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written by Joe Wolfe and George Hatsidimitris
This page features a tutorial on the 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment, one of the most famous null results in history. The purpose of the experiment was to prove the existence of "luminiferous aether", believed at the time to be the medium through which light propagated. The scientists used a large spectrometer to compare a light source with itself after being sent in different directions. They hypothesized that the aether would act as a special coordinate system -- light traveling along with the motion of the Earth would have a different speed than light traveling backward because of a drift effect caused by "aether wind". Their results provided the first clear demonstration that the aether theory was seriously flawed. More importantly, the results paved the way for special relativity, which established the invariance of the speed of light.

This web site is a multimedia, non-mathematical introduction to relativity.  It covers concepts from Galileo, Newton, and Maxwell through  Einstein and  special relativity.
Editor's Note: At the time, the aether wind theory was widely accepted by scientists throughout the world. After the Michelson-Morley experiment, scientists scrambled to conduct new experiments to save the theory. All returned null results as well. For the high school classroom, this experiment could be an effective springboard to discuss the nature of scientific inquiry, and the difficulties arising when established ideas are found erroneous.
Subjects Levels Resource Types
General Physics
- History
- Special Relativity
- High School
- Lower Undergraduate
- Informal Education
- Instructional Material
= Tutorial
- Audio/Visual
= Movie/Animation
Appropriate Courses Categories Ratings
- Conceptual Physics
- Algebra-based Physics
- AP Physics
- Activity
- New teachers
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© 2005 School of Physics, University of New South Wales, Australia
Ether, Michelson-Morley, behavior of light, historic experiment, light behavior, relative motion, relativity, speed of light
Record Cloner:
Metadata instance created January 7, 2008 by Christopher Bares
Record Updated:
August 16, 2016 by Lyle Barbato
Last Update
when Cataloged:
February 12, 2007
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AAAS Benchmark Alignments (2008 Version)

1. The Nature of Science

1A. The Scientific Worldview
  • 6-8: 1A/M2. Scientific knowledge is subject to modification as new information challenges prevailing theories and as a new theory leads to looking at old observations in a new way.
  • 9-12: 1A/H2. From time to time, major shifts occur in the scientific view of how things work. More often, however, the changes that take place in the body of scientific knowledge are small modifications of prior knowledge. Continuity and change are persistent features of science.
  • 9-12: 1A/H3bc. In science, the testing, revising, and occasional discarding of theories, new and old, never ends. This ongoing process leads to a better understanding of how things work in the world but not to absolute truth.
1B. Scientific Inquiry
  • 9-12: 1B/H7. New ideas in science are limited by the context in which they are conceived; are often rejected by the scientific establishment; sometimes spring from unexpected findings; and usually grow slowly, through contributions from many investigators.

4. The Physical Setting

4F. Motion
  • 9-12: 4F/H3c. In empty space, all electromagnetic waves move at the same speed—the "speed of light."
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Record Link
AIP Format
J. Wolfe and G. Hatsidimitris, (2005), WWW Document, (http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/einsteinlight/jw/module3_is_it_true.htm).
J. Wolfe and G. Hatsidimitris, Einstein Light: Michelson, Morley and the speed of light, (2005), <http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/einsteinlight/jw/module3_is_it_true.htm>.
APA Format
Wolfe, J., & Hatsidimitris, G. (2007, February 12). Einstein Light: Michelson, Morley and the speed of light. Retrieved March 29, 2017, from http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/einsteinlight/jw/module3_is_it_true.htm
Chicago Format
Wolfe, Joe, and George Hatsidimitris. Einstein Light: Michelson, Morley and the speed of light. February 12, 2007. http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/einsteinlight/jw/module3_is_it_true.htm (accessed 29 March 2017).
MLA Format
Wolfe, Joe, and George Hatsidimitris. Einstein Light: Michelson, Morley and the speed of light. 2005. 12 Feb. 2007. 29 Mar. 2017 <http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/einsteinlight/jw/module3_is_it_true.htm>.
BibTeX Export Format
@misc{ Author = "Joe Wolfe and George Hatsidimitris", Title = {Einstein Light: Michelson, Morley and the speed of light}, Volume = {2017}, Number = {29 March 2017}, Month = {February 12, 2007}, Year = {2005} }
Refer Export Format

%A Joe Wolfe
%A George Hatsidimitris
%T Einstein Light: Michelson, Morley and the speed of light
%D February 12, 2007
%U http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/einsteinlight/jw/module3_is_it_true.htm
%O text/html

EndNote Export Format

%0 Electronic Source
%A Wolfe, Joe
%A Hatsidimitris, George
%D February 12, 2007
%T Einstein Light: Michelson, Morley and the speed of light
%V 2017
%N 29 March 2017
%8 February 12, 2007
%9 text/html
%U http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au/einsteinlight/jw/module3_is_it_true.htm

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Einstein Light: Michelson, Morley and the speed of light:

Covers the Same Topic As Fowler's Physics Applets: Michelson-Morley Experiment

An interactive simulation that lets users visualize how the Michelson-Morley experiment was conducted.

relation by Caroline Hall

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