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We’ve all done it.  You know, take a hit of helium just to hear ourselves talk funny.

It’s not a good idea, fun yes, safe no.

People have actually died from inhaling it!

The history of the scientific discovery of helium started on August 18, 1868.

Pierre Janssen first discovered how to observe solar prominences, or large bright spots on the sun, without an eclipse.

Pierre Janssen

In 1868, while in India, scouting for a really good Khichdi Restaurant and attending a Walt Whitman look-a-like contest, he observed a solar eclipse on August 18  at Guntur in Andhra Pradesh.  He noticed a bright yellow line with a wavelength of 587.49 nm in the spectrum of the chromospheres of the Sun.

Spectral lines of Helium

No, that is not a Beatles album.

No one, at least no one who knew anything about spectral lines, had seen this particular spectral line before, and one possible explanation was an element not yet discovered on the earth.

All the reigning science gurus derided Janssen because no element had ever been detected in space before being found on Earth.

They called him names, accused him of smoking weed with the Yogis, and generally pooh-poohed his idea.

Later, that same year in October, Joseph Norman Lockyer, Norm to his friends, an English scientist observed the same thing.  He dashed to Edward Frankland, one of the most noted scientists of the day, and the two came UP with the name Helium after the Greek word for the sun, helios.

Suddenly, Pierre had street cred.

It was the first discovery of a new element somewhere other than earth.

Terrestrial helium (which is the same as solar helium) was later discovered by Sir William Ramsay,

Sir William Ramsay

another British scientist, who won a Nobel Prize for discovering the Noble Gases , which in my day were called the inert gases…note to Andy, my science teacher nephew, when did they go from inert  to noble?

Ramsay was knighted by the King for his work, Janssen, well he was French, and  His Majesty just didn’t bother.

Helium is rare in the earth’s atmosphere; something like 0.00052% volume, and most of the helium on earth comes from decaying radioactive material such as thorium and uranium.

So, the next time you’re tempted to inhale that balloon, think about it for a minute, and just say no.

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