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The Alien Element In Your Home

Birthday Parties Will Never Be The Same

By David BrandyPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 3 min read

Cake Seasons

In my house we have two "cake seasons" each year. The first one is from March 15th, my son's birthday and to about a week after my birthday on April 3rd. The second cake season is from my wife's birthday on July 30th and ends about a week after my daughter's birthday on August 15th. After every birthday we keep the cake and it usually lasts long enough that it feels almost like one continuous "cake season" by the time we eat it all.

Weeks of eating cake aside, at every birthday party we have something. Something a lot of birthday parties have, but most people might not know that this particular element has a strange backstory.


Aside from being the thing we fill those floating balloons with, did you know that helium is sorta special? It is the only element that wasn't originally discovered on Earth. It is one of those strange things that is named for something that you wouldn't expect. The Sun!

The word helium comes from the Greek word Helios, which means Sun! Why is the gas that makes your voice high pitched when you breathe it named after the Sun? That's where things get fun.

In 1868 something extraordinary happened, two scientists Pierre Janssen and Joseph Norman Lockyer, discover the first and only element to be discovered somewhere other than our planet. By observing the specific wavelengths of light they independently found a wavelength unlike any other found before. This just happened to be the first discovery of helium!

Helium shortages... Because of the long trip to the Sun to collect it?

I am sure you have heard of helium shortages. And now that you know where helium was discovered, maybe you're surprised that we have this faraway element here on Earth at all. Am I saying that we fly to the Sun to harvest helium? Surely enough we can make it, right? Well, no I don't believe we have sent anything to the Sun for a helium refill and surprisingly, no, we can't make the stuff.

When helium was discovered on the Sun, it was believed that it only existed on our star. So what gives? Well it took 14 years, but it was eventually discovered by the Italian physicist Luigi Palmieri while he was analyzing lava from Mount Vesuvius when he found the same wavelength of light!

Side note, The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. That means that America is 92 years older than the discovery of helium.

Speaking of America

It's the US Government that is responsible for the majority of Helium supply. It isn't made, it is extracted. Side note, again. I have now referenced aliens, the US government, and an element's strange history... I feel like I'm playing conspiracy theory bingo.

Where was I?

Yes, Helium is actually a natural gas that has many uses including a refrigerant in laboratory settings and nuclear power reactors, rocket launches, the balloons that float around our houses and more! Even though it is found underground on Earth and is the second most abundant element in the universe, it somehow wasn't discovered until the mid 1800s.

Not how things seem...

Sometimes the things that seem simple and commonplace, like floating party balloons, actually have a strange history. Believe me when I tell you this, you don't want to look up the history of the latex balloon. The first balloons weren't made of pretty things. Before I end this paper with, "balloons and what we fill them with to make them float are weird," maybe we can look at something else.

Maybe our histories aren't what they seem. Lately I have been looking back at events in my life and re-framing them. Maybe you have the same default guilty feeling when you look back, even when you don't have a reason to. Maybe the "skeletons" in your closet aren't just the regular old floating latex, maybe there is more to uncover? Maybe you can see it differently.

Maybe we can see ourselves differently.

This Month in Physics History

Where is Helium Found

Podcast: The helium shortage that wasn’t supposed to be

What is helium?

Chemistry For Life

how tostemhigh school

About the Creator

David Brandy

My very first story crafting was an imaginary game that me and my two younger brothers would play when I was 12. My love of storytelling manifested itself quickly. Today I am a husband, father, and business owner.

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