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Exemplary Episodes: The N-Rays January 19, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Photographic evidence of N-rays

The N-ray research program, led by respected French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot (1849-1930) and followed by many others, was of substantial significance, generating about 300 papers in the period between 1903 to 1906.  N-ray researchers not only argued for the existence of N-rays, but detailed their physical properties.  Their work is routinely included in the history of the new radiations of x-rays and Henri Becquerel’s radiation, and is often paired with psychologist and sociologist Gustave Le Bon’s “black light” (here not the same as UV light) as part of the discoveries of “spurious” forms of radiation.   Notably, cosmic rays, discovered around the same time, were also initially very slippery to detect, and would remain in limbo for well over a decade before being fully accepted as a phenomenon of extraterrestrial origin (never mind further disputes over their composition).

Traditionally, the N-ray research program has been of interest as an exemplary episode—an instrumental use of history that imparts a lesson or principle.  Because the rays do not actually exist, the historical flourishing of a research program dedicated to studying them becomes a cautionary tale to scientists.  Unless the lessons of the “affair” are heeded, you, too, could end up like Blondlot, needlessly wasting research effort on a chimera.  Unlike Blondlot, your follies probably won’t become a legend that lives on long after you (and after your legitimate achievements are forgotten), but it nevertheless wouldn’t do to acquire a reputation as methodologically reckless.

As an exemplary episode, the historical context of the N-ray program is typically analyzed in order to explain how it could have been allowed to exist at all, rather than to properly characterize its place amid contemporaneous research programs. (more…)