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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/349

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345
THE VALUE OF SCIENCE

in measuring anything, we shall always be free to say that this is not the absolute velocity, and if it is not the velocity in relation to the ether, it might always be the velocity in relation to some new unknown fluid with which we might fill space.

Indeed, experiment has taken upon itself to ruin this interpretation of the principle of relativity; all attempts to measure the velocity of the earth in relation to the ether have led to negative results. This time experimental physics has been more faithful to the principle than mathematical physics; the theorists, to put in accord their other general views, would not have spared it; but experiment has been stubborn in confirming it. The means have been varied; finally Michelson pushed precision to its last limits; nothing came of it. It is precisely to explain this obstinacy that the mathematicians are forced to-day to employ all their ingenuity.

Their task was not easy, and if Lorentz has got through it, it is only by accumulating hypotheses.

The most ingenious idea was that of local time. Imagine two observers who wish to adjust their timepieces by optical signals; they exchange signals, but as they know that the transmission of light is not instantaneous, they are careful to cross them. When station B perceives the signal from station A, its clock should not mark the same hour as that of station A at the moment of sending the signal, but this hour augmented by a constant representing the duration of the transmission. Suppose, for example, that station A sends its signal when its clock marks the hour O, and that station B perceives it when its clock marks the hour t. The clocks are adjusted if the slowness equal to t represents the duration of the transmission, and to verify it, station B sends in its turn a signal when its clock marks O; then station A should perceive it when its clock marks t. The timepieces are then adjusted.

And in fact they mark the same hour at the same physical instant, but on the one condition, that the two stations are fixed. Otherwise the duration of the transmission will not be the same in the two senses, since the station A, for example, moves forward to meet the optical perturbation emanating from B, whereas the station B flees before the perturbation emanating from A. The watches adjusted in that way will not mark, therefore, the true time; they will mark what may be called the local time, so that one of them will gain on the other. It matters little, since we have no means of perceiving it. All the phenomena which happen at A, for example, will be late, but all will be equally so, and the observer will not perceive it, since his watch is slow; so, as the principle of relativity would have it, he will have no means of knowing whether he is at rest or in absolute motion.

Unhappily, that does not suffice, and complementary hypotheses