In 1903, French Physicist, René Prosper Blondlot (1849-1930) claimed he discovered a new type of radiation. He called the new radiation, the N-ray, named after Nancy, the name of the town and the university where he lived and worked. And Blondlot had his followers; dozens of other scientists who “confirmed” the existence of N-rays in their own laboratories (more than 50 technical papers were written on the subject).
Alas, N-rays don’t exist.
So, how could so many scientists be wrong? They were human and deceived themselves into thinking they were seeing something that just wasn’t so. They saw what they wanted to see with their instruments, not what was actually there.
Blondlot was not a charlatan; in fact, according to his Facebook page (yes even deceased scientists have Facebook pages), “He made the first measurement of the speed of radio waves, by measuring the wavelength using Lecher lines.”
Scientists, even good scientists, can be deceived. Focusing on the fundamentals of good science is as important today as it was in the 1800s. Whether we are trying to assess responsibility and an applicable cleanup approach for TCE in groundwater or assessing radiation – there is no substitute for good science.