History of Astronomy From The Roman Empire To The Present, part 13
The Earth Stands Still
It would seem that Copernican Astronomy had reached its highest development about the year 1882, and then began to decline, or rather, to fall to pieces. The first evidence of this devolution is to be found in the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887, at Chicago; the result of which might have undeceived even the most devoted believer in the theory of a spinning earth.
Professor Michelson was one of the physicists foremost in determining the Velocity of Light, while he has recently been described in the New York Times as America’s greatest physicist; and it was he who— working in collaboration with Morley— in 1887 made the most painstaking experiments by means of rays of light for the purpose of testing, verifying, or proving by physical science, what really was the velocity of the earth. To express this more clearly. Astronomers have for a very long time stated that the earth travels round the sun with a speed of more than eighteen miles a second, or sixty-six thousand miles an hour.
Without in any way seeking to deny this statement, but really believing it to be thereabouts correct, Michelson and Morley undertook their experiments in order to put it to a practical test; just in the same way as we might say “The greengrocer has sent us a sack of potatoes which is said to contain 112 pounds weight; we will weigh it ourselves to see if that is correct.”
More technically, the experiment was to test what was the velocity with which the earth moved in its orbit round the sun relative to the aether.
A very well illustrated account of that experiment will be found in The Sphere, published in London, June 11th , 1921, and it is from that article I quote the following, verbatim : “But to the experimenters’ surprise no difference was discernible. The experiment was tried through numerous angles, but the motion through the aether was NIL!”
Observe that the means employed represented the best that modern physical science could do to prove the movement of the earth through ethereal space, and the result showed that the earth did not move at all! “The motion through the aether was NIL.”…But the world of astronomy has not accepted that result, for it continues to preach the old dogma; it appears that they are willing to accept the decisions of physicists when it suits their case, but reject them when otherwise. And so they still maintain the fabulous theory that the earth is rushing through space at eleven hundred miles a minute; which, as they would say in America, “Surely is some traveling.” It must be faster than a bullet from a Lewis gun.
What I have now to record, I do with regret, and only because my sense of duty in the pursuit of truth compels me. It is the circumstance that Sir George Airy, who retired from his position as Astronomer Royal in 1881, related— some nine years later— how he had for some time been harassed by a suspicion that certain errors had crept into some of the computations published in 1866, and that, though he had set himself seriously to the work of revision, his powers were no longer what they had been, and he was never able to examine sufficiently into the work. Then he spoke of a “ grievous error that had been committed in one of the first steps,” and pathetically added— “My spirit in the work was broken, and I have never heartily proceeded with it since.”
My sympathy goes out to Sir George in his tribulation of the spirit due to advancing age, while I am not unmindful of myself, for I realize that in him I have lost one who would have been a friend, who would have listened when I said that all was not as it should be with the science of astronomy; and stood by my side, encouraging and helping, when I, younger and stronger, strove to put it right. I do not know whether Sir George Airy was influenced or not by the result of the Michelson-Morley experiment, but it is at least a noteworthy coincidence that he made those comments only three years later ; but in any case science has need of him, and of such evident open mindedness and sincerity as his, now.
Not content to believe that the earth did not move, further experiments were carried out by Nordmeyer in the year 1903, to test the earth’s velocity in relation to the Intensities of Light from the heavenly bodies, but he also failed to discover any movement.
Even then astronomers were determined to hold on to their ancient theories, and deny the facts which had been twice demonstrated by the best means known to modern physical science. They preferred to believe the theory that the earth was gyrating round the sun with the velocity of a Big Bertha shell, and tried to account for the physicists’ failure to discover its movement by finding fault with the aether (or ether).
It is not only difficult to understand why they should prefer theory to fact in this manner, and so deceive themselves; but it is strange also that the world in general could tolerate such nonsense.
However, the results of several years’ speculations concerning ether and space were set forth in the year 1911, in a series of lectures by Professor Ormoff, Onspensky and Mingelsky, at Petrograd.
It was suggested that light was not permitted to come from the stars to earth in a straight line, because some quality in ethereal space caused it to follow the earth as it moved round the orb it; and that might account for the failure of the experiments of 1887 and 1903. In other words it was suggested that we cannot see straight, or that the image of the star as we see it twinkling there is coming to us in a curve— following the earth like a search-light, while it describes the five terrestrial motions ascribed to it by Newton.
When stated even more plainly it means that when we think we see a star overhead we are mistaken, for that is merely the end of a ray of light coming to us from a star which— in the material body— may be millions of miles to the right of us, or it might even be behind us; as in diagram 26.
N.B.— A much greater curvature than we have illustrated in the diagram has since been suggested in all seriousness by leading astronomers from the platform of the R.A.S. at Burlington House, Nov. 6th, 1919, in these words “. . . . All and if they travelled far enough they would regain the starting point.”
Moreover, Ormoff, Onspensky and Mingelsky had come to the conclusion that nothing was fixed in the universe; so that while the moon goes round the earth and the earth and the planets go round the sun, the sun itself is moving with probably a downward tendency, carrying the whole Copernican solar system with it. Further, even the stars themselves have left their moorings, so that the entire visible universe is drifting; no one knows where.
In brief, these Petrograd lectures of 1911 introduced many new ideas such as those which have become familiar to the reader in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, since the year following the great World-War.