Too often we are inclined to consider science as a dry, uninteresting list of facts.
We too often think of the sciences as only a set of dull, technical encyclopaediae in which
one volume is devoted to chemistry, another to botany, to astronomy, to physics, to
geology, and so on. We go to these volumes for technical facts, for factory processes, for
explanation of every day phenomenon; but for some reason or other it is only on business
that we consult those mighty volumes. We seldom go to them for relaxation, for stories to
read. Yet the sciences contain the most involved of mystery stories, the most inspiring of
hero tales, the most exciting of adventure yarns.

    One of the most fascinating of these stories from science is that of helium. Like the
stories found in our more popular magazines--"continued in our next"--this story
continues from one volume to another. An early chapter was found in astronomy but the
later instalments have been written in chemistry and physics--but here, in brief, is the story.

    In 1860 an instrument was perfected which would analyse the light coming from
any particular source. The chemists soon discovered that light from sodium vapor was
shown by this instrument to be only yellow and to give only yellow lines in certain very
marked positions in the spectrum. Every element they tried gave a characteristic color, or
group of colors. No color band was found to be duplicated and they found in this fact an
important key to the identification of the elements.

    As curious as the small boy who tests his new knife on everything from the dining
room table to the wax fruit on the side board, the scientists used their new toy on every
light from that of the stars to that of the firefly. In 1868 a total eclipse of the sun in India
gave the astronomers an opportunity to analyse the light coming from the flames that
shoot off from the surface of the sun and which became plainly visible when the sun itself
was obscured by the moon. The astronomers substantially agreed in their report of the
brief observations they were able to make with their spectroscopes. However, the
brightness of the lines caused Janssen, a Frenchman, to believe he could see them even in
full sunlight; and a few days later he directed his spectroscope to the edge of the sun. He
was able to see again the lines of color he had seen the day of the eclipse. Thus being able
to leisurely study the lines, he discovered that a yellow streak, mistaken for that of sodium
in the hasty observations on the day of the eclipse, was really a little to one side of the
position where the sodium line should have been. Two other astronomers confirmed these
observations and the three of them proved that such a band of light could be formed only
by some element that had not as yet been discovered on the earth. Because they
discovered it in the sun, this new element was given the name helium from the Greek word
for sun. A number of years later this same yellow band was observed when analysing the
light from some of the stars.

    Despite great search, the new element, helium, defied discovery on earth until
1895, twenty-seven years after its discovery in the sun. In 1895 Dr. Ramsay, one of the
two men who had discovered the gas, argon, collected a gas that was given off when
cleveite, a mineral of uranium was treated with acid. He believed this gas to be krepton
and sent it to Dr. Crookes, a physicist noted for his work with the spectroscope. This man,
after observing it through that instrument sent back to Ramsay this cryptic note, "Your
krepton is helium. Come and see it."

    In this manner, after twenty-seven years of mystery was helium discovered on this
planet. Helium, found first ninety million miles away in the sun, traced thousands of times
farther away to the stars, was finally found on the earth. Has any author succeeded in
plotting a grander chase for his detective story? But the wonders in the story of helium
had just started. The gas proved to be very unsociable, would combine with no other
element. It resisted most attempts to liquify it and when finally liquified, it was only four
degrees above absolute zero, the temperature at which all motion is  supposed to cease. It
was found to be a product in the breaking down of radium.

    The World War brings us to the latest important instalment, surely more will
follow, of this adventurous history of helium. At the outbreak of the war the Germans had
a very potent weapon in their Zepplins. However this diabolic instrument of warfare had
its weakness. The hydrogen with which they were filled very often burned when hit with
inflammatory bullets. These airships were very expensive and after the Germans lost a
number they discontinued the use of them. Later the allies realized the value of such ships
if they could find a gas to take the place of the inflammable hydrogen. At the outbreak of
the was the costs of producing one cubic foot of helium was about $1,600. By the end of
the was the production of the gas had advanced to such an extent that one hundred and
fifty thousand cubic feet was waiting to be sent to the allies for use in balloons.

    Let no one dare say science is a dry, uninteresting, and boring field of study.
Science is brimful of fascinating stories, helium is not the only one. There are the stories of
Pasteur's experiments, of the discovery of Archimede's principle, of the alchemists, and of
countless other interesting discoveries and experiments in the field of science.

Dorris Willows
Nov. 15, 1933
English 1-10

Go To Next entry
Return to entry dates
Return to Dorris Willows