Scottish chemist and past SCI President, Sir William Ramsay (1852–1916) came from a long line of scientists on both sides of his family and was described as ‘the greatest chemical discoverer of his time’.
Born in Glasgow, he showed a strong interest in science from a young age and, in his teenage years, he experimented with making fireworks, using materials acquired by his father.
He completed his doctorate in organic chemistry and later, in 1887, was appointed as the Chair of Chemistry at University College London, where he made his most renowned discoveries.
Working with British physicist John William Strutt (better known as Lord Rayleigh), the two men discovered an unknown gas. Owing to its apparent lack of chemical activity, they named the gas argon, meaning “the lazy one”.
After the co-identification of argon, Sir William Ramsay suggested that it be placed into the periodic table between chlorine and potassium in a group with helium. Due to the zero valency of the elements this was named the “zero” group.
From 1895 Ramsay spent three years trying to prove the theory of this new group of gasses, leading to the isolation of helium, neon, krypton and xenon. Eventually, a new column was added to the periodic table.
Ramsay was an outstanding experimentalist. He rolled his own cigarettes, claiming that machine-made ones were unworthy of an experimentalist such as himself.
In 1904, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air, and his determination of their place in the Periodic system”. As a result, Ramsay became a considerable celebrity in London and was cartooned both by Spy for Vanity Fair and by Henry Tonks, Head of UCL’s Slade School of Art.
Ramsay ascribed his success in isolating the rare gases to his large flat thumb which could close the end of eudiometer tubes (graduated glass tube used to mix gases) full of mercury.
The group of elements that he discovered is now known commonly as the noble gases and is comprised of helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon. Generally, they are chemically inert (they do not react with other elements) this is because they have the desired amount of total s and p electrons in their outermost energy orbital. However, only helium and neon are truly inert. Under very specific conditions, the other noble gases will react on a limited scale.
Today, the noble gasses are in wide use in the real world.
Argon is particularly important for the metal industry, due to the fact that it does not react with the metal at high temperatures. It is used in arc welding (a welding process that is used to join metal to metal by using electricity to create enough heat to melt metal) and is also used in light bulbs to prevent oxygen from corroding the hot filament.
Helium, one of the most common and lightest elements in the universe, is used for diluting the pure oxygen in deep-sea diving tanks. It’s also used to inflate the tires of large aircraft, weather balloons, blimps and party balloons.
Neon, which means ‘New one’ in Greek, is commonly used in colourful glass tube neon signs, it glows bright red when an electric current is sent through the gas, as it enters a plasma state. Other uses of Neon include in vacuum tubes, television tubes, and helium-neon lasers.
Krypton and xenon, valued for their total inertness, are used in photographic flash units, in lightbulbs and in lighthouses, as these elements generate a bright light when an electric current is run through them.
The original glass tubes that Ramsay used to isolate and collect his samples at UCL still exist today, they continue to glow red, yellow, purple and green, more than a century later.
Not only did Ramsay’s successes complete gaps in the periodic table, but he also paved the way for a deeper understanding of how the elements are connected, shaping our understanding today, a huge achievement that can be attributed in no small part to his experimental nature and his large flat thumb!