Monday, January 24, 2011

The Original Millikan Apparatus

I think CalTech still has Millikan's original apparatus, and they still use it for demonstrations. It would be fantastic if there were some way I could get my hands on it for this project. The idea isn't incredibly far-fetched. I know that one researcher who was working on Goethe's optics got permission to redo Goethe's experiments using his original instruments, which were being held by a museum. The fact that they still use the apparatus for demonstrations shows that they aren't protecting it like a holy relic, and it's evidently a very sturdy piece of equipment. I could probably get at least partial funding for travel and living expenses from the Salmon fund. Being able to work with the original apparatus would elevate my history comp from potentially marginally interesting to very, very cool.

But, ok, it is a little far-fetched to think that all of the relevant factors would have to come together. First, I need to confirm that CalTech actually has the apparatus and that it is in working order with all of the necessary auxiliary parts available. Then I would have to get permission to work with it, which is not impossible but somewhat unlikely. After that, I would have to get sufficient funding to fly out to California and live there for, I would think, about a month. Finally, I would have to weigh the costs and benefits of either being away from or uprooting my family for a good chunk of the summer.

Still, it's worth looking into. I emailed Paolo about my suspicion that CalTech has the apparatus, and he seemed intrigued. My evidence that they have it comes from two videos online. The first is a brief demonstration using an apparatus that looks just like Millikan's:

The second is an old educational video that was filmed in the same lecture hall, in which the lecturer points to an identical-looking apparatus in roughly the same spot on the same table and says explicitly that it is Millikan's own apparatus (about 21:40 in):

Come to think of it, it might actually be better for me if they have a replica of Millikan's apparatus, rather than the original one. The original would have a nice "gee-whiz" factor, but they might be more willing to let a grad student tinker with a replica.

I suggested that Paolo contact Jeff Cady, the demonstrator in the first video, because he is more likely to be taken seriously than I am. We'll see what happens!


  1. You might be surprised, but in my experience people take graduate student researchers very seriously. If you develop a well-planned experiment and get some Salmon funding to go to Pasadena, they might just give you access to the device...

  2. That seems plausible--we'll see. Working with the original would be huge. At the moment the project is arguably somewhat interesting. If were able to work with the original, it would be clearly and obviously exciting.

    Any tips on applying for the Salmon fund? There should be an application deadline coming up around the beginning of March, right?