Sunday, September 29, 2013

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 2

Two elements left.  We have come so far in Fearless’ winding journey through the rows and columns of the periodic table.  And now, we are down to …


It is colorless, tasteless, odorless, non-toxic, and inert.  It exists only as a gas except in very extreme conditions.  It is the second-most abundant element in all the universe.  Its formation dates all the way back to the “big bang” at the dawn of creation of the universe as we have come to know it, although it continues to be produced as a product of nuclear fusion in stars.

Here on earth it was discovered… not on earth.  Pierre Jules César Janssen (known simply as “Jules” to his chemist pals) found evidence of helium in 1868 when he was making observations of the chromosphere of the sun.  Trouble is, Janssen thought what he discovered was actually sodium.  It was up to Norman Lockyer, an English chemist, to figure out that what it really was, was an element not found on earth.  Lockyer and his chemist partner, Edward Frankland, named the element “helium” for the Greek word “helios,” meaning “sun.”

The trick now was to find it on earth.  That would be credited to Luigi Palmieri, a physicist who detected it in analyzing lava of Mount Vesuvius in Italy.  Detecting it was one thing, finding it in volume was another.  Fast forward to 1903 and an oil well in Kansas, near its border with Oklahoma.  While drilling for oil, a gas geyser erupted, but the gas did not burn.  Erasmus Haworth, a geologist, collected and analyzed samples of the gas and found that more than ten percent of the gas was a heretofore unidentified gas (the rest of it being nitrogen, methane, and hydrogen).  Further analysis revealed that much of the unidentified gas was helium. 

Helium has a number of applications… arc welding, wind tunnels, leak detection, solar telescopes.  But it really comes down to two uses.  One, as a gas lighter than air and chemically inert, it can be used in flight applications – balloons, airships, and even in some rocket fuel production processes.  The other is as a party gag, where drunken college students can inhale the gas from party balloons to alter the resonant frequencies voices (that is, make them sound like Donald Duck after smoking marijuana).

So there it is.  A lighter than air element, named by Norman "Lockyer"… analyzed and discovered to exist in large volumes in the American Midwest by Erasmus "Haworth.”  And, perhaps its most widely known use is for occasions such as this…

Sounds like a former Capital with a nickname that sounds like “Lockyer,” who played with a teammate named “Haworth.”  A former player who has become an on-air fixture in Capitals games, but one who has a distinctive “resonance frequency” to his voice all alone.

Helium… the “Craig Laughlin” of the elements of the periodic table.

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