National Science Week at the ANU Library – classic science topics

14 August 2018

The ANU Library is celebrating this year’s National Science Week theme – Game Changers and Change Makers – by exploring some of the incredible resources in our collection that showcase amazing scientific achievement.

Today we are looking at the history of two old-school science topics, the kind you learn about in your first science class at school – helium and energy.

150th anniversary of the discovery of helium

This year commemorates the 150th anniversary of the discovery of helium. The origin of this achievement is interesting, as French astronomer Jules Janssen and English astronomer Norman Lockyer both share the honour, having observed the phenomenon independently and submitting papers which arrived to the French Academy of Sciences within minutes of each other. They had both noted an intense yellow colour in the solar light spectrum, thought to be caused by an undiscovered element. Lockyer named this element “helios”, after the Greek sun god.

Given helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe, it seems odd that it was only discovered 150 years ago. However, helium is quite rare on our planet, originating underground through the decay of radioactive elements. While many experts believed that helium must only exist in the sun, in 1895 Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay isolated helium on earth while looking for argon.

You can read about helium in books such as Argon, helium and the rare gases, and Superfluids. Or learn about the lasting legacy left on science history by Sir Norman Lockyer in the biography Science and Controversy

200th birthday of James Joule

Recognisable even to those outside of the scientific community, the Joule is a unit of energy named in honour of this English physicist James Prescott Joule.

Joule was born on Christmas Eve in 1818, into a family of brewers. As a boy he was tutored by the famous scientist John Dalton and was fascinated by electricity and its effects, regularly giving his brothers and servants electric shocks as an ‘experiment’. His family brewery became a laboratory of sorts, where he worked on replacing the brewery’s steam engines with the newly invented electric motor for both economic and scientific purposes.

Joule continued to study the nature of heat and its relationship to mechanical work. This led to the ‘Law of Conservation of Energy’ which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can only be transferred from one form to another. This in turn led to the First Law of Thermodynamics. Thanks to Joule, we now have a better standard unit of energy.

You can read the scientific papers of James Joule or his biography, and his memoir is part of our Rare Book collection.