The first paragraph of Albert Einstein's paper On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, written in 1905, mentions the failure of attempts to detect the earth's motion through the luminiferous aether. Page 48 of Walter Isaacson's biography of Einstein says that as a graduate student Einstein read a paper by Wilhelm Wien that described the failures of thirteen different experiments that tried to measure motion through the aether.

If there were so many, then why is only one of them so famous?

PS: Possibly the paper of Wien is this one. I haven't looked at it for more than a few seconds yet. Isaacson's biography of Einstein actually doesn't cite the paper he says Einstein read. The item I linked to here mentions the Michelson–Morley experiment.

  • $\begingroup$ Since the Wien paper and the 13 experiments are pretty obscure, can you point us to any info on them? Presumably they would all be public domain. $\endgroup$
    – user466
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 4:30
  • $\begingroup$ @BenCrowell : Strangely, Isaacson's book doesn't give that information. $\endgroup$ Commented May 11, 2016 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ @BenCrowell : POSSIBLY it's this: (1898). "Ueber die Fragen, welche die translatorische Bewegung des Lichtäthers betreffen". Annalen der Physik 301 (3): 1–18. Bibcode:1898AnP...301....1D. doi:10.1002/andp.18983010502 $\endgroup$ Commented May 11, 2016 at 17:33
  • $\begingroup$ wiley.com wants $38 to show me the whole paper. $\endgroup$ Commented May 11, 2016 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ Here's a place where you can see it for free: de.wikisource.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ Commented May 11, 2016 at 17:37

1 Answer 1


Because it was the most accurate. The use of interferometers to measure length deviations eliminated the concern that the ether wind didn't register because the instruments were too blunt, or because the experimenters were too clutz. Remember that everything else up to that point confirmed ether, and Hertz confirmed it some more in 1887 by detecting electromagnetic waves. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

The concern remained even after Michelson's first 1881 try, which is why he redid it with Morley in 1887 with sterling precision. Only after that Fitzgerald, Hertz, Lorentz and others started to take the outcome seriously. Fitzgerald suggested length contraction in 1889, Hertz gave his fix in Principles of Mechanics of 1894, and Lorentz followed up in 1895, see D’Agostino's Overview of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’ Theories of Light, Ether, and Electromagnetic Waves.


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