Michelson remembered as artist, Nobel Prize winner



Feb 28, 2008

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By Theresa Goldstrand

Dr. Bob Smith, chief engineer, and Ken Banks, senior system engineer, of the Weapons and Energetics Department, wowed a full house on Feb. 15 with the presentation, “Albert A. Michelson Laboratory, History and Heritage” that they had previously shared at the United States Naval Academy Oct. 22, 2007.

It was at the Michelson Centennial Symposium that they met guest speaker Joan Michelson, who entertained the crowd with familial anecdotes about her great-great uncle, Albert. China Lakers across the board from active duty O-6 to civilian new-hires learned about Albert A. Michelson and the reason behind the naming of Michelson Laboratory.

Michelson, son of immigrant parents, was born Dec. 19, 1852 in Strelno, Prussia. His parents immigrated to the United States in 1854 and settled in Murphys, Calif., where Albert was raised with a brother, Charles, and sister, Miriam. In 1868, 16-year old Albert traveled across the United States, by railroad, from California to Maryland to petition entrance at the Naval Academy. After two personal interviews and a two-year wait, Michelson’s appointment to the academy was signed by President Grant. Michelson’s military “upbringing” included the usual juvenile disciplinary issues: “Skylarking in ranks marching from dinner”, “Laughing while on guard detail”, “Whistling in the corridor”, “Reading a novel while on duty”, “Playing musical instruments on Sunday”. In addition to his musical prowess, Albert learned to play chess, play billiards, draw and paint.

Michelson began teaching physics and chemistry at the Naval Academy in 1875. He conducted his first measurement of light experiments while at Annapolis. Two years into his teaching career, he married Margaret Hemmingway. He soon became a star in the scientific world, working with other luminary contemporaries that included Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble. In 1898, he accepted the position as professor and head of the Department of Physics at the University of Chicago. After 21 years, and three children later, his marriage to Margaret ended in 1898. Michelson met and married Edna Stanton of Lake Forest, Ill. in 1899. They had one son and three daughters. It seemed that Michelson thrived in his domestic and professional environment.

In addition to his research and teaching, over 75 of Michelson's articles and lectures were published, along with three of his books: Determination Experimentale de la Valuer du Metre en Longueurs d'Ondes Lumineuses (1894), Light Waves and Their Uses (1903) and Studies in Optics (1927). Michelson's report conveying the results of his experiment at the U. S. Naval Academy in 1879, "Experimental Determination of the Velocity of Light", was also later published in 1880. Michelson is legend for his invention of the interferometer, the harmonic analyzer (with S.W. Stratton), the echelon spectroscope, and ruling engines. Some of Michelson's other significant discoveries include the length of the standard meter (used as the standard length from 1893-1960), the rigidity and elasticity of the earth in 1919, and in 1920 the first measurement of the angular diameter of the star "Betelgeuse" of the constellation Orion.

Michelson was intrigued with and studied the metallic colors in birds and insects. His work in physics and technology and his precise measurements of the velocity of light, confirmed Einstein's theory of relativity. The velocity of light is the constant "c" in the equation E=mc . Michelson's research also advanced other related fields such as optics, spectroscopy, metrology, astronomy, and geophysics. The Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences awarded a Nobel Prize to Michelson for his “precision optical instruments and the spectroscopic and metrological investigation conducted therewith” in Stockholm, on Dec. 10, 1907.

"It is the pitting of one's brains against bits of iron, metals and crystals and making them do what you want them to do. When you are successful that is all the reward you want," Michelson said in a New York Times article in 1929.

Throughout his career, Michelson taught and inspired people who would themselves become successful teachers, physicists, and inventors. Robert A. Millikan, a Michelson student and later one of his faculty members, became the second American to win the Novel Prize in Physics in 1923. “The whole development of our modern physics is intimately bound up with Albert A. Michelson’s precision of measurement,” said Millikan in a Pasadena Star-News article in 1931.

Albert Einstein, a Michelson contemporary, observed, “In everything he did, he was an artist; he took equal delight in finding the cause of the iridescence of the butterfly’s wing and in conducting the ether-drift experiments by which laid the experimental foundation for the theory of relativity. To him, values were not measured by the acclaim of the world. To his friends, he was like the sea on a summer’s day – serene, illimitable, unfathomable.”

In 1930 after a brilliant career that changed the face of physics and technology worldwide, Michelson officially retired. He died in Pasadena in 1931, at the age of 78.

Still in its infancy, China Lake began to emerge as the premier “secret” research, development and test station for military weapons and ordnance. Christened Naval Ordnance Test Station, China Lake leaders lured the brightest and most innovative scientists and military collaborators to the Mojave Desert. Because of Michelson’s significant impact on scientists and physicists and his accomplishments in regard to precision measurements, velocity of light, and ether drift, it was suggested that the new laboratory be named after him. Under the leadership of then Technical Director, L.T. E. Thompson, in May 1948, the Michelson Laboratory at the Naval Ordnance Test Station in China Lake was dedicated. In 1957, the Navy honored Michelson with the USNS Michelson, and on May 10, 1969 the U.S. Naval Academy dedicated the academic building Michelson Hall. The Albert A. Michelson Award, given by the Navy League of the United States; and the Michelson Memorial Lecture Series, is presented annually by the Division of Mathematics and Science at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Following the program, NAWCWD Executive Director Scott O’Neill, presented Ken Banks, Bob Smith, Bill Stevenson and Barry McDonald (the four-man team who created the Michelson History and Heritage presentation) the R & E Award and certificates.


Photo by Theresa Goldstrand

Dr. Bob Smith, left, and Ken Banks, both of the Weapons and Energetics Department, celebrate the legacy of Albert A. Michelson during a presentation Feb. 15 at China Lake.

Photo by Theresa Goldstrand

This painting by Albert A. Michelson during his retirement can be seen in the lobby of the building named in his honor.

Photo by Theresa Goldstrand

Albert A. Michelson’s Nobel Prize, presented Dec 10, 1907, hangs in the lobby at Michelson Lab.

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