Today’s Doodle celebrates the life and work of Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsey, whose research led to the discovery of an unknown group of elements known as the noble gases. Born in Glasgow on this day in 1852, Sir Ramsay’s work led to groundbreaking advances in thermodynamics and nuclear physics.
After traveling to Germany, where he earned his doctorate at the University of Tübingen, Ramsay returned home with a reputation for innovative experimental techniques. As chair of chemistry at University College, London, he published numerous papers and books on liquids and vapors.
Ramsay was intrigued when another British physicist, Lord Rayleigh, observed that nitrogen in the earth’s atmosphere had a higher atomic weight than nitrogen in the laboratory. In 1894, he and Lord Rayleigh announced the discovery of a chemically inert gas, which they named argon.
While searching for argon, Ramsay found helium, which had been previously thought to exist only in the sun. Ramsay’s 1896 book The Gases of the Atmosphere predicted the existence of at least 3 more noble gases. Reducing air to low temperatures at high pressure, his team proceeded to identify neon, krypton, and xenon, reshaping the periodic table of elements forever.
Because of their chemical inertness, noble gases proved useful in many ways. For instance, helium replaced flammable hydrogen for lighter-than-air travel, and argon was used in lightbulbs.
Described by many as the “greatest chemical discoverer of his time,” Ramsay became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1888, was knighted in 1902, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1904.