While Calaveras County isn’t often singled out for its contributions to the sciences, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in physics, Albert A. Michelson, spent several of his formative years in the town of Murphys.
Michelson was born in 1852 in Strelno, Prussia (now Strzelno, Poland), to Samuel Michelson, a Jewish merchant, and Rosalie Przylubska Michelson.
In late 1855, the family immigrated to the United States, likely spurred by the unsettled conditions in Europe following the abortive revolutions of 1848 and a rise in anti-Semitism.
Upon arriving in New York, the Michelsons heard the news that Samuel’s sister Belle and her husband were making a fortune mining gold in Murphy’s Camp.
The Michelsons arrived in the booming town of Murphys in 1856. Samuel quickly set up a store on the north side of Main Street, selling supplies to miners. The rented building also served as the family home.
Rosalie began to educate Albert at an early age, enlisting him in violin lessons as soon as he could hold the instrument, and sending him to attend Murphys Grammar School.
In 1859, the first great fire roared through town, taking almost the entire business district with it. Having lost their home, the Michelsons relocated across the street, where they bought a building just west of the Sperry and Perry Hotel.
After exhausting the limited educational opportunities available in Murphys, Albert was sent to the San Francisco Boys’ High School, now Lowell High School, in 1866.
Following his first year in San Francisco, Albert returned to Murphys to spend the summer with his family. By then, the town’s population had declined dramatically. Many miners had headed over the Sierra to Virginia City, Nev., and the Comstock Lode.
After Albert returned to San Francisco, the family headed to Virginia City, where Samuel established another successful store. When Albert graduated from high school, he joined the family in Nevada.
In 1869, Albert was granted an appointment to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., after placing first in a rigorous examination.
While Michelson was only an average sailor, he excelled in his science classes, showing a natural talent for optics.
Following graduation and two years of service in the Navy, Michelson worked as a science instructor at the academy from 1875 to 1879. During those years, he began the experiments that would consume his life, measuring the speed of light with a homemade apparatus.
Michelson was granted leave from the Navy in 1880 to study optics in Europe. He spent the next two years between Berlin, Heidelberg and Paris. The success of his work led him to resign from the Navy in 1881.
While in Europe, Michelson developed his interferometer, a device intended to detect differences in the velocity of light as the Earth moved against the ether. Although the scientific community had long held that a mysterious substance called ether was responsible for the propagation of light waves, no one had yet been able to prove its physical existence.
Because of Michelson’s unprecedentedly accurate measurements of the velocity of light, the detection of the ether was now thought feasible.
Upon his return to America, Michelson measured the speed of light to be 299,853 kilometers per second. This value held up in the scientific community until Michelson made an even more accurate measurement in the last years of his life.
In 1883, Michelson became a professor of physics at the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland. While there, he worked with chemist Edward Williams Morley to conduct the Michelson-Morley experiment.
In the experiment, the two scientists used Michelson’s interferometer to attempt to measure differences in the speed of light relative to the Earth’s motion against the ether. To their surprise and disappointment, no such differences were found.
The experiment has been called the most significant negative experiment in the history of science, and helped lay the basis for Einstein’s formulation of the special theory of relativity in 1905, in which he posited that the speed of light in a vacuum stayed the same regardless of the motion of all observers.
In 1907, Michelson became the first American scientist to win the Nobel Prize for his spectroscopic and metrological investigations.
During his career, Michelson taught at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and became the first head of physics at the newly established University of Chicago. From 1923 to 1927, he served as president of the National Academy of Sciences, and received honorary degrees and awards from institutions around the world.
Among his accomplishments were measuring the standard meter against the red light from heated cadmium to create a universal standard of distance; making the first accurate measurement of the size of a star using a telescope and his interferometer; and developing a range-finder that was adopted for use by the Navy.
Toward the end of his life, Michelson focused his energies on making increasingly accurate measurements of the velocity of light.
In California, Michelson measured the speed of light as it traveled 35 kilometers between two mountain peaks, obtaining a value of 299,798 kilometers per second. In a final experiment, he measured the velocity of light as it reflected back and forth in a vacuum through a long, elevated tube.
Michelson passed away in May of 1931, before the results of his final experiment could be evaluated. In 1933, the results for the test were calculated as 299,774 kilometers per second, remarkably close to the value eventually adopted in the 1980s.
“There are only a handful of experiments in physics that completely transformed physics, and many peoples’ top of the list would have to be the Michelson-Morley experiment,” Neil deGrasse Tyson said in the documentary “Undaunted: The Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory.” “The Michelson-Morley experiment was an experimental advance in technology that transformed science – not only physics, but science.”