N-Rays: A Scientific Delusion

With the discoveries of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen and Max Planck, Germany was the envy of the all scientists of Europe. But few were as envious as France. France longed for it's glory days a decade before, and feared that it would forever be in the shadow of it's neighbor. That is, until one fateful evening René Blondlot, a professor at the University of Nancy, demoted France from the shadows to the laughing stock.

Blondlot had been experimenting with X-Ray magnetic polarization, attempting to create an X-Ray emission with a linear magnetic field. He was heating up a platinum filament contained in an iron tube with a small aluminum window, a slit 2 millimeters wide. Maybe it was a late night, or maybe Blondlot just had a stroke of madness, but he noticed his "emitter" made a candle a little brighter as well as some calcium sulfide paint. He decided that he had discovered a new radiation, which he dubbed N-Rays, after the University of Nancy.

Blondlot discovered various properties of N-Rays. He noticed that the rays can endow enhanced vision, particularly when it came to the rays themselves. He also noted that iron naturally emits N-Rays, but wood does not. One time he left a brick, wrapped a brick in black paper, left it out in the sun, and noted that it became an intense emitter and even a battery for the radiation. His research culminated in the invention of his N-Ray spectrograph, which used an emitter and an aluminum prism aimed at a screen of moving phosphorescent threads (which are supposed to light up and fade as they pass between N-Ray and maxima, like the spectra of hydrogen).

Blondlot released 10 scientific papers on the rays, and the greatest scientists in France jumped to get onto the N-Ray band wagon. Charpentier discovered that humans apparently emit N-Rays. Henri Becquerel, Zimmern and Broca published papers as well. It seemed that this discovery would dwarf X-Rays, or at least the French made it seem so.

The German Kaiser heard word of these N-Rays, and resolved that he must see them for himself. Heinrich Rubens, a professor of the nearby University of Berlin came before the Kaiser to produce the rays. Strangely enough, he failed to manage so, angering the poor Kaiser. History would indicates that his experiment's failure stemmed from the fact that rays weren't real.

Rubens took his frustration and his new found criticism to the British Association For the Advancement of Science summit in 1904 at Cambridge University. The meeting resolved that someone had to go to Nancy. It couldn't be a European, for there was too much political friction. Robert W. Wood, an American physicist, was chosen to go. His observations can be found in his entry into the scientific journal Nature.

Not one of the experiments Wood observed had any credibility what so ever. The first experiment Blondlot showed him consisted of a emitter, a spark, and ground glass (to spread the light from the spark). Blondlot pointed the n-ray source at the spark, and asked if wood saw any difference in the brightness of the spark. Wood did not notice. Then Blondlot put his hand in front of the emitter and asked if Wood saw a decrease in the intensity. Wood replied no again. Blondlot then complained that Wood's eyes weren't sensitive enough, and so Wood offered to test perform the experiment while Blondlot stated the results. The following was taken from Wood's report: "In no case was a correct answer given, the screen being announced as bright and dark in alternation when my hand was held motionless in the path of the rays." Blondlot then took out some pictures showing the different illuminations of the spark under N-Rays and not. Wood argued that the two photographs could have been taken with different exposure times, which only served to anger Blondlot.

The next experiment was an example of the sight enhancing capabilities of the rays. Blondlot dimmed the light, and put up a iron file (which is a natural source of N-Ray's) to his eyes. He reported the positions of the hands of a dimly illuminated clock from across the lab. Wood, noticing a wooden ruler on a nearby desk, requested if he could view the clock with the aid of the file. He looked, and saw nothing, and asked Blondlot to give the experiment a second try. Wood switched the ruler with the file, and Blondlot still reported seeing the hands of the clock. This only served to be further proof against Blondlot's discovery.

By this time, an assistant was giving Wood the evil eye. Blondlot suggested that the three of them go to see his spectrograph. Wood agreed, and sat in the dark skeptically as Blondlot read off the maxima. Wood noticed that one set of the maxima were only a tenth of a millimeter apart. Wood pointed out that this shouldn't have been possible, as the aperture through which the N-rays passed was 2 millimeters wide, so such degree of accuracy of the device was not possible. The pin hole camera follows the same laws of light scattering, where one can't get better definition then the size of the pin hole. Blondlot credited this to the strange nature of the rays. Wood asked for Blondlot to make another reading, and quietly removed the aluminum prism from the device. Blondlot continued to make the readings, just the same, despite the lack of the prism mechanism. But upon returning to put the prism back into the device, Blondlot's assistant noticed him. He decided to pull a fast one on the American, and requested that he make a reading. He then proceeded to report no readings, but that's where the assistant made his mistake. Wood hadn't removed the prism at all the second time.

Throughout the following years N-Rays pretty much left the physics scene. Despite the questionable credibility of his discovery, Blondlot received an award "For his work as a whole" from L'Académie de Sciences. He wouldn't make any more discoveries for the rest of his life, and eventually went mad, and died because of the entire debacle. He, like his N-Rays, was all but forgotten by history.

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