Classical physics owes its definitive formulation to the British scientist Sir Isaac Newton. According to Newton, when one physical body influences another body, this influence results in a change of that body's state of motion, its velocity; that is to say, the force exerted by one particle on another results in the latter's changing the direction of its motion, the magnitude of its speed, or both. Conversely, in the absence of such external influences, a particle will continue to move in one unchanging direction and at a constant rate of speed. This statement, Newton's first law of motion, is known as the law of inertia.
As motion of a particle can be described only in relation to some agreed frame of reference, Newton's law of inertia may also be stated as the assertion that there exist frames of reference (so-called inertial frames of reference) with respect to which particles not subject to external forces move at constant speed in an unvarying direction. Ordinarily, all laws of classical mechanics are understood to hold with respect to such inertial frames of reference. Each frame of reference may be thought of as realized by a grid of surveyor's rods permitting the spatial fixation of any event, along with a clock describing the time of its occurrence.
According to Newton, any two inertial frames of reference are related to each other in that the two respective grids of rods move relative to each other only linearly and uniformly (with constant direction and speed) and without rotation, whereas the respective clocks differ from each other at most by a constant amount (as do the clocks adjusted to two different time zones on Earth) but go at the same rate. Except for the arbitrary choice of such a constant time difference, the time appropriate to various inertial frames of reference then is the same: If a certain physical process takes, say, one hour as determined in one inertial frame of reference, it will take precisely one hour with respect to any other inertial frame; and if two events are observed to take place simultaneously by an observer attached to one inertial frame, they will appear simultaneous to all other inertial observers. This universality of time and time determinations is usually referred to as the absolute character of time. The idea that a universal time can be used indiscriminately by all, irrespective of their varying states of motion--that is, by a person at rest at his home, by the driver of an automobile, and by the passenger aboard an airplane--is so deeply ingrained in most people that they do not even conceive of alternatives. It was only at the turn of the 20th century that the absolute character of time was called into question as the result of a number of ingenious experiments described below.
As long as the building blocks of the physical universe were thought to be particles and systems of particles that interacted with each other across empty space in accordance with the principles enunciated by Newton, there was no reason to doubt the validity of the space-time notions just sketched. This view of nature was first placed in doubt in the 19th century by the discoveries of a Danish physicist, Hans Christian Orsted, the English scientist Michael Faraday, and the theoretical work of the Scottish-born physicist James Clerk Maxwell, all concerned with electric and magnetic phenomena. Electrically charged bodies and magnets do not affect each other directly over large distances, but they do affect one another by way of the so-called electromagnetic field, a state of tension spreading throughout space at a high but finite rate, which amounts to a speed of propagation of approximately 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometres) per second. As this value is the same as the known speed of light in empty space, Maxwell hypothesized that light itself is a species of electromagnetic disturbance; his guess has been confirmed experimentally, first by the production of lightlike waves by entirely electric and magnetic means in the laboratory by a German physicist, Heinrich Hertz, in the late 19th century.
Both Maxwell and Hertz were puzzled and profoundly disturbed by the question of what might be the carrier of the electric and magnetic fields in regions free of any known matter. Up to their time, the only fields and waves known to spread at a finite rate had been elastic waves, which appear to the senses as sound and which occur at low frequencies as the shocks of earthquakes, and surface waves, such as water waves on lakes and seas. Maxwell called the mysterious carrier of electromagnetic waves the aether, thereby reviving notions going back to antiquity. He attempted to endow his aether with properties that would account for the known properties of electromagnetic waves, but he was never entirely successful. The aether hypothesis, however, led two U.S. scientists, Albert Abraham Michelson and Edward Williams Morley, to conceive of an experiment (1887) intended to measure the motion of the aether on the surface of the Earth in their laboratory. On the reasonable hypothesis that the Earth is not the pivot of the whole universe, they argued that the motion of the Earth relative to the aether should result in slight variations in the observed speed of light (relative to the Earth and to the instruments of a laboratory) travelling in different directions. The measurement of the speed of light requires but one clock, if, by use of a mirror, a pencil of light is made to travel back and forth so that its speed is measured by clocking the total time elapsed in a round trip at one site; such an arrangement obviates the need for synchronizing two clocks at the ends of a one-way trip. Finally, if one is concerned with variations in the speed of light, rather than with an absolute determination of that speed itself, then it suffices to compare with each other round-trip-travel times along two tracks at right angles to each other, and that is essentially what Michelson and Morley did. To avoid the use of a clock altogether, they compared travel times in terms of the numbers of wavelengths travelled, by making the beams travelling on the two distinct tracks interfere optically with each other. (If the waves meet at a point when both are in the same phase--e.g., both at their peak--the result is visible as the sum of the two in amplitude; if the peak of one coincides with the trough of the other, they cancel each other and no light is visible. Since the wavelengths are known, the relative positions of the peaks give an exact measure of how far one wave has advanced with respect to the other.) This highly precise experiment, repeated many times with ever-improved instrumental techniques, has consistently led to the result that the speed of light relative to the laboratory is the same in all directions, regardless of the time of the day, the time of the year, and the elevation of the laboratory above sea level.
The special theory of relativity resulted from the acceptance of this experimental finding. If an Earth-bound observer could not detect the motion of the Earth through the aether, then, it was felt, probably any observer, regardless of his state of motion, would find the speed of light the same in all directions.
Excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica without permission.