Breathing the Sky: What's the Composition of Air?

Jul 20, 2017
Clouds in the Sky
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When we look up into the sky, we’re looking through dozens of miles of transparent gases, which we breathe from birth to death. So what is the composition of air, exactly?

To be more specific, name that top three ingredients.

1. Ask your friends what makes up most of the air, and, odds are, a few will correctly say nitrogen. It makes up nearly 80% of the air. It doesn’t hurt you and it doesn’t help you, which is sort of like the government of Monaco.

2. Air’s second most common component is oxygen, which is on everyone’s “favorite element” list. It accounts for a fifth of the atmosphere.

3. That leaves about one percent of the air unaccounted for. The question is: What is that one percent? What’s the third most common element that you inhale?

Stop and guess! Most would guess carbon dioxide, which actually makes up less than a twentieth of a percent, villainous greenhouse notoriety notwithstanding. Few would choose the element only discovered around a century ago: Argon.

Argon is the gas inside light bulbs, so we look at it a lot even though we don’t often think about it. Argon doesn’t even help us think, unlike hydrogen and oxygen, which is what our brains are mostly constructed from.

A Gassy Legacy

Argon was discovered by a Scot, William Ramsay, who eventually won the Nobel prize for his work with gases. He also discovered the universe’s second most common substance, helium, as well as neon, krypton, and xenon. He even sent electricity through various mixtures to produce the brilliant tube lights that fill the world’s cities with sophisticated suggestions, such as “Eat” or “Open.”

Anyway, that was just a hundred years ago. Who’s heard of Ramsay today? You’d think someone who’d found five of the universe’s 92 natural elements would still be remembered. (Ramsay died in 1912.) But again, nobody can today recall a single Broadway celebrity from that era, whose name was then on everyone’s lips. How transient is fame—which is maybe why his existence is memorialized by a lunar crater that bears his name.

The lunar crater "Ramsay", named after scientist William Ramsay.
The lunar crater, Ramsay (center).

So argon continues to permeate our lungs, while the person responsible for our thoughts about it has vanished with barely a trace. I thought for a moment there was going to be profundity in all this somewhere, but I guess I was wrong. Sorry.

See more of This Week’s Amazing Sky.

About This Blog

Welcome to “This Week’s Amazing Sky,” the Almanac’s blog on stargazing and astronomy. Wondering which bright objects you’re seeing in the night sky? Want to learn about a breathtaking sight coming up? Bob Berman, longtime and famous astronomer for The Old Farmer’s Almanac, will help bring alive the wonders of our universe. From the beautiful stars and planets to magical auroras and eclipses, we’ll cover everything under the Sun (and Moon)!

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What else are we breathing?

Aluminum, barium, etc...

But this is a "nice" article. We won't go into "conspiracy theory's", such as the "chemtrail sprayings", oops, I meant what's in the "contrails"...

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