Interferometers generally are used to measure very small displacements by using the wave property of light (or other radiation e.g. low energy neutrons). They measure changes of the interference pattern when waves with different phases overlap. While in a spectrometer (see the hydrogen spectrum experiment) the displacements between the sources are known (e.g. in a grating) one can determine wave properties e.g. the wave length. If, on the other hand, the wavelength is known one can use this principle to measure displacements of the order of the wavelength of the light used.
Michelson Interferometer is probably best known in connection with the Michelson-Morley experiment, in which an unsuccessful attempt was made to demonstrate the existence of an “ether”, a hypothetical medium supposed to be necessary for the propagation of electromagnetic waves.
The purpose of this experiment is to give you some practice in assembling, aligning and using a Michelson interferometer to measure the index of refraction of air.
The principle of the Michelson interferometer is shown in Fig. 1. Light from a laser is incident on a beam splitter (BS) which consists of a glass plate with a partially reflective surface. About 50% of the light is reflected from the surface and 50% is transmitted. The reflected light (beam 1) hits mirror M1 and is reflected back towards the beam splitter. The transmitted light (beam 2) as well is reflected back towards the beam splitter by mirror M2. 50% of the intensity of each reflected beam is transmitted/reflected towards the screen for observation. There the two beams overlap and constructive and destructive interference occurs depending on the relative phase shift between the two plane waves.
Each beam experiences a phase shift of when they are reflected at the mirror surfaces M1 and M2 and an additional phase shift due to the propagation through the glass of the beam splitter and the partial reflection at the semi-transparent surface. The total phase shift between the two beams therefore is given by:
Here is the wave number and the wave length of the light. You will observe constructive interference when the with . If e.g. changes continuously and is kept fixed one observes changes of constructive and destructive interference. The number of changes is given by:
Therefore this instruments allows you to observe distance changes of the order of the wavelength of light.
If light travels in a medium its speed is smaller than in vacuum. The ratio between the speed of light in vacuum () and the speed of light in a medium () is give by the index of refraction . As a consequence if light travels a distance in a medium it experiences a phase shift where and , the wavelength of light in a medium is shorter that in vacuum. This property is later used to determine the index of refraction of air.
When you are working with optical equipment NEVER touch the optical surface with your fingers! If you have to tighten set screws use only two fingers and do not apply a lot of force or you might crack a lens or a mirror. The various optical parts are labeled. If you are unsure ask your instructor or learning assistant for help.
From these data you can now determine the index of refraction of air.
The index of refraction of air is very close to one. It is a good approximation to assume that the deviation from one is proportional to the density of air:
Air is treated as an ideal gas with its equation of state:
Inserting into (3) gives
Assuming that the temperature is constant and using and one obtains:
When the air pressure in the air chamber changes the index of refraction changes as given by (6). When beam 2 travels through the air in the chamber which has a length , its phase shift is . The quantity :mathL`n l` is also called the optical path length and gives the effective distance a wave would have to travel in vacuum to experience the same phase shift as in a material of thickness and index of refraction . With the air chamber (2) becomes: