Edward Morley

1838 - 1923
by David F. Coppedge

This is the Morley of the famous Michelson-Morley Experiment you may have heard about. That experiment failed to find an ether (sometimes spelled aether) that was predicted must exist to serve as a medium for light waves. In 1887, Michelson and Morley found that the speed of light was constant in both directions of the Earth’s path around the sun, when they expected the Earth’s speed should add or subtract from light speed, like other waves do.

The null result was a surprise to everyone in the physics community. It’s been called the “most famous failed experiment in history.” They expected that some sort of stationary, light-bearing (luminiferous) medium, called ether, must permeate space as a medium for light waves, like air for sound waves or water for water waves. In this view, the Earth should travel through an “ether wind” that would slow down the speed of light in the forward direction and speed it up in the backward direction. It did not. Interestingly, neither Michelson nor Morley felt the experiment disproved the existence of the ether.

Taking the result at face value, Einstein treated the constancy of the speed of light as a fundamental principle of the universe in the development of his revolutionary ideas on special relativity and general relativity. It required postulating that time and space can shrink and expand, while light travels at a constant speed in a vacuum, independent of the speed of propagation. So sometimes a “failed experiment” is really a great success, serving as a doorway to fundamentally new ideas. One wonders if today’s physicists and astronomers face a similar situation with their theories of dark matter and dark energy that so far, like the ether, have not materialized.

Edward Morley also spent 11 years refining the atomic weight of oxygen to the highest precision for his day, while teaching chemistry, geology and botany at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio (now Case Western Reserve University). Wikipedia lists the following honors Dr. Morley earned in his scientific career:

Morley was the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1895, and he was the president of the American Chemical Society in 1899. Morley was awarded the Davy Medal, named for the great British chemist Sir Humphry Davy, by the Royal Society of London in 1907, and he also won the Elliott Cresson Medal, awarded by the Franklin Institute of Pennsylvania, in 1912, for important contributions to the science of chemistry. He received the Willard Gibbs Award of the Chicago Section of the American Chemical Society in 1917.

The lunar crater Morley on the near side was named for him. The Morley Elementary School in West Hartford, Connecticut was also named for him, as was the Morley Scientific Laboratory on the Williams College campus. His house in West Hartford was made a National Historic Landmark in 1975.

Morley’s first educational path, though, was theological. Here is what Dr. Don DeYoung wrote about Morley in his new book, Pioneers of Intelligent Design (BMH Books, 2006), p. 68:

His Congregational minister father home schooled Morley. He later received training at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, and pastored a church in Ohio. Morley also had an unusual ability to make precise experimental measurements. He shared this talent with a generation of engineering students at Case Western Reserve Academy in Cleveland, Ohio. Morley’s Christian testimony is shown in the creed that he wrote for his students at Case Western: “I believe Jesus Christ shall come with the clouds of heaven to judge the world in righteousness and that those who have believed in Him shall inherit eternal life through the Grace of God.”

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