The Optical Trifecta

In Relativity by Brian Koberlein1 Comment

One of the predictions of special relativity is that the speed of light in a vacuum is a universal constant. This prediction has held up so well that we now use the speed of light to define part of the metric system. The first verification of special relativity is typically seen as the Michelson-Morley experiment, which demonstrated there wasn’t a luminiferous aether. But this experiment was actually done before Einstein proposed relativity, and so it wasn’t technically a prediction. It took two other experiments to completely verify Einstein’s model.

The Michelson-Morley experiment focused on determining the speed of the Earth through the aether. It wasn’t designed as a test of special relativity, and so it only tested that the speed of light was the same with different orientations. No matter which way you orient your device, the travel time back and forth along your experiment is the same. That’s certainly a prediction of relativity, but the theory goes further to claim that light speed is the same even if you’re moving at different speeds.

It took two other experiments to fully pin down the veracity of relativity. One, known as the Ives-Stilwell experiment looked at the time dilation effects of the model. In order for the speed of light to be the same in every reference frame, the clock of an experiment moving relative to you must appear to tick more slowly than that of an experiment sitting next to you. This effect is known as time dilation, and is one of the stranger aspects of relativity.

The Ives-Stilwell experiment looks at the light emitted or absorbed by fast moving particles and compares them with the transverse Doppler effect. If an object speeds past you from left to right, when it is directly in front of you would you see any Doppler shift of its light? Since the relative motion along your line of sight at that moment is zero, you might think there would be no shift. But since the object is speeding past you, its time should be dilated. As a result there should be a Doppler shift. The experiment confirmed the Doppler shift just as relativity predicts.

But relativity also predicts that space and time are connected, so a time dilation must also create a change of apparent length (known as length contraction). In other words not only must the clock of a moving experiment appear slower, then length of the experiment must appear shorter. Ives-Stilwell confirmed the first part, but not the second. To do that took a different test known as the Kennedy-Thorndike experiment.

Schematic of the Kennedy-Thorndike experiment.

Schematic of the Kennedy-Thorndike experiment.

The Kennedy-Thorndike experiment is similar to the Michelson-Morley. A beam of light is split to travel along two different paths. The separate beams of light are then recombined to create an interference pattern. The main difference is that the path length of the two beams is radically different. Since (according to Michelson-Morley) the speed of light is independent of orientation, the travel time of each path is different. Since Ives-Stilwell verified time dilation, as the apparatus moves with Earth, the amount of time dilation along one path is different from the other. This would produce a shift in the resulting interference pattern unless the lengths of the two paths also contract as relativity predicts.

The Kennedy-Thorndike experiment found no apparent shift in the interference pattern. Combined with the results of Michelson-Morley and Ives-Stilwell, this confirms that the speed of light is constant, and time dilation and length contraction both occur in agreement with special relativity.

And that’s why relativity is the strangest theory we know is true.


  1. Thanks for the great post; I’d never heard of the Ives-Stilwell and Kennedy-Thorndike experiments.

    But I stumbled over your first sentence: “One of the predictions of special relativity is that the speed of light in a vacuum is a universal constant.”

    I’d always thought that the speed-of-light-is-a-constant was a postulate (along with the laws-are-the-same-in-inertial-frames) .. not a prediction.

    I’ve seen derivations of special relativity where only the relativity principle is assumed. In these alternative derivations, a maximum signal speed pops out as a parameter (which may be infinite, reproducing Galilean relativity). Then you derive that something propagating at the speed hasinteresting properties (like constant speed in all inertial frames). So the experimental test is to see if you can find something with those special properties, and you can .. it’s light.

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