Sunday, October 7, 2012

The man who discovered the speed of light got a free education because he took uninvited walks with the President of the United States!

Albert Michelson was born on the Germany/Poland border to Jewish parents and moved to the U.S. as an infant in 1852. His family being poor merchants ended up selling dry goods in California gold rush country while he grew up. He eventually travelled to Washington D.C. and loitered in front of the White House.
He waited for Ulysses S. Grant to come out for his morning walk, and uninvited as he was, Michelson took to walking with the President. Oh how times have changed. Anyways, he got close enough to the President that Grant actually agreed to secure Michelson a spot in the US Naval Academy.
At the academy, Michelson learned physics. Ten years later he was working as a professor at the Case School in Cleveland. It was there that he became interested in trying to measure the ether drift. At the time, it was believed that if one could calculate the speed of light, they could use that to calculate the ether drift. Michelson realized for half the year the earth is moving towards the sun and the other half of the year it moves away from it.
If he took careful measurements, he could use that to figure out the speed of light. He talked Alexander Graham Bell into funding his ingenious contraption for measuring the speed of light and voile. Well, it was a really strenuous process that took a hiatus while Michelson had a brief nervous breakdown, but resumed and was successful. He was able to measure the speed of light.

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