Michelson and Margarite

Apr 02 2010 Published by under History of science, Women in science

My recent posts on Ada Lovelace Day (here and here) not only drove home the point that there were even more historically important women scientists and mathematicians than I had optimistically imagined, but that the smartest male scientists of their eras appreciated their contributions and actively encouraged them.

I don't want to obsess over the approbation of the male scientists -- undeniably, the women's contributions stand out on their own.  Now that I've noticed it, though, I'm spotting other remarkable and little-remembered instances, and can't resist sharing.  These stories give me a little more faith in humanity, or at least the scientific community.

The story I want to tell in this post I came across in a biography of Albert A. Michelson (1852-1931) written by his daughter Dorothy Michelson Livingston: The Master of Light (Charles Scribner's Sons, NY, 1973).

The appellation "Master of Light" is quite appropriate for Michelson, who made fundamental, paradigm-shifting discoveries in physics and developed important optical instruments that are still in use today.  His most famous result is the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887, which failed to detect the motion of the earth with respect to the aether and was essentially the first convincing experimental proof of Einstein's relativity theory (I discuss the experiment at the end of this post).  He introduced several advanced interferometric devices, including the Michelson interferometer (discussed in this post) used in the M-M experiment, which can also be used for coherence measurements.  He won the 1907 Nobel Prize in Physics for "for his optical precision instruments and the spectroscopic and metrological investigations carried out with their aid".

Michelson is also known as having been an extraordinarily harsh and difficult person.  A particularly amusing example of this is Michelson's trouble with graduate students; in a discussion with colleague Robert Millikan at the University of Chicago, he said,

If you can find some other way to handle it I don't want to bother any more with this thesis business.  What these graduate students always do with my problems, if I turn them over to them, is either to spoil the problem for me because they haven't the capacity to handle it as I want it handled... or... they get good results and at once begin to think the problem is theirs instead of mine, when in fact knowing what kind of a problem it is worthwhile to attack is in general more important than the mere carrying out of the necessary steps. So I prefer not to bother with graduate students' theses any longer.  I will hire my own assistant by the month, a man who will not think I owe him anything further than to see that he gets his monthly check.  You take care of the graduate students in any way you see fit and I'll be your debtor forever.

My former thesis advisor loves to share this little snippet with all his graduate students!  (And, come to think of it, I do too now.)  There are lots of stories of Michelson's arrogance, and it was apparently rumored that he was also against the education of women.

With that in mind, this anecdote from Dorothy Livingston's biography is quite surprising and charming:

Upon resuming his classes after his return from Sweden, Michelson became aware of a girl in one of them.  As a rule his students were male.  As Edna [his second wife] had implied in their first conversation, he had never been much impressed with female students.  They tended to radiate an earnest air which his generation did not associate with feminine charm, or they became hysterical during the Friday recitation and burst into tears.  But Margarite O'Laughlin Crowe was an exception.  Their friendship began when he caught her toasting marshmallows over her Bunsen burner in the laboratory.  In his most severe tone he told her that the penalty was a fine of two golden-brown marshmallows which she must bring to his office at teatime.  After the ice was broken she grew bolder.  On St. Valentine's Day, Michelson walked into Ryerson to find his name plaque decorated with hearts and cupids.  Margarite Crowe had arranged a party.  Fred and Julius Pearson had helped her trim the somber hall with red and white twisted streamers.  Michelson relaxed his usual severity and joined in, even managing to drink with apparent relish the sweet punch she had concocted.

Not long after the party he heard that Margarite's mother, with whom she had been living, had died rather suddenly, and that Margarite was thinking of giving up her career in physics.  Sending for her immediately, he counseled her against such action.  He suggested a change in her studies, advising her to go to Yerkes Observatory to work under the supervision of his friend Edwin Frost.  He showed her a stellar map and suggested a part of the sky that might interest her.  This was a turning point for Margarite, who later made some original scholarly contributions.  In the spring after her graduation, she came to Michelson's office to say good-by.  As a keepsake he gave her the broken fragment of the grating that he had used at his Nobel lecture.

I was intrigued by Dorothy's statement that Margarite "made some original scholarly contributions."  Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any information about her online, as of yet.  Anyone else out there know anything?  I'm going to keep looking, and hopefully will post an update later.

I'll also have lots more to say about Michelson in future posts; Dorothy's biography is a wealth of fascinating information about the almost mythical man.

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