Straight Outta (Arthur) Compton: An Albert A. Michelson Production
As fireworks rained sparks down on the gas station outside my apartment this past Monday, it occurred to me that I ought to take this opportunity to write about something American. With this in mind, who better to write about than the first American to receive a Nobel Prize for Physics, Albert A. Michelson. Michelson’s elegant measurements of the speed of light were the crowning achievement of a century-long program of optical methods first begun by Hippolyte Fizeau (Michelson’s were really, really accurate), and his name is permanently etched into physics history (and perhaps given undue importance in the history of relativity theory) as one half of the Michelson-Morely experiment, a clever way to measure effects resulting from the earth’s relative motion through the ether (spoiler: they didn’t detect anything).
Michelson’s distinction as the first American physicist to receive a Nobel Prize in 1907 not only granted him a certain prestige but also unique experience unavailable to any other physicists in the United States at that time, namely he had intimate knowledge of the Nobel ceremony and its accompanying customs. Thus, twenty years later when Arthur Compton was to become the third American awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics he had only Michelson and the 1923 recipient, Robert Millikan, to turn to for advice on what he might expect at the ceremony in Sweden. Given his close friendship with and proximity to Michelson, Compton made the short walk to Michelson’s office to ask for advice on how to behave in the presence of Swedish royalty. As it turns out Compton was a bit of teetotaler, i.e. he didn’t drink alcohol, and was noticeably uneasy about having to toast to the Swedish king. Like any good friend, Michelson was happy to offer guidance in Compton’s time of need and reassure him that the Swedes were good folk and everything would be just fine. Just kidding, he mercilessly toyed with Compton’s anxiety.
Michelson dryly reported that the Nobel banquet would last into the early morning, and begin with a strong punch. Refusing this punch and indeed any additional drinks would gravely offend the proud Swedes. Of course during the dinner there would be many more drinks, each course was accompanied by a new drink and toasts of congratulations. Michelson insisted that his dinner had included many differently colored wines, one for each color in the spectrum. He finished with a warning:
Now here’s where you must really be careful, Compton. The spectrum, as you know, has many more colors nowadays than it did in 1907. You will be asked for a report on your work shortly after the second round of liqueurs.
Compton wasn’t entirely convinced, but neither could he reassure himself that he could escape intoxication after Michelson’s performance. Supposedly, after finding the banquet to be decidedly less raucous than reported, Compton entertained the Swedes by relaying Michelson’s lies.
The above anecdote paints Michelson as lovably mischievous, which is perhaps a bit generous considering he could be quite difficult and arrogant. Alexander Graham Bell, who seems to have actually liked Michelson, said of him: “…I have a very high respect for his abilities (though I rather suspect from his manner that he has too).”
So what should you do to get a more complete picture of Michelson the man and the physicist? Well, you could read a biography of Michelson, like The Master of Light, written by his daughter and from which this story is borrowed. Or, you could just watch the Michelson-themed episode of Bonanza below (Season 3 Episode 26) and just pretend like you’ve learned something. Why the hell does this exist? Basically because Virginia City, Nevada in the mid-19th century is coincidentally both where Bonanza is set and also where Michelson grew up. There definitely aren’t any better reasons, as you will no doubt realize upon watching the episode.