The OTHER Theory of Evolution: The Greatest Failed Experiment24 November 2020
During iso, I’ve bounced aimlessly through Wikipedia long enough to land on an article titled the ‘List of Discredited Substances.’ It includes the Philosopher’s Stone, a universal solvent, and even a unicorn’s horn. With each entry, is an explanation of how the substance was discredited, usually through various experiments (We apparently know unicorn horns don’t exist because of ‘failure to find any since medieval times’ . . . interpret that how you will).
Those who thought of these obsolete substances are today mostly seen as misguided fools. But one won a Nobel Prize. In fact, Albert Michelson is known for the ‘greatest failed experiment in physics’.
The Michelson-Morley experiment sought to detect the ‘luminiferous ether’. Physicists observed that light behaved like a wave. Scientists knew that other waves, like sound, travelled through a medium. For the sun’s light to travel through space to Earth, they presumed it must travel through something, naming this the ‘luminiferous ether’.
Physicists figured that as Earth moves through space, it must also move through the ether, generating an ‘ether wind’. Imagine that Earth is a rock in a riverbed and the water flowing over the rock is the ether. In this analogy, the ether wind is the river current. Now, think of light as someone swimming in the river. How fast they swim will be affected by whether they swim with or against the current. In the same way, Michelson and Morley predicted that light would travel at different speeds depending on whether it was travelling with or against the ether wind. They sent light beams in different directions and measured whether the light travelled at different speeds.
Genius. Except that no matter how often they repeated the experiment, what direction they tried or how precise their measurements were, the light’s speed was constant. Ether had no impact. Did that mean ether didn’t exist?
With no ether to explain light’s movement, physicists were forced to think differently. They discovered that light acts both as a wave and particle. Michelson and Morley’s non-discovery also enabled Albert Einstein to develop the theory of special relativity. (This ultimately led to the invention of GPS, which rescues my spatially challenged brain whenever I leave the house).
Many of us know how it feels to devote time, tears, and excess caffeine to a cause, only for it to fail spectacularly. I hope the Michelson-Morley experiment reminds you that not only is failure okay, but it is also essential for progress (especially in science). Maybe, like Michelson, a failure will become the biggest success of your career.