Ashmore, Malcolm. "The Theatre of the Blind: Starring a Promethean Prankster, A Phoney
Phenomenon, A Prism, A Pocket and A Piece of Wood," Preprint to appear in Social Studies of
This is a careful analysis of the Rene Blondlot disgrace, the exposure of Blondlot by Robert
Wood, the American physicist who wrote the article in Nature, in 1904, which brought Blondlot
down. It is made clear here that the disgrace was a process in which Wood did his thing, did to
Blondlot what was already going on: being disgraced. He was already out-of-step and Wood
added to the drama but did nothing to change it. Wood won his medals, then, rather cheaply.
The analysis here asks: why was Wood so successful? This is asked not in the sense of the doting
biographer who asks the question merely to provide laudatory adjectives to the persona being
described but in the manner of the symbolic interactionist, the constructivist interested in
examining the process by means of which Wood managed to pull off his "stunt." For that, in this
sense, is what Wood really did, pull off a stunt. And that stunt was well appreciated by those who
were interested in seeing Blondlot labeled a fraud and a phony. Those others were quite eager to
jump into the fray and declare Wood the winner, give him a medal or two and award him foreign
membership in the BA. Those are the rewards which were given the "Promethean prankster." To
use the more traditional language of the symbolic interactionist, Wood was a successful labeler
because he pleased so many others who wanted Blondlot disgraced.
Who were those who wanted Blondlot's downfall and who enlisted Wood's assistance in their
deed? Remember: Wood was attending the BA meeting in Oxford in 1904 when he was
encouraged to go to the Frenchman's laboratory and "see for himself" what was going on with
the N-rays. After all, the Britishers and other attenders at the meeting had tried to duplicate the
French (not merely Blondlot's) work and had been variously embarrassed by their failures.
Indeed, Professor Rubens, a German attender, had been ordered by the Kaiser himself to
duplicate the French work and he couldn't do it. Moreover, Rubens had been Blondlot's teacher
and would be "unseemly" for him to be the one to "find out what was going on" behind the
locked laboratory doors. He had been disgraced in front of the Kaiser himself and was more than
a bit angered by it. These conspiratorial physicists brought Wood into their conspiracy and
encouraged him to play the part of the... Well, what was his role? Conspirator, prankster,
assassin? His job was to bring down Blondlot no matter what you call it.
Malcolm Ashmore makes great use of the various tales told by Wood - both in Nature and much
later in life, for Seabrook's biography, published in 1941. There are significant inconsistencies in
his descriptions which are evaluated here and then "explained" not in terms of the enthusiastic
conspirators who wanted Blondlot disgraced (which was the way the physics community played
it) but in terms of determining what alternative explanations might provide. Thus, there is a
perfectly logical explanation for the events of that visit to Blondlot's lab in terms other than those
so frequently used.
Blondlot's story has been so frequently told to students and so often repeated as if it concerned
self-delusion that the self-delusion myth has a life of its own; it is a consistently told story but, of
course, that does not mean it is true. It may function as a tale with heuristic functions but that still
does not make it true. And what Malcolm Ashmore does rather thoroughly here is to demonstrate
that despite the frequency of the telling, despite its functionality, the disgrace of Blondlot was not
the dramatic tale so wonderfully honed in texts. It is, rather, an exposition of the gutsiness of the
supposed gentlemen of science. No doubt about that: the squeamish need not apply. Physics is a
game for the stout-hearted and the clever. Behind the scenes activities in physics are pretty much
like the behind the scenes activities elsewhere: warfare, board rooms, stock exchanges, those
sorts of manly activities.
But the story is not quite over: Ashmore also suggests that the Blondlot rebuttal of the Wood
article was not accepted and he tries to suggest why the various evidences were discredited by the
very people who wanted them discredited. They did not accept the evidence he presented
precisely because they were not being scientists but conspirators (and, later, unknowing
endorsers of the conspiracy). In other words, the conspiracy did not end with a single staged
spying and a journal article in 1904, the conspiracy continued for years. Blondlot, after all, lived
on until 1930 and never changed his mind about his rays. But his protestations were continually
rejected, even by his erstwhile colleagues who, unfortunately, were made part of the conspiracy
to discredit Blondlot.
Poor Blondlot. A martyr for science, a symbol of flawed science, a negative reference for those
who would suggest how easy it is to be made the fool.
Professor Ashmore of Loughborough University has done all of us who are interested in fraud in
science a service with a careful reanalysis of events we had long thought of as being merely of
historical interest. The process he describes is not dated at all: it is one of the oft-touted control
mechanisms of science, even if not so described.