A couple weeks ago I was reminded of how historic people and events are embedded in our popular culture, often turning up in unexpected places. The story involves the popular 1960s-'70s television show "Bonanza" and an astrophysicist who revolutionized our understanding of the behavior of light and laid the groundwork for premier scientific facilities such as Flagstaff’s Navy Precision Optical Interferometer (NPOI).
I was at home on a Saturday, enjoying a rare day with nothing scheduled. I decided to work on some laundry and so turned on the television for background entertainment, happy to find that an episode of "Bonanza" was about to start. The episode began with a teenager viewing through a telescope while standing on the roof of his parents’ store in Virginia City, Nevada. At first the boy is referred to as “Mike,” which we soon find out is his nickname. When he gets in trouble for starting a fire, his father, in typical parental fashion, beckons Mike by his given name: Albert.
Wait! The name of the store was Michelson’s, meaning that the boy’s name was Albert Michelson! That’s the name of the legendary American physicist famous for his studies of the speed of light. As the "Bonanza" story played out, with young Albert performing experiments of the Sun while hoping to garner an appointment to study physics at the United States Naval Academy, I googled Michelson.
It turns out that in real life, Michelson spent much of his youth in Virginia City and he did attend the Naval Academy. Sure enough, the story, albeit highly fictionalized, was about this real-life person. Albert Michelson was born in Prussia (present-day Poland) in 1852. His family moved to the United States in 1855 and lived in California and later, Virginia City. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1873, Michelson embarked on a career highlighted by accurate measurements of the speed of light and the development of a precision optical instrument called an interferometer. In 1905, at the height of his career, Michelson came to Flagstaff and visited with Percival Lowell.
At the end of the "Bonanza" show, a voiceover of lead star Lorne Greene played: “In 1907, Albert Abraham Michelson, proud son of Virginia City, Nevada, was the first American citizen to be awarded the Nobel Prize, for his precise measurement of the speed of light. “
Technically, Michelson was the first American to receive a Nobel Prize in science (President Theodore Roosevelt had been awarded a Nobel Prize for Peace the previous year, for negotiating peace in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905). Be that as it may, Michelson was rightly rewarded with this and a slew of other honors.
The Nobel Prize ceremony honoring Michelson was canceled due to the death of Swedish King Oscar II, but the text of the presentation speech, by K.B. Hasselberg of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, documents Michelson’s contributions. The speech begins by announcing that Michelson received the award for his “optical precision instruments and the research which he has carried out with their help in the fields of precision metrology and spectroscopy.”
After nearly 2,700 words of background information about Michelson and his research, the speech concludes: “The results you have attained are excellent in themselves and are calculated to pave the way for the future advancement of science.” A more accurate statement could not have been made; most modern interferometers, including the NPOI, follow Michelson’s design, allowing for unprecedented measurements of distant celestial objects. If only Michelson could come back to life and visit Flagstaff again, he’d see his legacy in action.