Joseph Gay-Lussac

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  • Topic: Iodine, Alexander von Humboldt, Boron
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Joseph Gay-Lussac was a French chemist and physicist, born at St. Léonard, in the department of Haute Vienne, on the 6th of December 1778. He was the elder son of Antoine Gay, procureur du roi and judge at Pont-de-Noblac, who assumed the name Lussac from a small property he had in the neighborhood of St. Léonard. Young Gay-Lussac received his early education at home under the direction of the abbé Bourdieux and other masters, and in 1794 was sent to Paris to prepare for the École Polytechnique, into which he was admitted at the end of 1797 after a brilliant examination. Three years later he was transferred to the École des Ponts et Chaussées, and shortly afterwards was assigned to C. L. Berthollet, who wanted an able student to help in his researches. The new assistant scarcely came up to expectations in respect of confirming certain theoretical views of his master's by the experiments set him to that end, and appears to have stated the discrepancy without reserve; but Berthollet nevertheless quickly recognized the ability displayed, and showed his appreciation not only by desiring to be Gay-Lussac's "father in science", but also by making him in 1807 an original member of the Socité d'Arcueil. In 1802 he was appointed demonstrator to Antoine François Fourcroy at the École Polytechnique, where subsequently (1809) he became professor of chemistry, and from 1808 to 1832 he was professor of physics at the Sorbonne, a post which he only resigned for the chair of chemistry at the Jardin des Plantes. In 1831 he was elected to represent Haute Vienne in the chamber of deputies, and in 1839 he entered the chamber of peers. He died in Paris on the 9th of May 1850. Gay-Lussac's earlier researches were mostly physical in character and referred mainly to the properties of gases, vapor-tensions, hygrometry, capillarity, etc. In his first memoir (Ann. de Chimie, 1802) he showed that different gases are dilated in the same proportion when heated from 0° to 100°C. Apparently he did not know of John Dalton's experiments on the same point, which indeed were far from accurate; but in a note he explained that "le cit. Charles avait remarqué depuis 15 ans la même propriété dans ces gaz; mais n'ayant jamais publié ses résultats, c'est par le plus grand hasard que je les ai connus." In consequence of his candor in thus rescuing from oblivion the observation which his fellow citizen did not think worth publishing, his name is sometimes dissociated from this law, which instead is known as that of Charles. In 1804 he had an opportunity of prosecuting his researches on air in somewhat unusual conditions, for the French Academy, desirous of securing some observations on the force of terrestrial magnetism at great elevations above the earth, through Claude-Louis Berthollet and J.E. Chaptal obtained the use of the balloon which had been employed in Egypt, and entrusted the task to him and J.B. Biot. In their first ascent from the garden of the Conservatoire des Arts on the 24th of August 1804 an altitude of 4000 meters (about 13,000 ft.) was attained. But this elevation was not considered sufficient by Gay-Lussac, who therefore made a second ascent by himself on the 16th of September, when the balloon rose 7016 metres (about 23,000 ft.) above sea level. At this height, with the thermometer marking 9.5 degrees below freezing, he remained for a considerable time, making observations not only on magnetism, but also on the temperature and humidity of the air, and collecting several samples of air at different heights. The magnetic observations, though imperfect, led him to the conclusion that the magnetic effect at all attainable elevations above the earth's surface remains constant; and on analyzing the samples of air he could find no difference of composition at different heights. On the 1st of October in the same year, in conjunction with Alexander von Humboldt, he read a paper on eudiometric analysis (Ann. de Chim., 1805), which contained the germ...
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