The Fairy-Land of Science Lecture 3 – Part 1

Lecture III The Aerial Ocean in Which We Live

thirdDid you ever sit on the bank of a river in some quiet spot where the water was deep and clear, and watch the fishes swimming lazily along? When I was a child this was one of my favourite occupations in the summertime on the banks of the Thames, and there was one question which often puzzled me greatly, as I watched the minnows and gudgeon gliding along through the water. Why should fishes live in something and be often buffeted about by waves and currents, while I and others lived on the top of the earth and not in anything? I do not remember ever asking anyone about this; and if I had, in those days people did not pay much attention to children’s questions, and probably nobody would have told me, what I now tell you, that we do live in something quite as real and often quite as rough and stormy as the water in which the fishes swim. The something in which we live is air, and the reason that we do not perceive it, is that we are in it, and that it is a gas, and invisible to us; while we are above the water in which the fishes live, and it is a liquid which our eyes can perceive.

But let us suppose for a moment that a being, whose eyes were so made that he could see gases as we see liquids, was looking down from a distance upon our earth. He would see an ocean of air, or aerial ocean, all round the globe, with birds floating about in it, and people walking along the bottom, just as we see fish gliding along the bottom of a river. It is true, he would never see even the birds come near to the surface, for the highest- flying bird, the condor, never soars more than five miles from the ground, and our atmosphere, as we shall see, is at least 100 miles high. So he would call us all deep-air creatures, just as we talk of deep-sea animals; and if we can imagine that he fished in this air-ocean, and could pull one of us out of it into space, he would find that we should gasp and die just as fishes do when pulled out of the water.

He would also observe very curious things going on in our air- ocean; he would see large streams and currents of air, which we call winds, and which would appear to him as ocean-currents do to us, while near down to the earth he would see thick mists forming and then disappearing again, and these would be our clouds. From them he would see rain, hail and snow falling to the earth, and from time to time bright flashes would shoot across the air- ocean, which would be our lightning. Nay even the brilliant rainbow, the northern aurora borealis, and the falling stars, which seem to us so high up in space, would be seen by him near to our earth, and all within the aerial ocean.

But as we know of no such being living in space, who can tell us what takes place in our invisible air, and we cannot see it ourselves, we must try by experiments to see it with our imagination, though we cannot with our eyes.

First, then, can we discover what air is? At one time it was thought that it was a simple gas and could not be separated into more than one kind. But we are now going to make an experiment by which it has been shown that air is made of two gases mingled together, and that one of these gases, called oxygen, is used up when anything burns, while the other nitrogen is not used, and only serves to dilute the minute atoms of oxygen. I have here a glass bell-jar, with a cork fixed tightly in the neck, and I place the jar over a pan of water, while on the water floats a plate with a small piece of phosphorus upon it. You will see that by putting the bell-jar over the 3 part 1 use up oxygenwater, I have shut in a certain quantity of air, and my object now is to use up the oxygen out of this air and leave only nitrogen behind. To do this I must light the piece of phosphorus, for you will remember it is in burning that oxygen is used up. I will take the cork out, light the phosphorus, and cork up the jar again. See! as the phosphorus burns white fumes fill the jar. These fumes are phosphoric acid which is a substance made of phosphorous and the oxygen of the air together.

Now, phosphoric acid melts in water just as sugar does, and in a few minutes these fumes will disappear. They are beginning to melt already, and the water from the pan is rising up in the bell-jar. Why is this? Consider for a moment what we have done. First, the jar was full of air, that is, of mixed oxygen and nitrogen; then the phosphorus used up the oxygen making white fumes; afterwards, the water sucked up these fumes; and so, in the jar now nitrogen is the only gas left, and the water has risen up to fill all the rest of the space that was once taken up with oxygen.

We can easily prove that there is no oxygen now in the jar. I take out the cork and let a lighted taper down into the gas. If there were any oxygen the taper would burn, but you see it goes out directly proving that all the oxygen has been used up by the phosphorous. When this experiment is made very accurately, we find that for every pint of oxygen in air there are four pints of nitrogen, so that the active oxygen-atoms are scattered about, floating in the sleepy, inactive nitrogen.

It is these oxygen-atoms which we use up when we breathe. If I had put a mouse under the bell-jar, instead of the phosphorus, the water would have risen just the same, because the mouse would have breathed in the oxygen and used it up in its body, joining it to carbon and making a bad gas, carbonic acid, which would also melt in the water, and when all the oxygen was used, the mouse would have died.

Do you see now how foolish it is to live in rooms that are closely shut up, or to hide your head under the bedclothes when you sleep? You use up all the oxygen-atoms, and then there are none left for you to breathe; and besides this, you send out of your mouth bad fumes, though you cannot see them, and these, when you breathe them in again, poison you and make you ill.

Perhaps you will say, If oxygen is so useful, why is not the air made entirely of it? But think for a moment. If there was such an immense quantity of oxygen, how fearfully fast everything would burn! Our bodies would soon rise above fever heat from the quantity of oxygen we should take in, and all fires and lights would burn furiously. In fact, a flame once lighted would spread so rapidly that no power on earth could stop it, and everything would be destroyed. So the lazy nitrogen is very useful in keeping the oxygen-atoms apart; and we have time, even when a fire is very large and powerful, to put it out before it has drawn in more and more oxygen from the surrounding air. Often, if you can shut a fire into a closed space, as in a closely-shut room or the hold of a ship, it will go out, because it has used up all the oxygen in the air.

So, you see, we shall be right in picturing this invisible air all around us as a mixture of two gases. But when we examine ordinary air very carefully, we find small quantities of other gases in it, besides oxygen and nitrogen. First, there is carbonic acid gas. This is the bad gas which we give out of our mouths after we have burnt up the oxygen with the carbon of our bodies inside our lungs; and this carbonic acid is also given out from everything that burns. If only animals lived in the world, this gas would soon poison the air; but plants get hold of it, and in the sunshine they break it up again, as we shall see in Lecture VII, and use up the carbon, throwing the oxygen back into the air for us to use. Secondly, there are very small quantities of ammonia, or the gas which almost chokes you in smelling-salts, and which, when liquid is commonly called “spirits of hartshorn.” This ammonia is useful to plants, as we shall see by and by. Lastly, there is a great deal of water in the air, floating about as invisible vapour or water-dust, and this we shall speak of in the next lecture. Still, all these gases and vapours in the atmosphere are in very small quantities, and the bulk of the air is composed of oxygen and nitrogen.

Having now learned what air is, the next question which presents itself is, Why does it stay round our earth? You will remember we saw in the first lecture, that all the little atoms of a gas are trying to fly away from each other, so that if I turn on this gas-jet the atoms soon leave it, and reach you at the farther end of the room, and you can smell the gas. Why, then, do not all the atoms of oxygen and nitrogen fly away from our earth into space, and leave us without any air?

Ah! here you must look for another of our invisible forces. Have you forgotten our giant force, “gravitation,” which draws things together from a distance? This force draws together the earth and the atoms of oxygen and nitrogen; and as the earth is very big and heavy, and the atoms of air are light and easily moved, they are drawn down to the earth and held there by gravitation. But for all that, the atmosphere does not leave off trying to fly away; it is always pressing upwards and outwards with all its might, while the earth is doing its best to hold it down.

The effect of this is, that near the earth, where the pull downward is very strong, the air-atoms are drawn very closely together, because gravitation gets the best of the struggle. But as we get farther and farther from the earth, the pull downward becomes weaker, and then the air-atoms spring farther apart, and the air becomes thinner. Suppose that the lines in this diagram represent layers of air. Near the earth we have to represent them as lying closely together, but as they recede from the earth they are also farther apart.

3 part 1 also farther apart

But the chief reason why the air is thicker or denser nearer the earth, is because the upper layers press it down. If you have a heap of papers lying one on the top of the other, you know that those at the bottom of the heap will be more closely pressed together than those above, and just the same is the case with the atoms of the air. Only there is this difference, if the papers have lain for some time, when you take the top ones off, the under ones remain close together. But it is not so with the air, because air is elastic, and the atoms are always trying to fly apart, so that directly you take away the pressure they spring up again as far as they can.

I have here an ordinary pop-gun. If I push the cork in very tight, and then force the piston slowly inwards, I can compress the air a good deal. Now I am forcing the atoms nearer and nearer together, but at last they rebel so strongly against being more crowded that the cork cannot resist their pressure. Out it flies, and the atoms spread themselves out comfortably again in the air all around them. Now, just as I pressed the air together in the pop-gun, so the atmosphere high up above the earth presses on the air below and keeps the atoms closely packed together. And in this case the atoms cannot force back the air above them as they did the cork in the pop-gun; they are obliged to submit to be pressed together.

Go to Lecture 3-Part 2 here.