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What Was Unique about the Discovery of Helium?

English astronomer Norman Lockyer and French astronomer Pierre Jules César Janssen were independently studying a total solar eclipse in 1868 when they both noticed a curious yellow emission in the Sun’s spectrum, with a wavelength of 587.49 nanometers. Using an instrument called a spectroscope, Janssen determined that the yellow light, which everyone had assumed to be sodium, didn’t match up to the wavelength of any known element. Both scientists arrived at the same conclusion and got busy documenting their theories. Their respective papers arrived at the French Academy of Sciences on the same day, so both astronomers were credited with the discovery of helium, the first element found in space before it was found on Earth.

Helium? It's a gas:

  • Helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe, after hydrogen. It’s colorless, odorless, and tasteless.

  • Helium is an inert gas. It is harvested from natural gas deposits, mainly in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

  • Why do you sound funny when you inhale helium? The gas is significantly less dense than air, so the speed of sound is much higher in helium. When you take a hit of helium, you're essentially increasing the speed of the sound of your voice.

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