Of White Whales and Dark Energies

No one really knows what dark energy is, but it fills the universe. We wouldn't even have the concept if it weren't for the men who hunted sperm whales in the 19th century. If that's not intriguing enough, the story also involves candles, Einstein, cannibalism, shrinking space men, ether, whale attacks, and exploding stars.
Whales live an exceedingly long time. Some, like the Bowhead Whale, can live for more than 200 years. A whale that could have been a baby swimming in the Artic Ocean in 1820 when the Essex was sunk and Owen Coffin drew the black dot, a teenager when Moby Dick was published, a young adult in 1887 when Michelson and Morley disproved ether and Einstein presented the theory of special relativity in 1905, and reaching old age when we humans discovered that the universe was flying to pieces in 1996— that whale, that aged and magnificent creature, may yet still live to see yet another revolution in physics.

I learned a lot about physics in this weird tale of science history. Link -Thanks, boaz sender!

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I guess in the end, when you say "He took two interesting, basically unrelated subjects and found an incidental link between the two." I think that is a neat and interesting approach, and you most certainly don't. In this, I think, we can agree to disagree. But sir, I too salute your tenacity, and respect your opinion. It has been a pleasure.
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John G:

I appreciate your tenacity! In the second pdf I linked to Michelson was quoted about using an argand lamp for spectroscopy, just as you have found in your research. I lack the energy to examine the formulae to see if the tables they reported are particularly dependent on the wavelength from a sodium lamp, which would establish whether or not the famous 1887 paper used whale oil or sodium.

Let us suppose they did use whale oil. While it is slightly interesting to me as a footnote in the history of measurement that spermaceti was used as a standard for a certain time, it doesn't seem that MM relied on this particular standard value in any way for calibration purposes. So it seems that the fringe effect MM were expecting would have been available from anan alternate light source.

There are many great tales of serendipitous discovery in the history of science, of chance discoveries and historic events coming together at just the right time, but unfortunately the html times article isn't one of them. The author may as well have written about the trials and tribulations of the rubber industry which supplied the sole of Morley's left boot.
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I agree this is not of particular importance. But like you, I am stubborn. Do a simple google search and plenty of connections between argand burners and the MM experment come right up, including this article (http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/it/1987/2/1987_2_42.shtml) written by Loyd S. Swenson, Jr. author of The Ethereal Aether: A History of the Michelson-Morley-Miller Aether-Drift Experiments, 1880-1930. In it he says

"The light was provided by a standard Argand burner, widely used in lamps for vehicles and fashionable parlors as well as in spectroscopy."


"The light came as before from the bright flame of an ordinary Argand oil burner, passed through a small, narrow slit and rendered parallel by a lens."

That said, I read no mention of spermaceti, but they do speak of using yellow sodium light so perhaps you are correct and in this experment they used sodium in an argand burner. Regardless, the articles connection seems to me to be more about the standard candle, and the article about the changing nature of measurement and science, not a treatise on the exact nature of the MM experment. Personally I liked it quite a bit but that, of course, is subjective!
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John G:

I saw this posting you linked to above, which is just another comment on another Internet message board. When I read it, I figured the person wasn't just making it up out of thin air, so out of curiosity I did a journal search through all of my university's science journal databases for "Michelson-Morley" and "argand burner", with no results. The person who posted that again linked to the same 1887 paper I linked to above (which doesn't mention Argand burners). Interestingly, I found a letter somewhere from Morley indicating that he used an Argand burner, but it wasn't clear if it was from an earlier experiment, such as his 1881 experiment.

I am not out to prove anything on this trivial detail of science history, I was just curious where the author of the article Miss Cellania linked to was reading his history from.

It does indeed seem trivial though, in that alternate light sources would have been acceptable and there and spermaceti role doesn't seem like an "enabling technology" to relativity theory in any way. My curiosity was piqued because an oil lamp would seem to have too wide a spectrum and is incoherent. The experiment repeated nowadays with lasers, so when I heard about whale oil I was suprised.

On some further research while writing this post (http://www.cs.clemson.edu/~steve/Papers/cise-mm.pdf), it looks like the actual numbers reported in the 1887 paper related to the wavelength of sodium light indeed. Also, here is the paper (http://www.phys.cwru.edu/history/book%20pdfs/chap%203%20ni.pdf) which cites a Michelson letter discussing an Argand lamp in the experiment, but also discusses the measurements in terms of sodium. Does he mean he used an Argand lamp in the experiment, or in the enclosed letter to Rayleigh?

At this point I am losing interest. But I am clear about one thing...whale oil was obviously so unimportant to Michelson and Morley that they didn't even mention it in their paper.
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From http://sci.tech-archive.net/Archive/sci.physics.relativity/2006-04/msg00765.html

"Although Michelson and Morley used
sodium light for collimating the apparatus, the actual experiment was performed using white light from an argand burner. The colored fringes were much easier to visually monitor; on the other hand,the limited coherence length of white light meant that the path
lengths needed to match within microns. Note in Fig. 4 the piece of glass "c" used to compensate for the difference in light paths."
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