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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > November December 2015 > From N-Rays to EmDrives

From N-Rays to EmDrives

When Does Science Become Pseudoscience?

Afair amount of pseudoscience begins as blue-sky, basic scientific hypotheses and experiments. Hypotheses can challenge basic accepted notions, or begin with them, and may yet somehow go off the rails. How does this happen, and at what point do scientific inquiries become obsessive or pathological? Consider N-rays.

Shortly after the discovery of X-rays, Prosper-René Blondlot was conducting experiments on electromagnetic radiation, specifically attempting to observe polarized X-rays, when he noticed apparent changes in the brightness of photographed sparks in an X-ray beam. Unable to account for the changed brightness according to current knowledge about X-rays, he proposed that a new form of radiation was being observed, which he called N-rays. Using “detectors” made of a dim phosphorescent material, researchers around the world began perceiving N-rays, concluding similarly that the unexpected increases in luminosity that they perceived were corroboration of the new form of radiation. Within a few years, over 300 papers were published on the subject.

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