Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

The N-Ray Fiasco

Despite its shortcomings, science retains a certain hauteur; and scientists tend to be as defensive of their beliefs as the members of any other evolved system of thought. In this respect one could say that there has long been a sense of a scientific orthodoxy. This sense of propriety can in itself become a serious impediment to genuine progress. In fact the very confidence that scientists tend to place in their own judgement makes them particularly vulnerable to the perils of self-deception and of resistance to new, and possibly controversial, ideas. The history of science shows that neither excessive credulity, nor misplaced scepticism are restricted to the simpleminded. Evidence that contradicts deeply held beliefs is always likely to be denied or played down, and despite their training, scientists are as susceptible to this trait as anybody else. So, individual, and indeed entire teams of scientists, can occasionally go seriously off-beam, as in the following account.

In March 1989 two scientists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, used a press conference at the University of Utah to announce their discovery of a method of achieving cold nuclear fusion. The claim was spectacular to say the least, since it promised a relatively low-tech source of energy that was both cheap and unlimited. By contrast attempts to achieve nuclear fusion through advanced technologies had so far been unsuccessful despite decades of development and vast expenditure. Fleischmann and Pons discovery appeared to offer an inexpensive source of energy in a device that would easily fit into a home or car. It might have been the greatest discovery in the history of technology.

But it proved not to be. The cold-fusion claims galvanised the international scientific community and hundreds of laboratories around the world were soon trying to reproduce the effect. Most were quickly convinced that the claims were illusory, and that they were probably based on flawed procedures. In the end nobody was able to produce a net surplus of power using the Fleischmann-Pons 'cold fusion' system. Within a year of the original announcement the excitement had died down, and was replaced by a mixture of scepticism and disappointment. The two inventors were left with a certain legacy of embarrassment, as was the legislature of the State of Utah who had supported the project with a $5 million grant. Cold Fusion is not now regarded as a respectable line of research, and has been quietly forgotten about (q.f.a.). On the more positive side, the episode provided a harmless flurry of excitement, and the opportunity for physicists to engage in an instructive academic exercise - and may even yet prove to have indicated new areas worthy of scientific investigation. In any event the cold fusion debacle was neither as protracted, nor as embarrassing to such a large group of scientists, as another notorious scientific scandal that occurred in France earlier in the 20th century.

In March 1903 Professor René Blondlot of the University of Nancy published his discovery of a remarkable new form of radiation, which he chose to call N-rays (after Nancy). At the time Blondlot was a well-established scientist with a solid reputation for the quality of his research. Like most physicists of the period he was caught up in the revolutionary discoveries that were flowing out of research institutions from all over Europe. These advances, in the fields of electro-magnetism, thermodynamics and atomic theory were revolutionising physics and, when they became more widely known, were to change everyone’s view of the world.

The detection of N-rays was accidental, or rather serendipitous, arising from Prof. Blondlot's investigation of X-rays, which had themselves only recently been discovered by the German physicist Röntgen. Although originally found to emanate from X-ray sources it was soon realised that these N-rays possessed quite distinct characteristics. Unlike X-rays they could be polarised, and they could penetrate metals and other substances that were quite opaque to Röntgen's rays. Blondlot's assistants repeated his experiments, including the measurement of the N-rays wavelength, and were soon in a position to verify his findings.

Naturally the discovery caused a great deal of excitement both within the research centre at Nancy and among French physicists generally. Blondlot's team were fired with enthusiasm and their investigations fairly bounded along. Pretty soon other distinguished colleagues were bringing expertise from their own fields to bear on this fascinating new phenomenon and many other intriguing properties of N-rays were uncovered in fairly rapid succession. They were found to emanate from gases, from magnetic fields, and from certain chemicals. The Sun was found to be a source of the rays, and they were even detected within organisms, when branches were snapped for instance, and when animal muscles were contracted. They also appeared to radiate from the human nervous system, the emanations being particularly evident from that part of the brain governing speech whilst the subject was engaged in conversation.

In the years between 1903 and 1906 some 300 scientific papers dealing with N-rays were presented, including several from the great names in French science at the time. This all culminated with the French Academy of Sciences honouring Prof. Blondlot with their prestigious Leconte prize. These findings also made an impression on the wider, international stage, however the general response to the N-rays outside France was not as uncritical as within. In fact there were some distinctly sceptical murmurings. Strangely many scientists of other nationalities were unable to duplicate Blondlot's experiments and a rather unseemly divide developed between the French scientists involved with the N-rays and their less enthusiastic colleagues elsewhere. Blondlot and his supporters dismissed this scepticism as mere professional jealousy, and went on to further develop their theories. They found that the N-rays emerged from liquefied gases, from soluble ferments and from ozone; that they could be conducted through copper wires and, strangely, that they were emitted during the contractions of childbirth. But the numbers of those who doubted the Blondlot teams results also grew, and a rather strange state of affairs came into being, with the French scientific establishment endorsing a range of phenomena whose very existence was questioned by the majority of scientists in the rest of the world.

Matters were brought to head as a result of the investigative activities of an American physicist, Robert W. Wood. When Wood visited Blondlot's laboratory he was offered a demonstration of the way in which N-rays were diffracted into different wavelengths after being passed through a prism. The American, rather mischievously, used the darkened condition of the laboratory to remove the prism from the apparatus before Blondlot began his experiment. Despite the omission of this essential item the distinguished scientist continued his demonstration, and went on to obtain the expected results. Wood published an account of this experience in the British science journal Nature, together with his conclusion that N-rays were nothing more than a collective delusion.

The results of this exposure were devastating for Blondlot's credibility outside France. On the wider international stage the plug was pulled on N-rays. Unfortunately many French scientists continued to believe in their existence and papers detailing ever more of their properties were published for several more years. Eventually the strain was too much for Blondlot. He suffered a severe mental breakdown and died shortly after.

The explanation for this curious case of collective scientific self-delusion seems to lie in the fact that it occurred at a time when France was feeling somewhat left behind by the scientific advances of other nations (particularly of Germany), and that she badly needed an original discovery of her own. The result was that, not only Blondot, but a great many intelligent, highly trained scientists were drawn into a self-sustaining fabric of belief in a completely mistaken notion. There is no evidence of deliberate deceit on Blondlot's part at any stage of this affair, but it has been suggested that the original 'discovery' of N-rays may have originated with and been fostered by an over enthusiastic laboratory assistant.