Oct 022018

Today is the birthday (1852) of Sir William Ramsay KCB, FRS, FRSE, a Scottish chemist who discovered the noble gases and received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1904 “in recognition of his services in the discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air” (along with his collaborator, John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics that same year for their discovery of argon). After the two men identified argon, Ramsay investigated other atmospheric gases. His work in isolating argon, helium, neon, krypton and xenon led to the development of a new section of the periodic table. You can chuckle that the noble gases got him a Nobel.

Ramsay was born in Glasgow and was a nephew of the geologist Sir Andrew Ramsay. He was educated at Glasgow Academy and then apprenticed to Robert Napier, shipbuilder in Govan. However, he instead decided to study Chemistry at the University of Glasgow, matriculating in 1866 and graduating in 1869. He then undertook practical training with the chemist Thomas Anderson and then went to study in Germany at the University of Tübingen with Wilhelm Rudolph Fittig where his doctoral thesis was entitled “Investigations in the Toluic and Nitrotoluic Acids.”

Ramsay went back to Glasgow as Anderson’s assistant at the Anderson College. He was appointed professor of Chemistry at the University College of Bristol in 1879 and married Margaret Buchanan in 1881. In the same year he became the Principal of University College, Bristol, and somehow managed to combine that with active research both in organic chemistry and on gases.

In 1887 he succeeded Alexander Williamson as the chair of Chemistry at University College London (UCL). It was here at UCL that he made his most celebrated discoveries. As early as 1885–1890 he published several notable papers on the oxides of nitrogen, developing the skills that he needed for his subsequent work. On the evening of 19th April 1894 Ramsay attended a lecture given by Lord Rayleigh. Rayleigh had noticed a discrepancy between the density of nitrogen made by chemical synthesis and nitrogen isolated from the air by removal of the other known components. After a short conversation he and Ramsay decided to investigate this phenomenon. In August Ramsay told Rayleigh he had isolated a new, heavy component of air, which did not appear to have any chemical reactivity. He named this inert gas “argon”, from the Greek word meaning “lazy.” In the following years, working with Morris Travers, he discovered neon, krypton, and xenon. He also isolated helium, which had only been observed in the spectrum of the sun, and had not previously been found on earth. In 1910 he isolated and characterized radon.

Ramsay lived in Hazlemere, Buckinghamshire until his death. He died in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, on 23rd July 1916 from nasal cancer at the age of 63 and was buried in Hazlemere Parish church.

In this post on the discovery of helium – http://www.bookofdaystales.com/helium/   – I had a word or two to say about the current fad of molecular gastronomy and its use of helium. My opinion has not changed. The fad will die ere long. Seeing how many foodstuffs you can make spherical, or how many liquids you can make to mimic solids will eventually lose its luster. Foams, on the other hand, have been around for centuries, and will continue for centuries more. Meringues and whipped cream will never grow old, and some newer foams may linger. Soy sauce foam has promise, although I do not expect it to catch on. All you need is some soy sauce, soy lecithin, and an immersion blender.  What this video does not explain is that there are numerous types of soy sauce and they will all produce difference flavors of foam. I know of about 40 different types of soy sauce, many of which I can get in supermarkets here in Cambodia, and maybe one day I’ll write a post on them.

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