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Gay-Lussac, Joseph Louis

law gases discovered chemistry

[gay lüsak] (1778–1850) French chemist: established law of combining volumes of gases; discovered a variety of new chemical compounds, including cyanogen, and developed volumetric analysis.

An adventurous child and a brilliant student, Gay-Lussac grew up during and after the French Revolution had done much to create modern chemistry in the 1780s, but he had been guillotined in 1794. From then on the time was ripe for the subject to develop.

Gay-Lussac studied engineering before becoming interested in physics and chemistry. He became well known through his hot-air balloon ascents in 1804. These were intended to find if magnetism persisted at height, and if the composition of air changed. The first ascent was with in the second (alone) he rose to 7 km (23000 feet) the highest then achieved. (The composition of air, and magnetism, appeared to be unchanged.) The next year he made a tour of Europe, visiting scientists and scientific centres, and had the luck of observing a major eruption of Vesuvius.

In 1808 he published the law of combining volumes; this states that the volumes of gases that react with one another, or are produced in a chemical reaction, are in the ratios of small integers. This law clearly gave support to atomic theory, which had so recently appeared, although Dalton failed to grasp this, or even to accept Gay-Lussac’s experimental results that led to the law. Earlier, Gay-Lussac had found that all gases expand equally with rise of temperature, a result discovered by but not published by him. These two laws regarding gases formed the basis for Law of 1811.

By 1808 Gay-Lussac had an established reputation as a scientist and Paris was then the world’s centre for science. It proved an eventful year for him; he married Joséphine Rogeot, then a 17-year-old shop assistant, whom he had seen reading a chemistry book between serving customers. He also began to work with his friend L J Thenard (1777–1857), a collaboration which was very fruitful. With Thenard, in 1808, Gay-Lussac made sodium and potassium in quantity (by reduction of the hydroxides with hot iron), discovered the amides and oxides of these metals and isolated the element boron (9 days ahead of ). In 1809 they made the dangerously reactive fluorides HF and BF3 . Gay-Lussac was temporarily blinded by a potassium explosion which demolished his laboratory, but he never lost his enthusiasm for experimentation. In 1814 he published his research on the new element iodine, discovered by B Courtois (1777–1838), which was a model study. In 1815 he first made cyanogen (C2 N2 ), and showed it to resemble the halogens and to be the parent of a series of compounds, the cyanides. He developed volumetric analysis as an accurate method and devised new industrial methods in chemistry.

He usually worked with his own hands, which at that time some thought inappropriate for such an eminent scientist. Davy described him in 1813 as ‘lively, ingenious, and profound, with … great facility of manipulation … the head of the living chemists of France’. He remains one of chemistry’s immortals, like Lavoisier, Davy and his own pupil .

Geddes, Anne - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Anne Geddes, Social and Economic Impact [next] [back] Gauss, Karl Friedrich

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