Podcast Episode 241: A Case of Scientific Self-Deception


In 1903, French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot decided he had discovered a new form of radiation. But the mysterious rays had some exceedingly odd properties, and scientists in other countries had trouble seeing them at all. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of N-rays, a cautionary tale of self-deception.

We’ll also recount another appalling marathon and puzzle over a worthless package.


In the 1960s, two dolphins at Hawaii’s Sea Life Park were inadvertently switched and performed each other’s acts.

Franz Bibfeldt is an invisible scholar at the University of Chicago divinity school.

Sources for our feature on Prosper-René Blondlot and the N-rays:

René Blondlot, Julien François, and William Garcin, “N” Rays: A Collection of Papers Communicated to the Academy of Sciences, With Additional Notes and Instructions for the Construction of Phosphorescent Screens, 1905.

William Seabrook, Doctor Wood, 1941.

Walter Gratzer, The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-Deception, and Human Frailty, 2001.

Terence Hines, Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, 2003.

Richard C. Brown, Are Science and Mathematics Socially Constructed?, 2009.

Robert W. Proctor and E.J. Capaldi, Psychology of Science: Implicit and Explicit Processes, 2012.

Paul Collins, Banvard’s Folly, 2015.

Roelf Bolt, The Encyclopaedia of Liars and Deceivers, 2014.

Walter Gratzer and Walter Bruno Gratzer, Eurekas and Euphorias: The Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes, 2004.

Robert W. Wood, How to Tell the Birds From the Flowers, 1907.

Robert W. Wood, “The n-Rays,” Nature 70:1822 (1904), 530-531.

Mary Jo Nye, “N-Rays: An Episode in the History and Psychology of Science,” Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 11:1 (1980), 125-156.

Robert T. Lagemann, “New Light on Old Rays: N Rays,” American Journal of Physics 45:281 (1977), 281-284.

Irving M. Klotz, “The N-ray Affair,” Scientific American 242:5 (1980), 168-175.

John Butler Burke, “The Blondlot n-Rays,” Nature 70 (June 30, 1904), 198.

John Butler Burke, “The Blondlot n-Rays,” Nature 69 (Feb. 18, 1904), 365.

Jeffrey Kovac, “Reverence and Ethics in Science,” Science and Engineering Ethics 19:3 (September 2013), 745-56.

Nancy S. Hall, “The Key Role of Replication in Science,” Chronicle of Higher Education 47:11 (Nov. 10, 2000), B14.

“The Blondlot Rays,” British Medical Journal 1:2245 (Jan. 9, 1904), 90.

“The Romance of the Blondlot Rays,” British Medical Journal 1:2244 (Jan. 2, 1904), 35-36.

“Blondlot and Prof. Wood on the N-Rays,” Scientific American 91:25 (Dec. 17, 1904), 426.

Malcolm Ashmore, “The Theatre of the Blind: Starring a Promethean Prankster, a Phoney Phenomenon, a Prism, a Pocket, and a Piece of Wood,” Social Studies of Science 23:1 (1993), 67-106.

Luis Campos, “The Birth of Living Radium,” Representations 97:1 (Winter 2007), 1-27.

“The Latest Wonder of Science,” Public Opinion 4:36 (Jan. 28, 1904), 115-116.

J.J. Stewart, “The N-Rays of Blondlot,” Knowledge & Scientific News 2:10 (September 1905), 218-219.

“Science and Invention: Radio-Activity,” Current Literature 38:3 (March 1905), 258.

J.R. Whitehead, “Radioactivity and Radiation,” Electrical World and Engineer 43:7, 310.

Mark Pilkington, “N-Rays Exposed,” Guardian, Sept. 1, 2004.

“Latest Scientific Discovery,” Leavenworth [Wash.] Echo, April 8, 1910, 4.

Listener mail:

Karen Abbott, “The 1904 Olympic Marathon May Have Been the Strangest Ever,” Smithsonian.com, Aug. 7, 2012.

Wikipedia, “1904 Summer Olympics” (accessed March 7, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Athletics at the 1904 Summer Olympics – Men’s Marathon” (accessed March 7, 2019).

Brian Cronin, “Sports Legend Revealed: A Marathon Runner Nearly Died Because of Drugs He Took to Help Him Win,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 10, 2010.

Wikipedia, “George Eyser” (accessed March 9, 2019).

Wikipedia, “Andarín Carvajal” (accessed March 9, 2019).

“1956 Olympic Long Jump Champion Krzesinska Dies,” IAAF News, Dec. 30, 2015.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Murli Ravi. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 240: The Shark Papers


In 1799 two Royal Navy ships met on the Caribbean Sea, and their captains discovered they were parties to a mind-boggling coincidence that would expose a crime and make headlines around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the shark papers, one of the strangest coincidences in maritime history.

We’ll also meet some Victorian kangaroos and puzzle over an expedient fire.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 239: The Man-Eaters of Tsavo


In 1898, two lions descended on a company of railway workers in British East Africa. For nine months they terrorized the camp, carrying off a new victim every few days, as engineer John Patterson struggled to stop them. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll track the “man-eaters of Tsavo” and learn what modern science has discovered about their motivations.

We’ll also consider more uses for two cars and puzzle over some prolific penguins.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 238: The Plight of Mary Ellen Wilson


In 1873 a Methodist missionary in New York City heard rumors of a little girl who was kept locked in a tenement and regularly whipped. She uncovered a shocking case of neglect and abuse that made headlines around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell how one girl’s ordeal led to a new era in child welfare.

We’ll also outsource Harry Potter and puzzle over Wayne Gretzky’s accomplishments.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 237: The Baseball Spy


Moe Berg earned his reputation as the brainiest man in baseball — he had two Ivy League degrees and studied at the Sorbonne. But when World War II broke out he found an unlikely second career, as a spy trying to prevent the Nazis from getting an atomic bomb. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Berg’s enigmatic life and its strange conclusion.

We’ll also consider the value of stripes and puzzle over a fateful accident.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 236: The Last Lap


In 1908 a 22-year-old Italian baker’s assistant arrived in London to take part in the Olympic marathon. He had no coach, he spoke no English, and he was not expected to challenge the elite runners at the top of the field. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Dorando Pietri on the most celebrated race in Olympic history.

We’ll also ponder the Great Mull Air Mystery and puzzle over a welcome murder.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 235: Leon Festinger and the Alien Apocalypse


In 1955, aliens from the planet Clarion contacted a Chicago housewife to warn her that the end of the world was imminent. Psychologist Leon Festinger saw this as a unique opportunity to test a new theory about human cognition. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow him inside a UFO religion as it approaches the apocalypse.

We’ll also try to determine when exactly LBJ became president and puzzle over some wet streets.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 234: The Dig Tree


In 1860 a party of explorers set out to traverse the Australian continent, but bad management and a series of misfortunes sent it spiraling toward tragedy. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Victorian Exploring Expedition and its dramatic climax at Cooper’s Creek.

We’ll also try to validate Archimedes and puzzle over an unlucky thief.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 233: Flight to Freedom


In 1978 two families hatched a daring plan to escape East Germany: They would build a hot-air balloon and sail it by night across the border. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow their struggles to evade the authorities and realize their dream of a new life in the West.

We’ll also shuffle some vehicles and puzzle over a perplexing worker.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 232: The Indomitable Spirit of Douglas Bader


Douglas Bader was beginning a promising career as a British fighter pilot when he lost both legs in a crash. But that didn’t stop him — he learned to use artificial legs and went on to become a top flying ace in World War II. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review Bader’s inspiring story and the personal philosophy underlay it.

We’ll also revisit the year 536 and puzzle over the fate of a suitcase.

See full show notes …