John Rayleigh: Inert Gas Argon – British Physical Scientist, 1904 Nobel Prize in Physics in 1904
Brief biography of English physicist Lord John Rayleigh, a Nobel Prize laureate in physics for isolating inert gas argon, and known for the phrase “why is the sky blue.”
Sir John Rayleigh (1842-1919), a peer by inheritance, was a British physicist. He discovered argon, an inert gas, that earned him the 1904 Nobel Prize in physics award. He is also known for “Rayleigh Scattering.”
John William Strutt Rayleigh (or Lord John Rayleigh) was born in Maldon, Essex, England on November 12, 1842. As a child he suffered from poor health. As a consequence, he was withdrawn formal education from both Eton and Harrow Schools, and his education done at home by a tutor in the family seat at Terling Place, Witham.
Training and Education
After few years, he was judged healthy and fit to enter eduation at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a first-class Bachelor of Arts degree in the Mathematical Tripos. He developed a strong interest in both the experimental and mathematical sides of physical science. He wrote a paper that further explains an understanding of the theories in electromagnetics by James Maxwell.
He married Arthur Balfour’s sister and had three children. He became ill again about the time he married, and in order to recover from a life-threatening bout of rheumatic fever, Rayleigh took a trip up the Nile with his wife Evelyn.
The Theory of Sound
During this time he began writing his great work, The Theory of Sound. In this book, Rayleigh examines questions of vibrations and the resonance of elastic solids and gases. This work was published in two volumes (1877 and 1878), and it was the most important book on these subjects for over five decades.
Blue Sky. Rayleigh Scattering.
Following the death of his father, John Rayleigh became the 3rd Baron Rayleigh. He moved into the family manor house and built his private laboratory alongside the manor house. At this time, Rayleigh had a long-standing problem: why is the sky blue. His studies, experiments and observations brought a solution. His theory explains why the sky is blue: due to the scattering of sunlight by small particles in the atmosphere, according to the fourth power of the wavelength. This is now called the “Rayleigh scattering.”
Inert Gas Argon
However, it’s not his solution to ‘why the sky is blue’ that’s considered Rayleigh’s greatest contribution to science. It is his discovery and isolation of argon, a rare gas of the atmosphere. His experiments were numerous and important and resulted in him being awarded the 1904 Nobel Prize in connection to the element argon. This inert gas is used everyday, most likely without the knowledge of its users. Argon fills ordinary lightbulbs. Classified as ‘inert’ gas, it does not take any chemical reaction.
Awards and Recognition
Rayleigh was elected president of the Royal Society. Later, he was foremost leader in British physics and in 1908 was appointed chancellor of Cambridge University. He might have been frail physically, but his mind was active and he worked up to his death on June 30, 1919, whilst living at his Terling Place.