The experiments of Rayleigh and Brace (1902, 1904) were aimed to show whether length contraction leads to birefringence or not. They were some of the first optical experiments measuring the relative motion of Earth and the luminiferous aether which were sufficiently precise to detect magnitudes of second order to v/c. The results were negative, which was of great importance for the development of the Lorentz transformation and consequently of the theory of relativity. See also Tests of special relativity.

The experiments

To explain the negative outcome of the Michelson–Morley experiment, George FitzGerald (1889) and Hendrik Lorentz (1892) introduced the contraction hypothesis, according to which a body is contracted during its motion through the stationary aether.

Lord Rayleigh (1902) interpreted this contraction as a mechanical compression which should lead to optical anisotropy of materials, so the different refraction indices would cause birefringence. To measure this effect, he installed a tube of 76 cm length upon a rotatable table. The tube was closed by glass at its ends, and was filled with carbon bisulphide or water, and the liquid was between two nicol prisms. Through the liquid, light (produced by an electric lamp and more importantly by limelight) was sent to and fro. The experiment was sufficiently precise to measure retardations of \( {\displaystyle {\tfrac {1}{6000}}} \) of a half wavelength, i.e. of the order 1.2×10−10. Depending on the direction relative to Earth's motion, the expected retardation due to birefringence was of order 10−8, which was well within the accuracy of the experiment. Therefore, it was, besides the Michelson-Morley experiment and the Trouton–Noble experiment, one of the few experiments by which magnitudes of second order in v/c could be detected. However, the result was completely negative. Rayleigh repeated the experiments with layers of glass plates (although with a diminished precision by a factor of 100), and again obtained a negative result.[1]

However, those experiments were criticized by DeWitt Bristol Brace (1904). He argued that Rayleigh hadn't properly considered the consequences of contraction (0.5×10−8 instead of 10−8) as well as of the refraction index, so that the results were in no way conclusive. Therefore, Brace conducted experiments of much higher precision. He employed an apparatus that was 4.13 m long, 15 cm wide, and 27 cm deep, which was filled with water, and which could be rotated (depending on the experiment) about a vertical or a horizontal axis. Sun light was directed into the water through a system of lenses, mirrors and reflexion prisms, and was reflected 7 times so that it traversed 28.5 m. In this way, a retardation of order 7.8×10−13 was observable. However, also Brace obtained a negative result. Another experimental installation with glass instead of water (precision: 4.5×10−11), also yielded no sign of birefringence.[2]

The absence of birefringence was initially interpreted by Brace as a refutation of length contraction. However, it was shown by Lorentz (1904) and Joseph Larmor (1904) that when the contraction hypothesis is maintained and the complete Lorentz transformation is employed (i.e. including the time transformation), then the negative outcome can be explained. Furthermore, if the relativity principle is considered as valid from the outset, as in Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity (1905), then the result is quite clear, since an observer in uniform translational motion can consider himself as at rest, and consequently won't experience any effect of his own motion. Length contraction is thus not measurable by a comoving observer, and has to be supplemented by time dilation for non-comoving observers, which was subsequently also confirmed by the Trouton–Rankine experiment (1908) and the Kennedy–Thorndike experiment (1932).[3][4][A 1][A 2]
See also

History of special relativity

Primary sources

Lord Rayleigh (1902). "Does Motion through the Aether cause Double Refraction?" . Philosophical Magazine. 4: 678–683. doi:10.1080/14786440209462891.
Brace, DeWitt Bristol (1904). "On Double Refraction in Matter moving through the Aether" . Philosophical Magazine. 7 (40): 317–329. doi:10.1080/14786440409463122.
Lorentz, Hendrik Antoon (1904), "Electromagnetic phenomena in a system moving with any velocity smaller than that of light" , Proceedings of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 6: 809–831

Larmor, Joseph (1904). "On the ascertained Absence of Effects of Motion through the Aether, in relation to the Constitution of Matter, and on the FitzGerald-Lorentz Hypothesis" (PDF). Philosophical Magazine. 7 (42): 621–625. doi:10.1080/14786440409463156.

Secondary sources

Laub, Jakob (1910). "Über die experimentellen Grundlagen des Relativitätsprinzips". Jahrbuch der Radioaktivität und Elektronik. 7: 405–463.
Whittaker, Edmund Taylor (1910). A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity (1. Ausgabe ed.). Dublin: Longman, Green and Co.



Tests of special relativity

Michelson–Morley experiment Kennedy–Thorndike experiment Moessbauer rotor experiments Resonator experiments de Sitter double star experiment Hammar experiment Measurements of neutrino speed

Lorentz invariance

Modern searches for Lorentz violation Hughes–Drever experiment Trouton–Noble experiment Experiments of Rayleigh and Brace Trouton–Rankine experiment Antimatter tests of Lorentz violation Lorentz-violating neutrino oscillations Lorentz-violating electrodynamics

Time dilation
Length contraction

Ives–Stilwell experiment Moessbauer rotor experiments Experimental testing of time dilation Hafele–Keating experiment Length contraction confirmations

Relativistic energy

Tests of relativistic energy and momentum Kaufmann–Bucherer–Neumann experiments


Fizeau experiment Sagnac experiment Michelson–Gale–Pearson experiment


Refutations of aether theory Refutations of emission theory


One-way speed of light Test theories of special relativity Standard-Model Extension

Physics Encyclopedia



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