The Fairy-Land of Science Lecture 3 – Part 3

Lecture III    The Aerial Ocean in Which We Live   Continued…

Now when we wish to see the weight of the air we consult a barometer, which works really just in the same way as the water in this tube. An ordinary upright barometer is simply a straight tube of glass filled with mercury or quicksilver, and turned upside-down in a small cup of mercury. The tube is a little more than 30 inches long, and though it is quite full of mercury before it is turned up, yet directly it stands in the cup the mercury falls, till there is a height of about 30 inches between the surface of the mercury in the cup, and that of the mercury in the tube. As it falls it leaves an empty space above the mercury which is called a vacuum, because it has no air in it. Now, the mercury is under the same conditions as the water was in the U tube, there is no pressure upon it at the top of the tube, while there is a pressure of 15 lbs. upon it in the bowl, and therefore it remains held up in the tube.

But why will it not remain more than 30 inches high in the tube? You must 3 part 3 which presses onremember it is only kept up in the tube at all by the air which presses on the mercury in the cup. And that column of mercury now balances the pressure of the air outside, and presses down on the mercury in the cup at its mouth just as much as the air does on the rest. So this cup and tube act exactly like a pair of scales. The air outside is the thing to be weighed at one end as it presses on the mercury, the column answers to the leaden weight at the other end which tells you how heavy the air is. Now if the bore of this tube is made an inch square, then the 30 inches of 3 part 3 a square inchmercury in it weigh exactly 15 lbs, and so we know that the weight of the air is 15 lbs. upon every square inch, but if the bore of the tube is only half a square inch, and therefore the 30 inches of mercury only weigh 7 1/2 lbs. instead of 15 lbs., the pressure of the atmosphere will also be halved, because it will only act upon half a square inch of surface, and for this reason it will make no difference to the height of the mercury whether the tube be broad or narrow.

But now suppose the atmosphere grows lighter, as it does when it has much damp in it. The barometer will show this at once, because there will be less weight on the mercury in the cup, therefore it will not keep the mercury pushed so high up in the tube. In other words, the mercury in the tube will fall.

Let us suppose that one day the air is so much lighter that it presses down only with a weight of 14 1/2 lbs. to the square inch instead of 15 lbs. Then the mercury would fall to 29 inches, because each inch is equal to the weight of half a pound. Now, when the air is damp and very full of water-vapour it is much lighter, and so when the barometer falls we expect rain. Sometimes, however, other causes make the air light, and then, although the barometer is low, no rain comes,

Again, if the air becomes heavier the mercury is pushed up above 30 to 31 inches, and in this way we are able to weigh the invisible air-ocean all over the world, and tell when it grows lighter or heavier. This then, is the secret of the barometer. We cannot speak of the thermometer today, but I should like to warn you in passing that it has nothing to do with the weight of the air, but only with heat, and acts in quite a different way.

And now we have been so long hunting out, testing and weighing our aerial ocean, that scarcely any time is left us to speak of its movements or the pleasant breezes which it makes for us in our country walks. Did you ever try to run races on a very windy day? Ah! then you feel the air strongly enough; how it beats against your face and chest, and blows down your throat so as to take your breath away; and what hard work it is to struggle against it! Stop for a moment and rest, and ask yourself, what is the wind? Why does it blow sometimes one way and sometimes another, and sometimes not at all?

Wind is nothing more than air moving across the surface of the earth, which as it passes along bends the tops of the trees, beats against the houses, pushes the ships along by their sails, turns the windmill, carries off the smoke from cities, whistles through the keyhole, and moans as it rushes down the valley. What makes the air restless? why should it not lie still all round the earth?

It is restless because, as you will remember, its atoms are kept pressed together near the earth by the weight of the air above, and they take every opportunity, when they can find more room, to spread out violently and rush into the vacant space, and this rush we call a wind.

Imagine a great number of active schoolboys all crowded into a room till they can scarcely move their arms and legs for the crush, and then suppose all at once a large door is opened. Will they not all come tumbling out pell-mell, one over the other, into the hall beyond, so that if you stood in their way you would most likely be knocked down? Well, just this happens to the air- atoms; when they find a space before them into which they can rush, they come on helter-skelter, with such force that you have great difficulty in standing against them, and catch hold of something to support you for fear you should be blown down.

But how come they to find any empty space to receive them? To answer this we must go back again to our little active invisible fairies the sunbeams. When the sun-waves come pouring down upon the earth they pass through the air almost without heating it. But not so with the ground; there they pass down only a short distance and then are thrown back again. And when these sun- waves come quivering back they force the atoms of the air near the earth apart and make it lighter; so that the air close to the surface of the heated ground becomes less heavy than the air above it, and rises just as a cork rises in water. You know that hot air rises in the chimney; for if you put a piece of lighted paper on the fire it is carried up by the draught of air, often even before it can ignite. Now just as the hot air rises from the fire, so it rises from the heated ground up into higher parts of the atmosphere. and as it rises it leaves only thin air behind it, and this cannot resist the strong cold air whose atoms are struggling and trying to get free, and they rush in and fill the space.

One of the simplest examples of wind is to be found at the seaside. there in the daytime the land gets hot under the sunshine, and heats the air, making it grow light and rise. Meanwhile the sunshine on the water goes down deeper, and so does not send back so many heat-waves into the air; consequently the air on the top of the water is cooler and heavier, and it rushes in from over the sea to fill up the space on the shore left by the warm air as it rises. This is why the seaside is so pleasant in hot weather. During the daytime a light sea-breeze nearly always sets in from the sea to the land.

When night comes, however, then the land loses its heat very quickly, because it has not stored it up and the land-air grows cold; but the sea, which has been hoarding the sun-waves down in its depths, now gives them up to the atmosphere above it, and the sea-air becomes warm and rises. For this reason it is now the turn of the cold air from the land to spread over the sea, and you have a land-breeze blowing off the shore.

Again, the reason why there are such steady winds, called the trade winds, blowing towards the equator, is that the sun is very hot at the equator, and hot air is always rising there and making room for colder air to rush in. We have not time to travel farther with the moving air, though its journeys are extremely interesting; but if, when you read about the trade and other winds, you will always picture to yourselves warm air made light by the heat rising up into space and cold air expanding and rushing in to fill its place, I can promise you that you will not find the study of aerial currents so dry as many people imagine it to be.

We are now able to form some picture of our aerial ocean. We can imagine the active atoms of oxygen floating in the sluggish nitrogen, and being used up in every candle-flame, gas-jet and fire, and in the breath of all living beings; and coming out again tied fast to atoms of carbon and making carbonic acid. Then we can turn to trees and plants, and see them tearing these two apart again, holding the carbon fast and sending the invisible atoms of oxygen bounding back again into the air, ready to recommence work. We can picture all these air-atoms, whether of oxygen or nitrogen, packed close together on the surface of the earth, and lying gradually farther and farther apart, as they have less weight above them, till they become so scattered that we can only detect them as they rub against the flying meteors which flash into light. We can feel this great weight of air pressing the limpet on to the rock; and we can see it pressing up the mercury in the barometer and so enabling us to measure its weight. Lastly, every breath of wind that blows past us tells us how this aerial ocean is always moving to and fro on the face of the earth; and if we think for a moment how much bad air and bad matter it must carry away, as it goes from crowded cities to be purified in the country, we can see how, in even this one way alone, it is a great blessing to us.

Yet even now we have not mentioned many of the beauties of our atmosphere. It is the tiny particles floating in the air which scatter the light of the sun so that it spreads over the whole country and into shady places. The sun’s rays always travel straight forward; and in the moon, where there is no atmosphere, there is no light anywhere except just where the rays fall. But on our earth the sun-waves hit against the myriads of particles in the air and glide off them into the corners of the room or the recesses of a shady lane, and so we have light spread before us wherever we walk in the daytime, instead of those deep black shadows which we can see through a telescope on the face of the moon.

Again, it is electricity playing in the air-atoms which gives us the beautiful lightning and the grand aurora borealis, and even the twinkling of the starts is produced entirely by minute changes in the air. If it were not for our aerial ocean, the stars would stare at us sternly, instead of smiling with the pleasant twinkle-twinkle which we have all learned to love as little children.

All these questions, however, we must leave for the present; only I hope you will be eager to read about them wherever you can, and open your eyes to learn their secrets. For the present we must be content if we can even picture this wonderful ocean of gas spread round our earth, and some of the work it does for us.

We said in the last lecture that without the sunbeams the earth would be cold, dark, and frost-ridden. With sunbeams, but without air, it would indeed have burning heat, side by side with darkness and ice, but it could have no soft light. our planet might look beautiful to others, as the moon does to us, but it could have comparatively few beauties of its own. With the sunbeams and the air, we see it has much to make it beautiful. But a third worker is wanted before our planet can revel in activity and life. This worker is water; and in the next lecture we shall learn something of the beauty and the usefulness of the “drops of water” on their travels.

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Go to Lecture 4-Part 1 here.