The Discoverer of Helium

Helium is everywhere. From your blood to that bright neon sign hanging outside of your favorite pizzeria down the street. It provides lift for the Goodyear blimp that can be seen floating over sporting venues across the country. Saturn V, of the Appolo space program, needed over 13 million cubic feet of helium to launch. Children and adults alike laugh at the sound of someone’s voice after inhaling helium. The strange sound of your voice after swallowing helium is due to the fact that the speed of sound of helium is nearly three times faster than the speed of sound in air. A French astronomer, Pierre Jannsen, first discovered helium on August 18, 1868. Jannsen originally thought that the helium was sodium. English astronomers Norman Lockyer and Edward Frankland named helium after the Greek word for the Sun, helios.

The second most prevalent element in the universe is helium, right after hydrogen. The universe is comprised of over 23% of the elemental mass of the universe. Helium is one of the noble gases, which are comprised of the elements in Group 18 of the periodic table of elements invented by Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869. According to the controversial Big Bang Theory, the vast majority of helium in the universe was formed in what is called the Big Bang nucleosynthesis, which occurred some one to three minutes after the “Big Bang.”

There are eight known isotopes of helium, but only two of the eight isotopes are stable. Helium-4 is the most common isotope and it is produced on Earth by alpha decay of heavier elements. It is highly unstable as it’s nucleons are arranged in complete shells. Helium-3 is not abundant on Earth, unlike Helium-4. It is much more prevalent in the stars, due to the fact that it is a product of nuclear fusion.

Helium is not just useful in the laboratory, it was also extremely vital in everyday life as well. In 1925 the United States set up the National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas. The main purpose of this facility was to provide helium to military airships in times of war and to commercial airships during peacetime. Commercial airships during the period after World War I, were used much like airliners are today. One of the most infamous airships was without a doubt the German Hindenburg. Due to a US embargo on Germany that restricted helium supplies, the Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen. Thirty-five people were killed when the notorious airship exploded in Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937 after a flight from Frankfurt, Germany.