Helium (He)

The founder of the prestigious magazine ‘Nature’ was Warwickshire-born Sir Norman Lockyer (1836-1920) and its first edition in 1869 includes his description of his own discovery of the so-called ‘noble’ gas, helium, the year before. Such an achievement was remarkable for a man with no formal scientific education, but rather a thirst for knowledge, a telescope and a spectroscope. He became a member of the Royal Astronomical Society at age 25.

Lockyer was particularly interested in the Sun’s fiery corona and ‘prominences’, which he called the chromosphere. He observed these during solar eclipses and would travel far and wide at great expense and effort to observe as many eclipses as possible. In between times he used his method for blocking out the sunlight by using seven prisms positioned radially on a spectroscope fitted in a refracting telescope.

This enabled Lockyer to discern spectral lines of hydrogen and sodium, along with an unknown element, which he named ‘helium’ after Helios, the sun-god. Helium was later found to exist on Earth as well, albeit in much smaller amounts than in the celestial arena. Lockyer was the Director of the Solar Physics Observatory in 1885-1913 and there are craters named after him on the Moon and Mars.

(Images: Lockyer & his spectroscope both from Wellcome Collection at Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0, solar chromospheric and coronal spectra by Bob Fosbury at Flickr.com / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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