Back in the days before the N Bomb, we had N Rays. Well, actually, no we didn’t. Because they didn’t exist. And that, actually, is the subject of today’s story.
(That’s what we in the business call a “money intro”.)
René Blondlot was a professor of physics at the University of Nancy in France. And yeah, they really do have a University of Nancy in France. Apparently it’s named after the town of Nancy, not that awful comic strip. While working with the recently discovered X Rays in 1903, Blondlot discovered a new form of radiation, which he called N Rays. It turned out that this form of radiation was pretty ubiquitous, as Blondlot claimed to be able to detect it being emitted by almost everything, with the odd exceptions of green wood and certain metals.
Blondlot’s discovery was replicated at labs all across France. Unfortunately, it seemed like this mysterious radiation was somehow confined to France, as very few scientists in England, Germany, or the United States could replicate the N Ray experiments.
Finally, the prestigious journal Nature asked American physicist Robert Wood to visit Blondlot and find out what was up. While viewing a demonstration of the N Ray experiment in a darkened room, Wood removed a critical piece of Blondlot’s apparatus. Oddly, Blondlot’s team still reported seeing the N Rays. While trying to surreptitiously replace the piece he had removed, Wood was observed by one of Blondlot’s assistants. However, he misread the situation and assumed Wood was in fact in the act of removing the piece he had already removed and replaced. In further trials, with what should have been a fully functional apparatus, Blondlot’s team insisted they could no longer detect the N Rays!
Wood reported to Nature that the N Ray phenomenon was pure delusion. Blondlot had been tricked by purely subjective phenomenon (a subjective “brightening” of photographs taken in the supposed presence of N Rays) and the other French scientists who had confirmed his results had seen the same thing because they were subconsciously biased in favor of a fellow Frenchman. The non-French scientists hadn’t seen the effect because it wasn’t goddamn there. And also, screw the French anyhow.
The story is told today as a cautionary tale about the dangers of experimenter bias in science. But I tell it here because it’s funny. And also, screw the French anyhow.