Listen "Light" by Philip Glass on:
In the dawn of the 20th century, the United States was enjoying the period of stability, which also applied to science—particularly in physics. Some in the 19th century even suggested that the world of physics had reach the point of perfection and maturity. Then, there was an experiment—the one that shattered the status quo and opened the door to the new era.
Physicists knew that a wave must travel through a medium—such as sound waves traveling in air and waves propagating on water. From these observations, physicists questioned: how does light (wave) propagate? what is the medium of light (wave)? They thought that the universe must have something for light too—a medium that had not been detected yet. In order to solve this piece of inconsistency, people theorized a new medium called "luminiferous aether"—a non-viscous and invisible fluid that fills the empty space, serving as the medium of light (wave). Some even theorized the properties of this fluid, and the only and the final thing left was to prove the existence of it with robust empirical evidences.
In the late 19th century, Albert Michelson from Case Institute in Cleveland, Ohio (now the Case Western Reserve University)—with a help of his friend Edward Morley—devised a concise and “irrefutable” experiment to prove the existence of ether. Michelson was unquestionably qualified for such endeavor, considering his abilities to construct extremely precise optical apparatus.
Picture of Michelson (L) and Morley (R).
Michelson and Morley's interferometry setup, which allowed to compare the reflection time from mirrors in two orthogonal directions. Picture from Wikipedia.
However, despite all the meticulous set-ups and observations, Michelson failed to observe the “ether,” and the result was further corroborated with the evidences from further experiments. After all, it became “the most famous failed experiment,” which made Michelson the first American scientist to be awarded the Nobel Prize. It is a significant discovery and an exciting piece of scientific history that deserves a commemoration.
Group photo featuring, from left to right, Michelson, Einstein, and Millikan. Millikan was Michelson's advisee, and all three had won the coveted Nobel Prize. The result of Michelson and Morley's experiment paved the way for "wide and rapid acceptance of constancy of the speed of light."
Fast forwarding 100 years—in the 20th century, Philip Glass—one of the most highly regarded and commercially successful classical composers of our time—was commissioned to compose a piece to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Michelson and Morley's experiment.
“This is a portrait not only of the two men for whom the experiments are named but also that historical moment heralding the beginning of the modem scientific period”.
- Philip Glass
The overall structure of the music resembles the experiment and its implications. The piece first begins with slow and gentle repetitions of the motif through relentless arpeggios, resembling the tranquility and the stability. Resembling Ravel's Bolero, it slowly and consistently accumulates and thickens— along with crescendos and evolving instrumentation—into a sense of excitement and discovery. The piece culminates as the percussions and the winds signal the new era, the birth of modern physics.
Galaxy EGS-zs8-1 captured by Hubble Telescope. Even at the speed of light (~3x10^8 m/s in vacuum), it took billions of years (distance: 4 Gpc; 13x10^9 ly) of restless travel for this faint glimpse of light to reach Earth, reminding us of the persistent repetitions in this music. As the light collides with matters, gets distorted by gravity, and faces red-shifting, the musical theme develops, transforms, and matures.
As the piece reaches the end, the arpeggios finally slow down, the music peacefully fades away, and the sense of bliss and hope resonates—symbolizing the new chapter of modern science ahead. The dawn has passed, the sun is rising, and it is finally the time to wake up. The music has ended, but the science will continue. The great discoveries have yet to come.