Thursday, July 30, 2009 7/30/09 - Nitrous Oxide

In today's encore excerpt - nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, and the famed British chemist Humphry Davy (1778-1829). Davy is best remembered today for his discoveries of several alkali and alkaline earth elements, as well as contributions to the discoveries of the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine. He invented the Davy lamp, which allowed miners to enter gassy mine workings. Davy's laboratory assistant, Michael Faraday, went on to enhance Davy's work and in the end he became the more famous and influential scientist:

"In the early 1800s there arose in England a fashion for inhaling nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, after it was discovered that its use 'was attended by a highly pleasurable thrilling.' For the next half century it would be the drug of choice for young people. One learned body, the Askesian Society, was for a time devoted to little else. Theaters put on 'laughing gas evenings' where volunteers could refresh themselves with a robust inhalation and then entertain the audience with their comical staggerings.

"It wasn't until 1846 that anyone got around to finding a practical use for nitrous oxide, as an anesthetic. Goodness knows how many tens of thousands of people suffered unnecessary agonies under the surgeon's knife because no one thought of the gas's most obvious practical application. ...

"A brilliant young man named Humphry Davy was appointed the Royal Institution's professor of [the burgeoning new science of] chemistry shortly after its inception in 1799 and rapidly gained fame as an outstanding lecturer and productive experimentalist. ... Soon after taking up his position, Davy began to bang out new elements one after another - potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, strontium, and aluminum or aluminium, depending on which branch of English you favor. He discovered so many elements not so much because he was serially astute as because he developed an ingenious technique of applying electricity to a molten substance - electrolysis, as it is known. Altogether he discovered a dozen elements, a fifth of the known total of his day. Davy might have done far more, but unfortunately as a young man he developed an abiding attachment to the buoyant pleasures of nitrous oxide. He grew so attached to the gas that he drew on it (literally) three or four times a day. Eventually, in 1829, it is thought to have killed him."

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Broadway, Copyright 2003 by Bill Bryson, pp. 102-104


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