Albert A. Michelson

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The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.

Albert Abraham Michelson (19 December 18529 May 1931) was a German-born American physicist known for his work on the measurement of the speed of light and especially for the Michelson-Morley experiment. In 1907 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics, the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in sciences.


  • While it is never safe to affirm that the future of Physical Science has no marvels in store even more astonishing than those of the past, it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established and that further advances are to be sought chiefly in the rigorous application of these principles to all the phenomena which come under our notice. It is here that the science of measurement shows its importance — where quantitative work is more to be desired than qualitative work. An eminent physicist remarked that the future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.
    • 1894, dedication of Ryerson Physical Laboratory, quoted in Annual Register 1896, p. 159.
    • Variants of this quote have been misattributed to Lord Kelvin since the 1980s, though there is no evidence that he said anything of the sort. The identity of the unnamed "eminent physicist" is unknown.
  • It appears, from all that precedes, reasonably certain that if there be any relative motion between the earth and the luminiferous ether, it must be small; quite small enough entirely to refute Fresnel's explanation of aberration.
  • Before entering into these details, however, it may be well to reply to the very natural question: What would be the use of such extreme refinement in the science of measurement? Very briefly and in general terms the answer would be that in this direction the greater part of all future discovery must lie. The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote. Nevertheless, it has been found that there are apparent exceptions to most of these laws, and this is particularly true when the observations are pushed to a limit, i.e., whenever the circumstances of experiment are such that extreme cases can be examined. Such examination almost surely leads, not to the overthrow of the law, but to the discovery of other facts and laws whose action produces the apparent exceptions.

    As instances of such discoveries, which are in most cases due to the increasing order of accuracy made possible by improvements in measuring instruments, may be mentioned: first, the departure of actual gases from the simple laws of the so-called perfect gas, one of the practical results being the liquefaction of air and all known gases; second, the discovery of the velocity of light by astronomical means, depending on the accuracy of telescopes and of astronomical clocks; third, the determination of distances of stars and the orbits of double stars, which depend on measurements of the order of accuracy of one-tenth of a second—an angle which may be represented as that which a pin's head subtends at a distance of a mile. But perhaps the most striking of such instances are the discovery of a new planet by observations of the small irregularities noticed by Leverier in the motions of the planet Uranus, and the more recent brilliant discovery by Lord Rayleigh of a new element in the atmosphere through the minute but unexplained anomalies found in weighing a given volume of nitrogen. Many instances might be cited, but these will suffice to justify the statement that "our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals." It follows that every means which facilitates accuracy in measurement is a possible factor in a future discovery, and this will, I trust, be a sufficient excuse for bringing to your notice the various methods and results which form the subject matter of these lectures.
    • Light Waves and Their Uses. By Albert A. Michelson. Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1903, pp 23-25.
  • Now, the velocity of wave propagation can be seen, without the aid of any mathematical analysis, to depend on the elasticity of the medium and its density; for we can see that if a medium is highly elastic the disturbance would be propagated at a great speed.
    • Light Waves and Their Uses Page 146.

Quotes about Michelson[edit]

  • Relativity was born of an epistemological shock; it was born of the "failure" of the Michelson experiment. ...Is so little required to "shake" the universe of spatiality? Can a single experiment... annihilate... two or three centuries of rational thought? Yes, a single decimal sufficed, as our poet Henri de Regnier would say, to "make all nature sing." ...The Michelson experiment, at first so particular in character, will form the basis of the most far-reaching generalization.
  • It is... striking that the Michelson laboratory was, properly speaking, cosmic. There, the most artificial physics imaginable was referred to the space of the world. The decimal which they wished to reveal by means of the interferometer, the decimal which is of the order of three-fourths of the wavelength of a vibration of light, was related to the orbital speed of the earth, a speed of the order of eighteen miles per second. The precision of such a question... this attempt to experience the immobility of space in its cosmic significance, ought to set the metaphysicians thinking who study the place of man in the world; if only these metaphysicians would give their attention to the lengthy discursive processes which lead science to build new intuitions.

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