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A Forerunner of Einstein

December 19, 2017

Albert Abraham Michelson, the first American to be awarded a Nobel Prize in any of the categories of science (1907, in Physics), was born in Strelno in Prussia (now Strzelno, a part of Poland) on this date in 1852. Using an apparatus he had designed, now known as the “Michelson interferometer,” Michelson successfully computed the speed of light and was also the first to measure the diameter of a star, Betelgeuse (300 times the diameter of the sun). Michelson’s family emigrated to the U.S. when he was two years-old, moving to San Francisco, California and to Virginia City, Nevada, during that period’s mining craze. In the 1870s, Michelson served as an ensign in the U.S. Navy, and would return to the Navy as a reserve officer during World War I at age 65. (In 1962, an episode of the TV series Bonanza, set in Virginia City, told the story of a semi-fictionalized Michelson seeking admission to the U.S. Naval Academy and needing to overcome the opposition of his antisemitic and racist schoolteacher. To watch the episode, scroll down.) A crater on the far side of the Moon is named after him. Michelson died in 1931.

“My honored Dr. Michelson, it was you who led the physicists into new paths, and through your marvelous experimental work paved the way for the development of the theory of relativity.” —Albert Einstein