative to the Universe. However they are very different to the classical ether (pre-special relativity) because they do not provide a passive background medium through which the light moves. Nor do they interact with particles by way of elastic or inelastic collisions. Instead, they provide elementary particles with their energy (and hence mass) by being absorbed, retained for some period of time and emitted (by all EP’s including photons) at a fantastically high rate. The emission however is not random and the interactions do not resemble collisions at all (elastic or inelastic). It is here that the K-particle theory really breaks with the concept of the classical ether.

The emission of the K-particles from all elementary particles is directed so as to balance the incoming momentum, guaranteeing the conservation of momentum. A massive particle can then move through a homogenous fluid of such particles without losing momentum. This implies that absolute motion would be still undetectable, and that it is fundamentally impossible for a fluid of K-particles to give rise to any kind of ‘ether wind’. Furthermore, the K-particle does not interact equally with all elementary particles. It is the differences in interactions and the various modifications of the K-particles upon emission that constitute the fundamental forces of nature and the principles or relativity, without recourse to curved space, force carrying particles, non-locality, higher dimensional spaces, or many other non-intuitive mathematical notions used in modern physics.


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