Einstein 1938: Longitudinal or Transverse Light Waves?

Reference: Evolution of Physics

This paper presents Chapter II, section 9 from the book THE EVOLUTION OF PHYSICS by A. EINSTEIN and L. INFELD. The contents are from the original publication of this book by Simon and Schuster, New York (1942).

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


Longitudinal or Transverse Light Waves?

All the optical phenomena we have considered speak for the wave theory. The bending of light around small obstacles and the explanation of refraction are the strongest arguments in its favour. Guided by the mechanical point of view we realize that there is still one question to be answered: the determination of the mechanical properties of the ether. It is essential for the solution of this problem to know whether light waves in the ether are longitudinal or transverse. In other words: is light propagated like sound? Is the wave due to changes in the density of the medium, so that the oscillations of the particles are in the direction of the propagation? Or does the ether resemble an elastic jelly, a medium in which only transverse waves can be set up and whose particles move in a direction perpendicular to that in which the wave itself travels?

Light seems to exhibit wave-like features at extremely small dimensions. At larger dimensions it has corpuscular features that are more mechanical.

Before solving this problem, let us try to decide which answer should be preferred. Obviously, we should be fortunate if light waves were longitudinal. The difficulties in designing a mechanical ether would be much simpler in this case. Our picture of ether might very probably be something like the mechanical picture of a gas that explains the propagation of sound waves. It would be much more difficult to form a picture of ether carrying transverse waves. To imagine a jelly as a medium made up of particles in such a way that transverse waves are propagated by means of it is no easy task. Huygens believed that the ether would turn out to be “air-like” rather than “jelly-like”. But nature cares very little for our limitations. Was nature, in this case, merciful to the physicists attempting to understand all events from a mechanical point of view? In order to answer this question we must discuss some new experiments.

Longitudinal waves have varying density of medium in the direction of propagation. Transverse waves have no such variation of density; instead they have displacement in a direction perpendicular to the direction of propagation.

We shall consider in detail only one of many experiments which are able to supply us with an answer. Suppose we have a very thin plate of tourmaline crystal, cut in a particular way which we need not describe here. The crystal plate must be thin so that we are able to see a source of light through it. But now let us take two such plates and place both of them between our eyes and the light. What do we expect to see? Again a point of light, if the plates are sufficiently thin. The chances are very good that the experiment will confirm our expectation. Without worrying about the statement that it may be chance, let us assume we do see the light point through the two crystals. Now let us gradually change the position of one of the crystals by rotating it. This statement makes sense only if the position of the axis about which the rotation takes place is fixed. We shall take as an axis the line determined by the incoming ray. This means that we displace all the points of the one crystal except those on the axis. A strange thing happens! The light gets weaker and weaker until it vanishes completely. It reappears as the rotation continues and we regain the initial view when the initial position is reached.

Without going into the details of this and similar experiments we can ask the following question: can these phenomena be explained if the light waves are longitudinal? In the case of longitudinal waves the particles of the ether would move along the axis, as the beam does. If the crystal rotates, nothing along the axis changes. The points on the axis do not move, and only a very small displacement takes place nearby. No such distinct change as the vanishing and appearance of a new picture could possibly occur for a longitudinal wave. This and many other similar phenomena can be explained only by the assumption that light waves are transverse and not longitudinal! Or, in other words, the “jelly-like” character of the ether must be assumed.

This is very sad! We must be prepared to face tremendous difficulties in the attempt to describe the ether mechanically.

Light displaying transverse wave characteristics shall only mean that its density does not vary in the direction of propagation; instead it shifts sideways.



The longitudinal charcateristics involve change in density in the direction of wave motion. If the density cannot change then the wave particle must shift sideways to let the disturbance pass. Light displaying transverse wave characteristics means that its particles do not change in density, instead they shift sideways to let the disturbance pass.


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