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Sunday, 27 October 2013

Blondlot's N-rays: another fraud

Two views of the Piltdown skull.
The longest translation of War and Peace, according to the hapless Greg Hunt's bible, Wikipedia, contains 587,287 words. In the past 36 days, admittedly drawing heavily on material previously written, needing only cleaning-up and light editing, I have assembled 117,576 words in the new work, or just over 20% of War and Peace.
The much-less-known Piltdown cricket bat, which I saw in 1993.

Barbara Cartland, infamously, could "write a book in ten days". I doubt that these tomes exceeded 30,000 words each, so I am writing at ~1.09 cartlands.

Now will the literary merit be closer to Tolstoy or Cartland? Only time will tell, but there is a lot to come in a massive backgrounder to nearly all of modern science. I won't do string theory.

Just a brief note about the pics: I am unsure if the Piltdown skull was a fraud or a hoax, but I am certain that the Piltdown cricket bat was a flagrant hoax, meant to be seen as such and draw attention to the skull.  I will say more about that, some other time.

Frauds, unlike hoaxers, try not to leave clues, but in most cases, they are caught out by discrepancies and sceptics. There remains some doubt about René-Prosper Blondlot of Nancy: he may have been swept up in the same rush of chauvinism that gulled Arthur Keith into accepting proof that humans evolved in Britain.

It was, after all, just a few years after Wilhelm Röntgen had found those mysterious X-rays, and what a vile Hun could do, a Frenchman could surely do better?

In fact, a Frenchman already had, because in 1903, Henri Becquerel shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering radioactivity, which happened by accident as Becquerel was trying to find something like X-rays but different.

That was also the year in which Blondlot announced his "N-rays", named for his home town, Nancy. He declared that these rays passed through aluminium sheet up to 70 millimetres thick, but said the thinnest iron foil stopped them dead.

N-rays were emitted by a heated wire, could be stored and re-emitted by a house-brick which had been left in the sun for several days, and could only be detected in a darkened room, where, when the rays illuminated an object, it became easier to see the object. In other words, a brick giving off N-rays, held close to the head, made it easier to see dim objects.

The rays were refracted by aluminium prisms, and Blondlot measured the refraction index to a precision of three significant figures. The only problem was that other scientists could not replicate Blondlot's results, and after A. A. Campbell Swinton wrote to Nature in early 1904, saying as much, people began to doubt the whole affair.

Still, it was announced in August 1904 that the Paris Academy of Sciences had decided to award its LeCompte prize of the value of $10,000 to M. Blondlot for his researches on the rays. The American journal, Science, referred to them as "so-called" when it shared this news with its readers.

Enter R. W. Wood, who visited Blondlot's laboratory. Writing in Nature in September 1904, Wood identified a number of ways in which the results may have been obtained by unconscious error, but then he laid the possibility of unconscious error safely in its grave, when he purloined the aluminium prism that was central to the experiment, as he explained. 

I expressed surprise that a ray bundle 3 mm. in width could be split up into a spectrum with maxima and minima less than 0.1 of a millimetre apart, and was told that this was one of the inexplicable and astounding properties of the rays. I was unable to see any change whatever in the brilliancy of the phosphorescent line as I moved it along, and I subsequently found that the removal of the prism (we were in a dark room) did not seem to interfere in any way with the location of the maxima and the minima in the deviated (!) ray bundle.
Just in case it looks as though the removal of the prism was an accident, Wood goes on to add:

The approach of a large steel file was supposed to alter the appearance of the spots... A clock face in a dimly lighted room was believed to become much more distinct and brighter when the file was held before the eyes, owing to some peculiar effect which the rays emitted by the file exerted on the retina. I was unable to see the slightest change, though my colleague said that he could see the hands [of the clock] distinctly when he held the file near his eyes, while they were quite invisible when the file was removed...My colleague could see the change just as well when I held the file before his face, and the substitution of a piece of wood of the same size and shape as the file in no way interfered with the experiment. The substitution was of course unknown to the observer.

This was the end of the N-ray era, though Blondlot never conceded that he had been duped, or had duped himself, or deliberately faked any results. He believed for the rest of his life that his guest had betrayed him by acting in such a duplicitous manner.

I will tell you more about my fraud that I have been fighting with, once I see the money, but the skinny is that he has agreed to pay me the money that was taken fraudulently, but not agreed to meet my other conditions. Meanwhile, a curious file of Chinese origin, a0465032.exe has appeared on my computer and been deleted.  Googling that revealed only a page in Chinese, and my guardian software advised me against seeking to have it translated.

Curiouser and curiouser...

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