In November of 1887, two scientists named Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley published a paper at a prestigious university known today as Case Western Reserve, in Cleveland, Ohio.1 The paper caused quite a conundrum for physicists of the day.
Michelson and Morley hadn't intended to turn the world of physics upside down. They were simply trying to prove that the ether existed.
For many years, scientists believed that there must be some invisible sea, which they called the ether, through which every physical thing in the universe is moving. It was a very convenient theory. It provided the foundation for the then accepted laws of motion and provided a medium for the propagation of light (at the time, light was viewed by most scientists as only a wave-like phenomenon; it needed something to “wave” through).
The ether was an extremely important element of physical theories in the late 1800s. Most scientists agreed that the ether simply had to exist. There was one significant problem, though. No one had ever seen the ether, nor had anyone been able to measure it in any other way.
Michelson and Morley devised a rather simple experiment to determine whether the ether actually existed. They theorized that if there was an ether, and the earth was moving through it, there should be a sort of ether breeze, similar to what we feel when we put a hand ...