This Day in Jewish History / A Nobel-winning Physicist Is Born

Albert Abraham Michelson, the first American and the first Jew to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, is best remembered for his precise measurements of the speed of light.

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December 19, 1852, was the birthdate of Albert Abraham Michelson, the first American and the first Jew to win the Nobel Prize for Physics. Michelson, who is best remembered for his precise measurements of the speed of light, won the prize in 1907 for the “optical precision instruments” he developed for that and other purposes.

Michelson was born in Strelno, Prussia (today Strzelno, Poland) to Rosalie Przlubska and Samuel Michelson. In 1855, the family emigrated to the United States, where Samuel, a merchant, had a sister already living in California. They resided in a mining town called Murphy’s Camp, in Calaveras County, until Samuel moved his dry-goods business and the family to Virginia City, Nevada, the site of the Comstock silver ore lode. All biographical notes about the emotionally remote Michelson stress that, despite his Jewish parentage, he remained an agnostic throughout his life. As Miriam Michelson, Albert’s sister (there were eight siblings in total) and a popular novelist in the first half of the 20th century, explained to colleague Robert A. Millikan (himself 1923 recipient of the Physics Nobel) in a letter, “I should not say ours was a religious family. Nor can I recall a religious discussion among us, nor a religious inhibition or compulsion.”

After attending high school in San Francisco, Michelson, at the urging of his father, applied to the U.S. Naval Academy, and following a lengthy candidacy process was finally accepted, but only with the intervention of Pres. Ulysses S. Grant. After graduating from Annapolis, in 1873, as an ensign, he spent two years on assignment at sea, taught for several years at the academy, and then had several years of additional study in Germany and France. On his return from Europe, Michelson landed appointments as a physics professor at Case School of Applied Science and at Clark University before being named head of the physics department at the newly founded University of Chicago, in 1892.  

Michelson began investigating light's velocity while he was teaching at the Naval Academy: In 1879, he calculated the speed of light in a vacuum at 186,380 miles per second (299,940 kms/ second; today, the figure has been refined to 299,792.458 kms/ second). In a sense, however, his greater contribution to science was probably in the field of optics, with the interferometer, a precise and flexible measuring device that he devised for gauging such things as the speed of light, but also for calculating the exact length of a standard meter, based on the wavelength of red cadmium. The interferometer also enabled Michelson, in 1920, to make the first accurate calculation of the diameter of a star other than the sun – in this case, of Betelgeuse.  His work with the physicist Edward Morley, which was intended to study the movement of the earth relative to the stationary "aether," the medium through which light, up through the early decades of the 20th century, was believed to move was instrumental in proving that there was no aether. It is also said to have been key to Einstein's development of his theory of special relativity.     

Michelson continued to return to the speed of light: At the end of his life, in 1931, he was in the middle of a series of measurements of the same with two colleagues, Francis Pease and Fred Pease, in Pasadena, California. The experiment was finished only after his death – on May 9, 1931 –  and its results published posthumously.

Thirty-one years later, in an episode of the popular Western TV show "Bonanza," which was set in Virginia City, Nevada, his character made an appearance. In the episode, called "Look to the Stars," Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) helps a 16-year-old Michelson in his efforts to be accepted to the Naval Academy.

Three Nobel Laureates in Physics, 1931. Front row from left: Albert A. Michelson, Albert Einstein and Robert A. Millikan.Credit: Smithsonian Institution Libraries

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