Much ado about (practically) nothing: A history of the noble gases

Much ado about (practically) nothing: A history of the noble gases

David E Fisher

Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 2010 | 288pp | ?15.99 (HB)

ISBN 9780195393965

Reviewed by Hannah Gay

REVIEWS - p55a-180

Fisher’s subtitle is misleading. His book is closer to being the memoir of a geochemist (professor emeritus of geological science and cosmochemistry at the University of Miami) whose career was spent in the field opened up by Harold Urey - the study of physicochemical processes at work in the evolution of the solar system, especially of our planet earth. 

Fisher’s interest in the noble gases is in the clues that their presence in rocks and meteorites provide for understanding these processes. He amusingly recalls his own, often unsuccessful, speculations tested by means of mass spectrometry and activation analysis, as well as his many dealings with colleagues.

However, the book cannot be recommended as an introduction to noble gases and their history. Nor is it a good geochemical history of the solar system. It is difficult to envisage its intended readership. Some of Fisher’s former colleagues might enjoy the gossipy content, those with knowledge of cosmochemistry will probably learn nothing new, and those with little scientific or historical knowledge will have difficulty learning anything much. Fisher includes far too many digressions while recounting his own work. 

Fisher mentions the first detection of helium in the solar spectrum by P J C Jansen in 1868 (but not its discovery on earth by Luigi Palmieri in 1881). The work of Rayleigh in detecting an inert gas in air, and Ramsay’s work in isolating helium and argon are properly mentioned, together with unnecessary asides on Priestley and phlogiston, Lavoisier and oxygen. The role of helium measurements in determining the age of the earth is occasion for a superfluous discussion of the ideas of Archbishop Ussher in the 17th century, and those of Lord Kelvin in the 19th century. There is also a chapter on a public debate that Fisher had with the creationist Henry M. Morris on the same issue. Content on the other noble gases is similarly diluted.

A more descriptive title for Fisher’s book would be Much ado about (practically) everything .