In the winter of 1903, just eight years after the monumental discovery of X-rays, a French scientist by the name of René Blondlot stumbled upon a brand new form of radiation. He called them N-rays, after his town of Nancy, perhaps because naming them R-rays after himself would have been both unwieldy and self-absorbed.
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Blondlot had been experimenting with X-rays to see if they were in fact waves or a stream of particles, Paul Collins writes in Banvard’s Folly: 13 Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World. Firing X-rays through a charged electric field, Blondlot expected that if they were waves, the field would shift their path into a detector off to the side and brighten an electric spark within. “And that’s just what they did,” Collins writes. “Blondlot proved, quite correctly, that X-rays are actually waves.”
Next he fired X-rays through a quartz prism, which already had been shown to not reflect such radiation. Problem is, out of the corner of his eye, Blondlot noticed that the electric spark in the detector got brighter like X-rays actually had been deflected into it. Except they couldn’t possibly have been. So Blondlot leapt to a bit of a conclusion that he had discovered something entirely different: N-rays. It was a leap that would prove to be the end of his reputation.
At first, though, his discovery caused a sensation. It didn’t hurt that the scientific community was at the time a bit gaga over radiation, according to Collins. We’d known about X-rays for less than a decade, and the discovery of radio waves and gamma rays soon followed. Huzzah, then, for Blondlot’s discovery of N-rays!
And all the better for the buzz that this form of radiation was curious indeed. “They’d pass straight through materials that would block visible light—wood, aluminum, black paper,” notes Collins. “On the other hand, some materials that visible light could pass through, like water and rock salt, proved impenetrable to N-rays.” The scientific community had a mystery on its hands.
The sun seemed to emit the rays, but only until clouds passed over, Blondlot claimed. And anything that basked in the sun’s light, including you and me, would absorb N-rays like we would UV radiation. “Sea water and the stones exposed to solar radiation store up N-rays which they afterwards restore,” he wrote. “Possibly these phenomena play some hitherto unperceived part in certain terrestrial phenomena. Perhaps, also, N-rays are not without influence on certain phenomena of animal and vegetable life.” What phenomena these may be, Blondlot was mum.
Since his initial discovery, Blondlot had graduated from observing the spark of a detector to using phosphorescent screens that lit up, however faintly, when bombarded with N-rays. And he insisted that those scientists interested in replicating his experiment follow his procedures exactly, shutting themselves in a darkened room and allowing their eyes to acclimate for a half hour.
And don’t even dare think about watching the screens head-on. No, you must see them out of the corner of your eye. Some observers will pick it up just fine, but “for others,” Blondlot warned, “these phenomena lie almost at the limit of what they are able to discern, and it is only after a certain amount of practice that they succeed in catching them easily, and in observing them with complete certainty.”
To make things easier for those struggling to replicate Blondlot’s tests (and there were many such scientists), he claimed that when N-rays bombard phosphorescent screens that had previously been exposed to light, “the phosphorescent glow is observed to increase in a very marked fashion…. Of all the actions producing N-rays, this is the one which is most easily observed. The experiment is an easy one to set up and to repeat.”
But if this experiment is sounding rather subjective to you, you would have been right in league with any number of scientists trying to replicate Blondlot’s results. They couldn’t do it. Well, except the French, it seemed, including a scientist named Augustin Charpentier, who made a rather startling discovery: Our bodies, like the sun, emit N-rays, especially when we’re getting our pump on. “Stand behind a big enough phosphorescent screen in a dark room and flex your arms,” Collins recaps, “and a faint outline of your body would appear, with slightly brighter spots around your biceps and the Broca’s Area of the brain.”
But wait, there’s more. Not only were N-rays a pretty sweet party trick, they were also really good for you. Charpentier started firing the rays at human test subjects, not to mention dogs and frogs. N-rays beamed at the tongue and ears and nose or even frontal lobe would supercharge your senses, he claimed. Whether any of the subjects turned into superheroes, though, is lost to history.
A whole lot of scientists that didn’t happen to be blessed with a lovely French accent hadn’t the slightest clue what Blondlot was seeing, and were more than slightly skeptical of the supposed health benefits of N-rays. One Canadian physicist wondered how Blondlot could take such precise measurements “with a radiation so feeble that no one outside of France has been able to detect at all.” Adds Collins: “Others wondered aloud whether France was in the grip of a spell of self-hypnosis.”
So the skeptics sent in the cavalry. Well, they sent a guy named Robert W. Wood, “a mischievous fellow,” according to Collins, who’d once taken a joyride on the as-yet-unfinished Trans-Siberian Railway. When he arrived in Blondlot’s lab, he was treated to a demonstration of N-rays illuminating the luminescent paint on a card, which he of course could not perceive.
Then Wood devised a test of his own: “I asked [Blondlot] if I could move an opaque lead screen in and out of the path of the rays while he called out the fluctuations of the screen,” according to a 1941 biography of the scientist. “He was almost 100 percent wrong and called out fluctuations when I had made no movement at all, and that proved a lot, but I held my tongue.”
Next Blondlot demonstrated an N-ray spectroscope, which used an aluminum prism to split the rays into distinct and measurable wavelengths. In a dark room, Blondlot read off the spectroscope’s measurements of N-rays. Then Wood asked him to repeat his numbers a second time before reaching into the spectroscope and removing the prism. Yet Blondlot read the exact same numbers as before. That, of course, was problematic both for the experiment and for Blondlot’s career. Wood wrote to the journal Nature of his coup, and with that, the theory of N-rays came tumbling down.
Let this serve as a lesson: Be wary of men who forbid you from looking at something straight-on. Not that he was intentionally trying to pull the wool over our eyes, as it were, but Blondlot’s insistence that the observer only view the luminous effects of N-rays with their peripheral vision guaranteed all kinds of error. It already was known in Blondlot’s time that this perspective produces strange effects on our vision, according to Collins, who cites the experiences of one astronomer: “It is a curious circumstance, that when we wish to obtain a sight of a very faint star, such as one of the satellites of Saturn, we can see it most distinctly by looking away from it, and when the eye is turned full upon it, it immediately disappears.” N-rays were Blondlot’s Saturnian moons.
And they ruined him. His friends say the shock even drove him mad. He retired three years after Wood’s disclosure and all but disappeared from the scientific community, which had been left understandably stunned. It was an embarrassment, sure, but also one of history’s more conspicuous triumphs of the scientific method: Experiments demand replication. Pick a good fight, and history may remember you for the right reasons instead of the wrong ones.
Blondlot, R. (1905) N Rays: A Collection of Papers Communicated to the Academy of Sciences. Longmans, Green, and Co., London.
Collins, P. (2001) Banvard’s Folly: 13 Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World. Picador, New York, NY.