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Albert A. Michelson

Albert A. MichelsonAKA Albert Abraham Michelson

Born: 19-Dec-1852
Birthplace: Strelno, Prussia
Died: 9-May-1931
Location of death: Pasadena, CA
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Mountain View Cemetery, Altadena, CA

Gender: Male
Religion: Jewish
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Physicist, Inventor

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Measured the speed of light

Military service: US Navy (1869-81); US Naval Reserves (1918-22; to Commander)

American inventor and physicist Albert A. Michelson was born in Strelno, Prussia (now Strzelno, Poland) in 1852, and immigrated to America with his family when he was three years of age. He grew up amidst the wilds of the California Gold Rush, became fascinated with physics at an early age, and studied and then taught at the U.S. Naval Academy. While still at Annapolis he first repeated and improved upon Léon Foucault's measurement of the speed of light, calculating the speed at 300,140 kilometers per second.

In the 1880s he sought to measure the ether drift, the movement of the Earth through the luminiferous ether thought to comprise the universal substratum of space. He designed and built the Michelson interferometer, a mirrored beam-splitter capable of measuring almost unfathomably small distances using the length of light waves. To his own surprise, however, though the machine worked well its finding was null, and Michelson thought he had failed. In 1887 he improved his equipment and calculations in collaboration with noted physical chemist Edward Morley (1838-1923), and they conducted their famous Michelson-Morley ether drift experiment, which again came to a null result. Their finding -- or non-finding -- was widely interpreted as disproving the theory of luminiferous aether and thus challenging the fundamentals of classical Newtonian physics, a challenge that was further clarified with Albert Einstein's 1905 theory of special relativity.

Michelson was the first American scientist to win a Nobel Prize, claiming the Physics honor of 1907 for his invention of the Michelson interferometer. In 1920 he made the first substantially accurate measurement of a star, using a six-meter interferometer attached to telescope to measure the diameter of Betelgeuse. In the 1920s he re-measured the speed of light using a more advanced eight-sided revolving mirror, finding the speed to be 299,774 km/sec, remarkably close to the now-known speed of 299,792 km/sec. He was also among the first scientists to advocate redefining the meter based on wavelengths of light.

Wife: Margaret Heminway (m. 1877, div. 1898, two sons, one daughter)
Son: Albert Heminway Michelson
Son: Truman Michelson
Daughter: Elsa Michelson
Wife: Edna Stanton (m. 1899, three daughters)
Daughter: Beatrice Michelson
Daughter: Dorothy Michelson
Daughter: Madeleine Michelson

    High School: Lowell High School, San Francisco (1869)
    University: BS Chemistry & Physics, US Naval Academy, Annapolis (1873)
    Teacher: Science, US Naval Academy, Annapolis (1875-79)
    Scholar: University of Berlin (1880-81)
    Scholar: University of Heidelberg (1881-82)
    Lecturer: Physics, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland (1882-83)
    Professor: Physics, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland (1883-89)
    Professor: Clark University, Worcester (1889-92)
    Professor: Physics, University of Chicago (1892-1929)
    Scholar: Mt Wilson Observatory, Pasadena (1929-31)

    Rumford Prize 1888
    Matteucci Medal 1903
    Nobel Prize for Physics 1907
    Copley Medal 1907
    Elliot Cresson Medal 1912
    Henry Draper Medal 1916
    Benjamin Franklin Medal 1923 (by the Franklin Institute)
    Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal 1923
    IOP Duddell Medal 1929
    American Association for the Advancement of Science Vice President (1887-88)
    American Association for the Advancement of Science President (1910-11)
    American Philosophical Society 1902
    American Physical Society President (1900-01)
    French Academy of Sciences Foreign Member
    Physical Society of London Foreign Member
    Nautical Almanac Office, Washington, DC (1879-80)
    National Academy of Sciences 1900
    National Academy of Sciences President (1923-27)
    Optical Society of America
    Royal Astronomical Society Foreign Member
    Royal Society
    Naturalized US Citizen
    Jewish Ancestry Paternal
    Polish Ancestry
    Russian Ancestry

Author of books:
Light Waves and Their Uses (1899-1903, physics)
Velocity of Light: The Man Who Measured the Speed of Light (1902, memoir)
Studies in Optics (1927, physics)


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