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The Most Famous Failed Experiment

Updated on July 11, 2011


In 1887 an experiment was performed by two men, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley in Cleveland, Ohio. The experiment provided very strong evidence to support the belief that light did not require a medium in which to travel.

The two men were certain that they would prove the opposite but from their standpoint they failed.

Testing Ideas for Truth

When an alarm clock is set off in a bell jar and the air gradually sucked out, the sound of the alarm gradually diminishes. When the air is gradually allowed back into the jar, the alarm can be heard again. This shows that sound waves need a medium to travel in.

When a lighted candle is placed in the bell jar and the air is sucked out, the flame diminishes and eventually goes out which some observers may have taken to mean that light also needs a vacuum to travel in. Since we now know that the flame requires oxygen to burn then the flame going out would not be conclusive evidence to suggest that light needs a medium to travel though. When a battery operated torch is then placed in a bell jar which is then evacuated of all its air we can still see the light. This would suggest that light waves do not require a medium to travel.

But what if there is a medium for light but we just can't detect it? This was an idea put forward and this special medium was called the aether.

Albert Michelson and Edward Morley set out to prove that such a medium for light did in fact exist and they used an instrument called an interferometer to do it.

The Basis for the Idea

To explain simply the principle on which it worked I would like you to imagine what happens when a boat travels on a river.

Water would be seen as the medium for the boat but the water itself moves and this movement is called the current. The current is is going to affect the speed of the boat. When the boat is moving with the current it will move faster than it would going against the current, this is common sense and what Michelson and Morley used to investigate the existence of a medium for light.

They deduced that the movement of earth travelling through an aether would cause a current which would affect the speed of light travelling depending if it was travelling with it or against it as in the case of the boat travelling through a river.

Michelson-Morley Experiment

They came up with an ingenious plan which involved splitting a beam of light so that each half would travel at right angles to the other for a fixed distance and reflected back so the beams would join up again and the interference pattern produced when the beams combined could then be observed.

If an aether existed then they would have observed a shift in the position of the interference fringes due to one of the beams being slower than the other as it went against the aether current.

No such shift was observed no matter what way the interferometer was aligned. Michelson-Morley were devastated.

Their experiment had failed to prove the existence on an aether but it had succeeded in providing very strong evidence to support the notion that light did not need a medium to travel in. So even failure can be viewed as success depending on your frame of reference.

Never Say Die!

Interesting to note is that Michelson and Morley only rotated the interferometer in the horizontal plane and it wouldn't be for over another 100 years before a German Physicist, Martin Grusenick decided to see, in 2009, what would happen if he rotated the interferometer in the vertical plane.

Grusenick found that there was a shift of 11 to 11.5 fringes in the interference pattern as he rotated through 360°. His results provided strong evidence for the existence of an aether.

Frank Pearse, a Physicist from Texas U.S.A. believes that light does use a medium but that Martin Grusenick had not detected the medium in his experiment. He accounts for Grusenick's results as flaws in the set up and did his own experiment after correcting these flaws and showed that Grusenick was mistaken.

Below are two videos from Youtube one of Grusenick's Experiment to show the existence of the aether and the other of Pearce's explanation of why he thinks Grusenick is mistaken.

Watching both videos will give you feel for the scientific process and all that goes with it.


Interesting to note here is that a Physicist who does believe an aether exists went out of his way to check the results of another Physicist who had found evidence to support his belief.

Though science cannot explain everything it provides a wonderful platform for people of the highest integrity to test their ideas and only after rigorous scrutiny is any idea accepted as fact ... for the time being.


In my view the Michelson-Morley Experiment is the closest that science has come to looking for the essence of what we perceive as the Universe.

Call it what you will but I believe there is a screen upon which we are projecting our version of reality.

The way a movie projector projects images on to a screen we are projecting our meaningless thoughts on to the screen we call the world and spend our lives hypnotised by that grand illusion or movie we call life.

Frank Pearce's Eexperiment

Martin Grusenick's Experiment


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    • Spirit Whisperer profile imageAUTHOR

      Xavier Nathan 

      10 years ago from Isle of Man

      A comment like that from topquark means a lot. Thank you.

    • topquark profile image


      10 years ago from UK

      A very comprehensive hub on one of the most important experiments. Great job!

    • Spirit Whisperer profile imageAUTHOR

      Xavier Nathan 

      10 years ago from Isle of Man

      Thank you tumblintumblweed for your very generous comment.

    • tumblintumblweed profile image


      10 years ago

      Very interesting hub, SW. I so look forward to your writings.They are so unique,informative and thought provoking! voted up!

      Thank you kind sir!

    • Spirit Whisperer profile imageAUTHOR

      Xavier Nathan 

      10 years ago from Isle of Man

      Thank you always exploring, your reaction is the one this hub was designed to elicit.That makes me feel most encouraged indeed.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      10 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Very interesting, thought provoking, Leaves me wondering more and more, what is? What's it all about Alfie? I know that remark sounds stupid, but it's how i feel. Thank you.

    • Spirit Whisperer profile imageAUTHOR

      Xavier Nathan 

      10 years ago from Isle of Man

      Thank you Lucky cats. I admire anyone who chooses to leave the safety of the familiar to learn something new and I like the next man must battle with inclination in myself to stick with the devil I know. I deliberately pursue avenues that challenge and when I recognise another doing the same I doff my cap. I will be checking out your hubs now that you have reached out to mine. Thank you.

    • Lucky Cats profile image


      10 years ago from The beautiful Napa Valley, California

      Hi Spirit Whisperer. This is an interesting hub; one which parallels a 'discovery' I've made, not along the line of physics or scientific's a television series narrated by Morgan Freeman entitled "Through the Wormhole." I found it only last evening and became instantly mesmerized! I watched each segment until I was falling asleep on the couch. "String theory," finite/infinite universe questions, 'is the universe being pulled to one side ...actually, this is conclusive and now, the search for answers is on...'what is 'outside' our universe if, indeed, it is finite..and so forth. In depth interviews with the scientists who are asking, conducting and examining results or looking deeply for results. With illustrations and discussion. Amazing and astounding experiments using huge equipment (I know, I sould rather naieve and...yes, I admit I am in this field)to determine if the smallest of small particles, when smashed or when they collide...become a third ...????

      This is an educational experience for the lay person, of which I am one...thank you for this hub..very stimulating and impetus to look further, ask more and examine a world I've not spent much time exploring.

      UP Awesome, Useful (yes, as if I can use it!!) and more

    • Spirit Whisperer profile imageAUTHOR

      Xavier Nathan 

      10 years ago from Isle of Man

      I am glad you liked this one Alasatar. Quantum Llamas from Tibet rule OK!LMAO

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      10 years ago from North Carolina

      Righteous! So glad you brought up aether. Excellent break-down and I really liked your analogy. Grusenicks experiment once and for all proves it as far as I'm concerned. Even Einstein himself with his now out-dated- specifically in the Quantum Mechanics area- relativity admitted it was possible. Spooky entanglement the quantum domains rule!

    • Spirit Whisperer profile imageAUTHOR

      Xavier Nathan 

      10 years ago from Isle of Man

      Thank you Eiddwen, you are very generous and I really appreciate the supportive comment. It is a real mark of character that you can appreciate such a wide variety of subjects.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      10 years ago from Wales

      A very unique hub and I really enjoyed it. I think that it's this vriety of subjects that are written about that make HP the great place it is.

      Up/useful for this one and here's to many more to share.

      Take care


    • Spirit Whisperer profile imageAUTHOR

      Xavier Nathan 

      10 years ago from Isle of Man

      Thank you Phillbert for taking the time to read my hub and comment.

    • Spirit Whisperer profile imageAUTHOR

      Xavier Nathan 

      10 years ago from Isle of Man

      Thank you Nell. We rely too heavily on our physical sight and when we learn to trust our spiritual eyes these mysteries will all be revealed.

    • Phillbert profile image

      Phillip Drayer Duncan 

      10 years ago from The Ozarks

      Very interesting!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      10 years ago from England

      Hi, I have come to the conclusion that the atoms that we see, are on different levels of size and depth, this is in a very laymans terms, in other words we have studied atoms and photons, and even on the Quantum level we believe that we know what is inside of the smallest proton etc, but I do believe that there are other layers if you like that we will either never know about, or need much more technology to find it, fascinating stuff cheers nell

    • Spirit Whisperer profile imageAUTHOR

      Xavier Nathan 

      10 years ago from Isle of Man

      thank you maplethorpej, I appreciate you stopping by and commenting. You will have to read my hubs on "A Course in Miracles" if you really wish to know why I said our thoughts are meaningless as the explanation would not fit into this comment box. I agree with you in that we are so busy making up what we see we have lost sight of truth.

    • maplethorpej profile image

      Jerad Maplethorpe 

      10 years ago from Minneapolis, Minn.

      Interesting conclusion, but why is it that you believe our thoughts are meaningless? And, if nothing else, doesn't this type of experimental analysis prove that there is much more going on than humans can comprehend (at least at the moment)?


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