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of helium, 4, gives when added 20, which is almost
exactly the atomic weight of neon.

Additional evidence is found in the gases which
escape from the hot springs of Bath. They consist
mostly of nitrogen, but contain both helium and
neon; argon is also present. The water contains
an appreciable amount of radium, and the gases



304 THE GASES OF THE ATMOSPHERE CHAP.

which escape are rich in niton, relatively to
ordinary air. Now in these gases there exist
about three-quarters as much argon as is present
iD atmospheric air, one hundred and eighty-eight
times as much neon, and seventy-three times as
much helium. It cannot be doubted, therefore,
that both the helium and the neon are products of
changes produced by radium in presence of water.

Professor Norman Collie, and simultaneously
and independently Mr. Patterson, found that on
passing a high tension discharge from a Kuhmkorff
coil through rarified hydrogen, between electrodes
of aluminium, the hydrogen rapidly disappeared,
and on examining the contents of such tubes both
helium and neon were found. This was confirmed
by frequent experiments; and Mr. Irvine Masson
was also able to prove the presence of helium in
the gases pumped out of a Cooper-Hewitt lamp of
fused silica, under conditions which precluded its
entry from the air. It would appear, therefore,
that helium and neon can be formed by powerful
electric discharge. For the formation of the latter,
oxygen is apparently necessary; for if the apparatus
be so arranged that the glass tube is not bombarded
by the kathode rays, little if any neon is formed.



ix THE RADIOACTIVE GASES 305

The formation of helium and neon has also been
shown by Sir J. J. Thomson, in a similar manner,
but testing for their presence by a totally different
method of great ingenuity. Their presence is
undoubted, but Sir Joseph does not unreservedly
adhere to the view that they have been " synthe-
sised " ; he prefers to reserve judgment.

It would seem not improbable that the passage
of lightning through ordinary moist air may be
accompanied by the transmutation of certain
atmospheric gases into neon and helium, and that
their presence in air is at least partially due to
that source. The writer has also evidence, which,
however, he does not regard as conclusive, that
argon may be formed by submitting sulphur
vapour and hydrogen to a continued passage of
kathode rays. But further research is needed
before it can be positively affirmed that that is
the case.

The investigation of these remarkable gases is
still very far from complete ; we know only where
niton should be placed in the periodic table, that is,
below xenon ; but in all probability the other two
active gases also belong to the argon group. They
must now be reckoned with as normal constituents



3 o6 THE GASES OF THE ATMOSPHERE CHAP, ix

of the atmosphere; and although the proportion
in which they are found is almost inconceivably
small, it is still possible that the enormous quantity
of energy with which they part when they undergo
their inevitable change may make them potent
factors in relation to living plants and animals.
To sum up^ we see that the words of Boyle,
quoted on p. 9, are almost prophetic when he
stated that " Our atmosphere, in my opinion . . .
consists in great number of numberless exhalations
of the terraqueous globe . . . with perhaps some
substantial emanations from the celestial bodies."
It is indeed conjectured that corpuscles, almost
inconceivably minute, which have been termed
" electrons," and which are shot off with enormous
rapidity during the changes which the radioactive
elements undergo, are actually constituents of our
atmosphere ; that they owe their origin to the
sun ; and that they contribute to the electrification
of the atmosphere, and are the cause of the
Northern Lights, or aurora borealis.

THE END



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Online LibraryWilliam RamsayThe gases of the atmosphere, the history of their discovery → online text (page 16 of 16)