Tuesday, November 14, 2017

If you believe in n-rays, believing in mental radio is not that heavy a lift

Another visit to the Scientific American collection of the Internet Archive.

Having spent a big chunk of the past few weeks reading over contemporary accounts of science and technology from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I've come to the conclusion that, from our 21st century perspective, we tend to overestimate the credulousness of people at the turn-of-the-century while greatly underestimating our own gullibility

The key here is context, belief in something (or, more precisely, belief in the possibility of something) that turns out not to exist has to be judged based on the amount of evidence (or, more precisely, the amount of non-evidence) that had accumulated at the time. 150 years ago or so, sending expeditions to look for legendary mega-fauna was an entirely reasonable type of scientific investigation. 50 years ago, not so much. Today, not at all. Every time a researcher, preferably one who very much wants to find a phenomenon in question, comes up empty, the lack of result adds to the evidence that the phenomenon simply doesn't exist. Eventually, enough would be believers dig enough dry wells to make the nonexistence a confirmed scientific fact.

But there's another important difference between 1900 and 2017 that needs to be taken into account. Without understating the steady and impressive current flow of new ideas and discoveries, we now generally work under a relatively stable intellectual framework. We reject the possibility of telepathy in part because so many motivated researchers have failed to find it, but also because no one has proposed a plausible mechanism for it consistent with the other things we know with great confidence about the world.

The close of the 19th century was a time of great optimism and discovery, but as a consequence not one of great certainty. Science and technology were causing cataclysmic shifts in the way people viewed the world. When Einstein endorsed a book on mental telepathy and Tesla speculated that he had just received communications from Martians, they were working under a framework that was assumed to be changing and incomplete.

Coming shortly after the discovery of x-rays, n-rays did not initially seem all that implausible, and once you've accepted the possibility of a new kind of radiation that was related to biological and even mental activities, accepting ideas like "mental radio" and even spiritualism isn't that much of a reach. N-rays themselves were debunked fairly quickly (see below for the fascinating details), but the sense that everything you know can suddenly change remained a key part of the mentality of the period.

June 17, 1905

The debunking of n-rays is, itself a fascinating story. From Wikipedia.

The "discovery" excited international interest and many physicists worked to replicate the effects. However, the notable physicists Lord Kelvin, William Crookes, Otto Lummer, and Heinrich Rubens failed to do so. Following his own failure, self-described as "wasting a whole morning", the American physicist Robert W. Wood, who had a reputation as a popular "debunker" of nonsense during the period, was prevailed upon by the British journal Nature to travel to Blondlot's laboratory in France to investigate further. Wood suggested that Rubens should go since he had been the most embarrassed when Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany asked him to repeat the French experiments, and then after two weeks Rubens had to report his failure to do so. Rubens, however, felt it would look better if Wood went, since Blondlot had been most polite in answering his many questions.

In the darkened room during Blondlot's demonstration, Wood surreptitiously removed an essential prism from the experimental apparatus, yet the experimenters still said that they observed N rays. Wood also stealthily swapped 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". His report on these investigations were published in Nature, and they suggested that the N rays were a purely subjective phenomenon, with the scientists involved having recorded data that matched their expectations. There is reason to believe that Blondlot in particular was misled by his laboratory assistant, who confirmed all observations. By 1905, no one outside of Nancy believed in N rays, but Blondlot himself is reported to have still been convinced of their existence in 1926

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