The turn of the 19th century saw a flurry of monumental discoveries in physics. In 1893, Victor Schumann discovered vacuum ultraviolet radiation. Two years later, Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays. A year after that, Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity. The following year, J. J. Thomson discovered electrons. And so, when French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot discovered N-Rays in 1903, scientists were eager to accept it.
Over the next three years, 120 scientists published nearly 300 papers describing N-rays, and many successfully replicated Blondlot's experiments. N-rays seemed to be a weak form of radiation that transmitted light, but not heat.
Not everyone was convinced, however. Many laboratories had failed to reproduce Blondlot's findings, and his methods seemed highly subjective. American physicist Robert W. Wood of Johns Hopkins University was particularly skeptical. In 1904, he visited Blondlot's laboratory at the University of Nancy and observed Blondlot and his assistants supposedly producing N-rays. After watching them measure N-rays a number of times, Wood stealthily removed a vital part of the experimental apparatus without the experimenters knowing. But when they ran the experiment again, they still insisted they had produced X-rays!
Describing his investigation in the journal Nature, Wood did not hold back his harsh criticism.
"After spending three hours or more in witnessing various experiments, I am not only unable to report a single observation which appeared to indicate the existence of the rays, but left with a very firm conviction that the few experimenters who have obtained positive results, have been in some way deluded."
It was the end of N-rays as a legitimate scientific theory. Blondlot and his colleagues had fooled themselves into seeing something that wasn't there.
(Image: Prosper-René Blondlot)