[René Blondlot] is considered to be a leading researcher in the field of radio-wave polarisation and X-rays, and, at the time of his spectacular discovery, is director of the Department of Physics at Nancy University. His international reputation is, among other things, based on his discovery that electrical currents are conducted through wires at somewhere near the speed of light.
During the experiment that leads to the discovery of N-rays, Blondlot tries to determine whether X-rays are comprised of waves, or of a stream of particles. For this purpose, he uses a cathode-ray tube to send X-rays in an electrically charged field, and positions a detector next to the path he expects the X-rays to take. Theoretically, wave activity could be detected by polarising the rays in the electric field, thus, changing the path of the rays, which would then be registered by the detector. When a bright electric flicker appears in the detector, Blondlot is provided with proof that X-rays are indeed waves. In another experiment, he sends X-rays through a quartz prism, although it is already common knowledge that X-rays are not deflected by quartz. However, when the rays hit the prism, Blondlot fleetingly notices that the spark in the detector becomes brighter. Because he’s aware of the fact that X-rays cannot be the cause of the phenomenon, he concludes that another, hitherto unknown, form of radiation must be responsible.
Blondlot names the new rays after his beloved home city Nancy and presents the freshly discovered “N-rays” in an article “Sur des nouvelles sources de radiations”, which appears in the scripts of the French Science Academy on the 23rd March 1903 . After discovering that the new rays cause an electrical flicker to glow brighter, he proceeds to use this phenomenon to verify their existence. During these tests, he realises that the cathode-ray tube is not the only source of the new rays. In fact, he discovers that every heat and light producing body is capable of generating N-rays. He is able to prove that this also applies to the sun.
At the end of 1903, he discovers that certain bodies - like quartz, fluorite, barite, glass, most metals, as well as pebbles, limestone and brick – can store N-rays. He wraps a brick in black paper and places it in the street so that the sun can shine on it. Back in the laboratory, he is able to demonstrate that the object can store and emit N-rays, even though it was wrapped in the paper. The original effect can be significantly increased by placing a number of such bodies in a series, whereby the first brick influences the second, the second brick the third, and so on – thus, the effect is amplified from object to object.
The succession of Blondlot’s discoveries follows in ever shorter cycles and his results are confirmed and expanded on by physicist from all over the world. Furthermore, the discovery of the storage capacity of salt water suggests that the entire planet is indeed a gigantic N-ray store. Sources are discovered in gases, energy fields and chemicals. French research institutions intensify their efforts to investigate the phenomenon. Between 1903 and 1906, around one hundred scientists and doctors write approximately 300 analytical essays on the subject.
One of Blondlot’s colleagues at Nancy University, discovers that N-rays also emanate from the human nervous system, and that these emissions intensify during speech or intellectual endeavour. In one of his experiments, Blondlot registers irritations when a person enters the room. Furthermore, he notices that loud noises diminish the effect. Thus, spectators are sworn to silence. Examination of the rays’ effects on the human sensory apparatus reveals that eyes, ears, tongue and nose are all sensitised by intensified contact to the corresponding material, and that the human senses of sight, hearing and taste are amplified by such an encounter.
However, during this time the number of critical voices increases . In 1904, the science magazine “Nature” receives an ever increasing amount of letters and articles in which scientists complain that, despite considerable efforts, they are unable to reproduce the results recorded by Blondlot and his colleagues. Some even suggest that the freshly discovered manifestation only reveals itself to certain people and not to others. The exasperation indicated in some of their comments can be interpreted as a measure of their suspicion towards the discovery.
Blondlot is, therefore, repeatedly compelled to direct his contemporaries towards the possible source of their failure. The problem is: either their eyes are not sensitive enough to register the phenomenon, or they have not grown accustomed to the environment. Apparently, the effects are not always immediately evident. It sometimes takes a few minutes before the human eye can register them. Apart from that, he advises his colleagues never to look immediately into the source. One should, so to speak, observe the source without actually looking at it directly; one should peer slightly to one side and observe what happens from the corner of one’s eye. For some people, perception of the phenomenon means that their sensory faculties are stretched to the limit, and that the effects can only be definitively identified after a certain amount of practice. He repeatedly entreats them to go to the very limit of their powers of visual perception, during their investigations. The positions eventually become so entrenched that some protagonists venture the theory that only Latin races have the necessary intellectual and sensory faculties to perceive the existence of the radiation - as the Anglo-Saxon power of perception is clouded by the incessant fog and Germanic senses are dulled by perpetual beer consumption. All doubt evaporates, however, when Blondlot receives a letter from the Science Academy on the 26th August 1904. He is to receive the Lecomte Prize, which includes fifty-thousand-Franc prize money and will render him the most important physicist in the country. The only prize that could now supersede this award is the three-year-old Nobel Prize for Physics, which, up until that point, had been awarded three times to scientists who had discovered rays. Blondlot appears to be the next in line.
After a while, it becomes apparent that most of the foreign scientists have failed to reproduce Blondlot’s results whilst repeating his experiments. Hence, on the 21st September 1904, the English science journal “Nature” sends the American physicist Robert W. Wood to Blondlot’s laboratory to observe his experimentation. One of these tests involves shooting N-rays at an aluminium prism in order to split the rays into their component wave-lengths. Wood, who has not been convinced by the results of a number of Blondlot’s other experiments, decides to make a crucial adjustment to this one. Blondlot carries out the test as usual, and is not only able to perceive the spectral lines, but is also able to measure them exactly, even though his visitor is holding the central piece of apparatus: the prism, in his hand. After Wood publishes the results of his visit in the latest issue of “Nature”, the scientific world quickly loses interest in the subject.
As a consequence, René Blondlot receives the Lecomte Prize for his life’s work, and not for the discovery of N-rays.
Translation: Philip Jacobs