A Son Named 'Ether' (Chapter 8 of 'Einstein')

8. At the end of the day, Albert and Besso left the office together. The sun was still up, and the sky was clear. They walked quietly through the streets of Bern for several minutes before Besso broke the silence. "You were pretty tough on Herr Director today.” "You mean with the business about Germany?" Albert replied. "That was nothing." "It may have been nothing to you,” Besso said. "But I’m not so sure it was nothing to him." Albert kept walking. He considered Besso’s comment. It had not occurred to him that Dr. Haller would be offended at his castigation of German society. After all, he was insulting his homeland, not Dr. Haller. Besso turned to look at his friend as they walked. “Are you okay, Albert?” he asked. “Of course,” he replied, wrinkling his brow. “Why do you ask?” “Well, you flew off the handle today just because someone asked you about the German economy. And you seem so tense all the time now. I know that you have a tendency to remove yourself mentally from what’s happening around you, but lately you don’t look happy about going wherever it is you’re going.”

They walked a few paces before Albert said anything. Even then, it was not the response Besso expected. "What do you know about Michaelson and Morley?" “Huh?” Besso uttered. “Michaelson and Morley,” Albert repeated. “The Americans who tried to prove the existence of the ether.” “I know who they are, but that’s not what I was talking about. I was talking about your state of mind.” “Forget about my state of mind for a moment,” he said. “And tell me what you think about Michaelson and Morley.” Besso and Einstein had discussed this experiment before. Albert sometimes brought up subjects repeatedly to approach them from a different perspective, to investigate the possibility that an experiment or a discovery had additional ramifications than he, or other interpreters of the results, had originally thought. Besso knew this, but this time he did not think Einstein was as interested in dissecting the results of the Michaelson-Morley experiment as he was in changing the subject. Albert Michaelson and Edward Morley were Americans who decided to prove once and for all whether the “ether” existed. The ether had originally been postulated in the late 17th century by Huygens, who entered the argument over the nature of light by suggesting that light was composed of waves, not particles. He went on to postulate that these waves were transmitted through a medium called the ether. More than two hundred years later, no one had proved that it existed; on the other hand, no one had proved that it didn't. Many scientists had tried to verify the existence of the ether, but it was an extremely difficult task. It was necessary to measure the effect of the ether, which was presumed to move at approximately 20 miles per second, on light, which was known to move at 186,000 miles per second. It was like trying to measure the effect of a raindrop on the ocean.

Albert Michaelson and Edward Morley set up an imaginative rigging that measured the speed of light going in the direction of the ether and then going in the opposite direction, reasoning that the ether would alter the speed of light. They sent light rays through a system of mirrors that they mounted on a five-foot square stone test-bed, which was floating in mercury to eliminate vibrations. First, they measured the time it took for the light rays to travel across the ether stream, and then they measured the time it took for the light rays to travel the same distance up and down the ether stream. They tried it over and over again, but there was absolutely no difference in the speed of light. As with any findings that broke new ground, the Michaleson-Morley experiment was received with skepticism until other scientists could confirm the results, and then confirm them again. Adding to the skepticism was the fact that the experiment had been conducted in America, which was not renowned for producing innovative work in this area. Einstein himself received the results with skepticism until he had an opportunity to check the experimental methods used by Michaelson and Morley. He reviewed their procedures, mathematics and conclusions, and he was impressed by the work. As Michelangelo Besso and Albert Einstein continued to walk through the streets of Bern, Besso replied to Albert’s question. "Yes, I remember their experiment," he said. "About a year ago." "It was very elaborate," Albert added. "And they performed it over and over again with the same result. Nothing." "That's right," Besso agreed. "What’s the importance of this?" Besso looked confused for a moment. When they had discussed the experiment previously, the question was whether the ether existed, and the possible impact of its non-existence. Besso was uncertain if Einstein wanted to follow this path again, or perhaps trek down another one. Sensing his colleague's uncertainty, Albert clarified his question.

"What do you think about the results of the experiment, assuming that their controls were effective and they measured what they thought they measured?" Besso walked for a few moments, thinking about the question. The conversation was definitely going in a different direction than he had anticipated. "I look at these things differently from you," Besso prefaced his answer. "You're a theoretical physicist and I'm an engineer. I have a different point of view." "Fine," Albert replied. "What do you think as an engineer?" "Well, as an engineer, I would say that the ether is dead. It sounds like the experiment is a good one, and just happened to prove the opposite of what they were trying to prove. But there are times when proving the opposite of something is more important." They walked for a few moments in silence. They were passing the houses with displays of flowers, but Albert did not notice them. He wondered if it were really as simple as Besso portrayed it. Ten years earlier, before he left Italy to go to school in Zurich, and long before Michaelson-Morley, Albert wrote a paper proposing an experiment to determine the effects of the ether. He was sixteen years old at the time. To his knowledge, no one had ever conducted this experiment, including Einstein himself. Now, with the results of the Michaelson-Morley experiment widely accepted, Albert had been re-considering its implications. His take on it now was that the importance of the experiment lay primarily in what it demonstrated about the nature of light. Back at the age of sixteen, when he had been envisioning experiments on the nature of light, he had asked the hypothetical question of what a magnetic field would look like if one were traveling at the speed of light. He was still interested in that question. He also suspected that the answer to it might have relevance to a broader theory of mechanics, especially given the results of other experiments that suggested certain aspects of classical physics fell apart as objects approached the speed of light.

"Do you realize," Albert finally stated, with a long sigh, “that the ether has been standard physics for two hundred years? Much of what is currently understood about electricity, magnetism and light was based on the existence of the ether. Physicists have been basing their experiments and their suppositions on it since before Newton. Do you really think we should just throw it away based on one experiment?" Besso grimaced. "Don't give me that, Einstein," he retorted. "That sort of concern has never affected you for one instant, so don't pretend you suddenly care about it now." "We're not talking about me," Albert replied, calmly. "I'm asking what you think." "I told you what I think. The ether is dead." "You know that scientists around the world are trying desperately to explain the Michaelson-Morley results without throwing out the ether. Famous ones, with appointments as professors and lists of publications as long as your arm. It might not be as simple as whether there is an ether or there isn't. There could be other explanations hidden in the behavior of light or some unexpected type of movement that could have offset the effect of the ether. There are a thousand-and-one directions that don't involve throwing out a notion that has served as one of the pillars of physics for centuries. And from what I understand, there are prominent physicists going in absolutely every one of those directions." Besso did not interrupt his friend, but was eagerly waiting to respond well before Albert finished his comments.

"Well, if that's the case, what's the value of the experiment in the first place?" he asked, rhetorically. "I think these scientists are protecting their own reputations and their own research. They don't want to believe that they've been duped all these years. If you ask me, the past is only relevant if it provides evidence one way or the other."

He waved his hands as he walked to emphasize his point and concluded, "If the ether doesn't exist, it doesn't exist, so let’s get on with business." Albert smiled. It was one of the few times lately that Besso had seen a smile on his friend’s face. "You don't need to get all worked up about it," Albert said. "But I know how difficult it is for you to disown the ether." "It's not difficult for me," Besso remarked, realizing that Albert was now poking fun at his seriousness, instead of vice versa. Lightening his tone, he added, "It's just like I've been saying all along. There is no ether and never has been. I'm only surprised it took them so long to prove that it doesn't exist." "Sure," Albert replied. "You love the ether and you always have. If you ever have another son, you'll probably name him 'Ether'." "Well, that's true," Besso admitted facetiously. "'Ether' or 'Gravity'. Either one would make a lovely name.” The two men nodded, as if they had come to agreement about a subject of great importance. After walking a few more blocks in silence, Albert finally spoke again, but there was less levity in his tone. "I agree with you," he said evenly. "I think we should accept the results of the experiment and see where they take us, because their methodology seems faultless and their findings are consistent with a lot of other discoveries lately that suggest our understanding of how the world works is not perfect. But what I've been thinking is that the importance of Michaelson-Morley is not what it says about the ether, but what it says about the nature of light." He paused, gathering his thoughts about this abstract concept.

"It goes back to what we were saying this morning," he continued. "As you know, I don't really trust absolutes, but this experiment was extraordinary. It disproves the existence of the ether, but it also suggests that the speed of light remains constant under all circumstances. That's more troubling to me than the death of the ether, but also far more important. Of course, if I accept one result of the experiment, I need to accept the other, regardless of whether it makes sense within my own frame of reference."

He paused again, but only for a few steps, as Besso waited for him to continue.

"You see, Lorentz has been one of those scientists trying to make the Michaelson-Morley results fit into classical physics, but his mathematics also led him where he had no intention of going. Instead of showing that the ether really did exist, he used the results of Michaelson-Morley and some follow-up work by Fitzgerald to show something entirely different. He proved that the speed of light is unaffected by the velocity of its source. In other words, the speed of light remains the same whether it's emitted by a stationary or moving source. If this is true, then you have to ask the next logical question: is that as fast as it's possible to go? Is 186,000 miles per second not just an absolute, but an absolute limit? If the speed of light doesn't increase with motion, then maybe you simply can't go any faster."

Besso stared at his colleague.

"Is that what you think the experiment means?" he asked. "You think the Michaelson-Morley experiment proves that the speed of light is the absolute speed limit?"

Albert shrugged his shoulders and smiled. Then he asked his own rhetorical question.

"Why not?"

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