Helium Discovery Day

Helium Discovery Day celebrates the day that helium was first discovered. In the mid-19th century, scientists wanted to study the chemical composition of the sun, and thought that a solar eclipse was necessary to do so. In 1868, French astronomer Pierre Jules César Janssen went to Guntoor, India, to watch an eclipse in hopes of studying the sun's composition. On August 18, using a prism, he found a yellow light that appeared to be sodium, but found out that it didn't have the same wavelength as that element. It turns out what he had discovered was helium! Ironically, another scientist, Joseph Norman Lockyear, was also studying the sun and was able to view the solar prominences of the sun without an eclipse. Like Janssen, he also discovered helium, only a few months after his fellow scientist. For three decades the scientists were derided for their discoveries, and it was not until William Ramsay found helium inside of iron ore that the earlier discoveries were vindicated.

Besides being a gas used to fill balloons and make human voices sound ridiculous, helium is crucial for many things. It is a key component of stars, as well as gas giants, which are planets mainly made of gas. Helium is used for the flight of airships and balloons, as it provides buoyancy and is non-flammable. It is used in MRI scanners, rockets, solar telescopes, arc welding, and in determining the age of rocks with radioactive substances such as uranium. It is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, and is present in roughly 24% of the universe's observable elemental mass.

How to Observe

The easiest and most fun way to celebrate Helium Discovery Day is to have your lungs discover helium by breathing in the element from a balloon. Once the discovery is made though, make sure to get some oxygen so you don't pass out. If you don't feel like changing your voice, just buy some helium balloons and walk around with them all day. If people ask why you have the balloons, tell them it's Helium Discovery Day. Now that you know the story of helium's discovery, you can tell people about it too. You also could tie a note containing a wish or something else to a balloon and let it go into the air. Maybe you could just write a thank you note to Pierre Janssen and send it off. You could also visit the Albuquerque International Balloon Museum.


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