Nancy’s ray guns

French physicist, Prosper-René Blondlot, was working at the University of Nancy, France, when he thought he’d discovered a new form of radiation.

image found here

He had perceived changes in the brightness of an electric spark in a spark gap placed in an X-ray beam which he photographed and attributed to the novel form of radiation, naming it the N-ray for the University of Nancy.

Cathedral, Nancy, France found here

The “discovery” excited international interest and many physicists worked to replicate the effects.

Dr J Stetson Hooker described his experiments on rays given off by humans thus: I have conducted during odd moments some 300 experiments to test this question of the human-ray spectrum and the extraordinary unanimity of the results is astounding…. rays emanating from a very passionate man have a deep red hue… the ambitious man emits orange rays;

Triumphant orange found here

the deep thinker, deep blue;

read about blue Paul here

the lover of art and refined surroundings, yellow; the anxious, depressed person, grey;

The Grey Man of the Merrick found here

and he who leads a low debased life throws off muddy-brown rays.”

American physicist Robert Wood was one who failed to replicate the experiments. Wood was a mischievious fellow – he’d gone on a joyride on the Trans-Siberian Railway while it was still being built, had swooped about in a glider before its design was remotely safe to life and limb, and had written a loony spoof of nature manuals titled How to Tell the Birds from the Flowers.

image found here

He had a reputation as a popular “debunker” in the period, and was prevailed upon by the journal Nature to travel to Blondlot’s laboratory in France to investigate further. In the darkened room, Wood secretly removed an essential prism from the experimental apparatus, yet the experimenters still said that they observed N-rays. He also secretly replaced a large file that was supposed to be giving off N-rays with an inert piece of wood, yet the N-rays were still “observed”. By 1905 no one outside Nancy believed in N-rays even as Blondlot himself is reported to have still been convinced of their existence in 1926.

image found here

A park in downtown Nancy is named after Blondlot. He left his house and garden to the city which transformed it into a public park. This can be seen as appropriate since he made significant contributions to physics before the N-ray debacle. James Randi reported that citizens of Nancy and members of the faculty at the university did not remember ever having heard about N-rays or Blondlot.