Helium Discovery Day

During a total eclipse of the sun on August 18, 1868, French astronomer Pierre Jules César Janssen observed a strange yellow line in the spectrum of the sun. At first, he assumed it was sodium, but it didn’t match up to that wavelength. He had discovered helium, though he didn’t realize it at the time. On October 20th of that same year, English astronomer Norman Lockyer observed a yellow line in the solar spectrum which he concluded was caused by an unknown element in the Sun. Lockyer and English chemist Edward Frankland named the element helios, after the Greek word for the Sun.

Today we tend to think of helium as the gas that does strange things to your voice (to hear a silly demonstration of that go to this YouTube video or as the gas that makes balloons rise. However, it has many more uses. According to Universe Today, helium is used for a wide range of scientific and medical applications. The greatest use is in cryogenic applications, where liquid-helium acts as a coolant for superconducting magnets in MRI scanners and spectrometers. It is also a component of rocket fuel and used in the Large Hadron Collider.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, second only to hydrogen. However, it is rare on Earth, only found in small quantities during gas and oil drilling. However, a huge field of ancient helium was found in 2016 in the Rift Valley in Africa, which could make a big difference. I was able to find several articles announcing the discovery, but none more recent than that to tell whether anyone had been able to actually make use of it. Hopefully, by now, they have been able to tap this significant new resource.

Quotes about helium

Nuclear fusion of light elements like hydrogen or helium would permit approaching the speed of light. It seems very attractive to refuel your space ships where the fuel is.–Wilson Greatbatch

A hot air balloon requires a great deal of fuel to keep it aloft, so that you can’t fly it even for one day. A gas balloon, which usually uses helium, has the problem that the helium cools at night when the sun is not on it, and you have to throw ballast overboard to keep it from going to the surface.–Steve Fossett

The helium which we handle must have been put together at some time and some place. We do not argue with the critic who urges that the stars are not hot enough for this process; we tell him to go and find a hotter place.–Arthur Eddington

I quit my job at the helium gas factory. I didn’t like being spoken to in that voice.–Stewart Francis

We, all of us, are what happens when a primordial mixture of hydrogen and helium evolves for so long that it begins to ask where it came from.–Jill Tarter

Our entire universe emerged from a point smaller than a single atom. Space itself exploded in a cosmic fire, launching the expansion of the universe and giving birth to all the energy and all the matter we know today. I know that sounds crazy, but there’s strong observational evidence to support the Big Bang theory. And it includes the amount of helium in the cosmos and the glow of radio waves left over from the explosion.–Neil deGrasse Tyson

You see, the chemists have a complicated way of counting: instead of saying “one, two, three, four, five protons”, they say, “hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron.”–Richard P. Feynman

I’ve read short stories that are as dense as a 19th century novel and novels that really are short stories filled with a lot of helium.–Lynn Abbey

Love is a helium-based emotion; Love always takes the high road.–Augusten Burroughs

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