7) Pathological Science

Ludwik Kowalski, <kowalskiL@mail.montclair.edu>
Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, N.J.

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". . . On a bus ride from our downtown hotel to the Hahn-Meitner-Institute on the outskirts of Berlin, Wheeler expressed his views to me about cold nuclear fusion by comparing the University of Utah episode with Rene Blondlot's discovery of N rays. As will be described below, the N-ray affair is one of the most remarkable known cases of self-deception in science which affected many French scientists . . . In 1903 Blondlot, a leading French physicist and member of the French Academy of Sciences, announced he had discovered a new kind of rays, which he named N rays, after the University of Nancy, where he did his research. Following the fundamental discovery of x rays by Roentgen in 1895, Blondlot in experimenting with x-ray sources claimed he had found a new kind of emanation. These strange new rays could penetrate inches of aluminum but were stopped by thin foils of iron.

The general properties of N rays were elusive at best. When N rays impinged on an object it was claimed that there was a slight increase in brightness. Blondlot admitted, however, that a great deal of skill was needed to see the effect of these rays. This did not keep a number of other physicists from reporting and extending Blondlot's findings. A large number of papers were published, many arguing that N rays ought to be important because x rays were considered to be one of the most important types of radiation known. N rays do not exist. The many scientists who reported seeing them were the victims of self-deception.

One of the interesting aspects of this episode is the large number of working scientists who were taken in. When the renowned American physicist R.W. Wood heard about these claims, he went to France to visit Blondlot's laboratory and to observe his experiments first hand. Blondlot at that time was using a prism to separate the different components of N rays. In a dark room Blondlot was demonstrating to Wood that he could measure three or four different refractive indices, each to two or three significant figures. The amazing feature of these experiments, as asserted by Blondlot, was that they were accurately repeatable. Wood listened and observed for a period of time, noticing that Blondlot was measuring the position of the beam of N rays to within a tenth of a millimeter. On asking how it was possible to detect the N rays with such great precision, Blondlot replied (as recorded in Physics Today, October, 1989) 'That's one of the fascinating things about N rays. They don't follow the ordinary laws of science that you ordinarily think of. You have to consider these things all by themselves. They are very interesting but you have to discover the laws that govern them.'

By now Wood had correctly surmised that something peculiar was happening. In the darkened room Wood surreptitiously removed the prism and placed it in his pocket. He then politely asked Blondlot to repeat some of the previous measurements, which he was happy to do. With the center piece of the experiment missing, Blondlot obtained exactly the same results. Wood wrote a devastating account of his observations, which was published in Nature, showing Blondlot's N rays resulted from self-deception Wood's expose finished N rays outside France, but French scientists continued to support Blondlot for some years. "

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