The short, ignominious life of n-rays

Illustration for article titled The short, ignominious life of n-rays

You've heard of x-rays and gamma rays, but you've probably never heard of n-rays. It's not surprising. N-rays don't exist. And yet there are multiple independently published papers claiming that they do. Learn how one scientist's vision infected nearly everyone around him.


Rene Blondlot was not stupid. He'd made an early measurement of the speed of radio waves, worked on a Kerr cell, and generally dominated the study of electromagnetism. And so, when he announced in 1903 that he'd discovered something called n-rays, the world took notice. He played by the rules, too, giving others all the details on how to make n-rays appear. Take an energy source and shine it onto a thread treated with calcium sulfide. Let the light coming from that thread shine through a prism, and the n-rays should be visible as faint lines on a spectroscope.


Blondlot's openness payed off. Over the next three years, papers poured in detailing the strange properties of the n-rays. Some people count the number of reputable papers as thirty, but some say there were as many as three hundred, from scientific institutions around the world. Many were published in journals. N-rays emanated from all kinds of sources, but, for some reason, not green wood or metal covered in chloroform. They didn't seem to increase with the amount of the material used. They did, however, seem to increase with the 'sentience' of the material. In other words, people created more of them than animals and animals more than inanimate objects.

These last claims provoked some skepticism, as did the fact that many institutions couldn't find them, no matter how carefully they followed Blondlot's instructions. Johns Hopkins sent another well-known physicist, Robert Wood, up to Blondlot to see what the discrepancy was. Blondlot was happy to show Wood the n-rays in his spectroscope. Wood still couldn't see them. Eventually, it was decided that Wood might see them if the lights were off in the lab. When Blondlot turned the lights off, Wood removed the prism from Blondlot's apparatus. Blondlot could still see the n-rays. The rest of the world, obviously, hasn't seen them since.

And yet many people saw them, once upon a time. Scores of papers were published, with entire teams seeing the strange phenomenon, for years. Up to several hundred people confirmed Blondlot's findings in a field supposedly devoted to skeptical inquiry - or at least at least bloodthirsty competition. Why did so many people see Blondlot's results, when they would have gained more by debunking them? There's no telling what, exactly, caused people to react the way they did.

If you see any n-rays now, do let us know, though.

Via JStor, eSkeptic.

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In 1877 Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli described the surface of Mars as covered with lines he called canali, translated into English as canals. American astronomer Percival Lowell (of Lowell Observatory fame) confirmed their presence. Detailed maps of supposed aquaduct canals carrying water from the Martian poles to agricultural fields were drawn, and confirmed by many reputable observers. Some spun elaborate theories of how a Martian civilization could function, speculated on what Martians might look like, and proposed elaborate projects to communicate with them (some of which were carried out, most notably by Tesla). Sadly, as telescopes got better the "canals" disappeared; like N-rays, they were simply the product of fuzzy images, the human tendency to see order in chaos, and wishful thinking.