Friday, August 3, 2007

Steampunk Science: Mysterious Rays

Wilhem Conrad Rontgen

In 1895, the German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen, experimenting with cathode-ray tubes, discovered a mysterious new form or radiation, which he called "X-radiation"; the discovery earned him the first Nobel Prize in physics, granted in 1901 In 1903, while trying to produce polarized X-radiation, the French physicist Rene Blondlot discovered a new form of radiation, with even more mysterious properties, which he named "N-radiation", in tribute to his native city of Nancy. N-rays were emitted spontaneously by all materials except green wood and anesthetized metal (metal treated with an anesthetic such as ether), they were refracted by aluminum, and they caused fluorescence in thread coated with calcium sulfide. The French government endorsed his scientific achievement, and other French scientists rushed to study the new rays and publish papers on them.

Rene Blondlot

Physicists elsewhere found Blondlot’s results difficult to replicate; French scientists dismissed their skepticism, suggesting that German physicists had dulled their senses by drinking too much beer! Eventually, the British journal Nature asked an American physicist, Robert Wood, to visit Blondlot’s laboratory and published his negative report, with showed that Blondlot and his assistant were victims of wishful thinking.

As the episode illustrates, radiated energy was poorly understood in the Age of Steam. New rays with mysterious properties justified a variety of marvels in works of fiction. They could even be explained as products of new elements, with radium as a precedent.

Stoddard, W.H. (2000) - Gurps Steampunk, pg. 95-96, SJG:Austin
[edited for removal of game specific content]
Further information on Mr. Rontgen is at:
and on Mr. Blondlot loacated at:

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