2. Helium: Above All That

This week, we try to interact with helium, even though it really doesn’t want to. Plus, we explore the occult side of chemistry, as described by the theosophists.

Featured above: The emission spectrum of helium, which Lockyer and Janssen discovered in 1868.

Show Notes

Apologies for the slightly tinny voice quality on this episode. I thought I could get away with an unshielded mic — I won’t be making that mistake again!

Peak Helium: In the intro, I alluded to some “recently discovered subterranean pockets” of helium. There’s one in particular, a reserve of natural gas that was discovered in Tanzania that contains incredible amounts of helium. The discovery of this pocket of gas was a very big deal — without it, there was enough helium to last a few decades, but not longer. Even better news: That reserve was recently found to be twice as large as originally thought.

The point however, still stands. Pretending that underground reserves of chemicals can last forever is a foolish position.

Theoretically Speaking: I didn’t get a chance to go deeper into the strange properties that researchers like to play around with, but that’s what show notes are for. When a special variety of helium is cooled down near absolute zero, it displays some truly strange behaviors — like climbing up the sides of its container, or falling straight through the bottom. This video is well worth your 90 seconds:

Why does the sun shine? That tiny amount of mass that’s converted to light and heat during a fusion reaction does so according to Einstein’s most famous equation,e=mc2The amount of energy e, measured in joules, that can be liberated from a given amount of mass m, measured in kilograms, is equal to m multiplied by the speed of light c squared. is provided as 299,792,458 meters per second.

Why does the sun really shine? All right, you got me.

A Noble Gas: Helium practically never combines with other elements. But impractically, helium can combine with sodium under 300 million atmospheres of pressure to form disodium helide.

Wheels Within Wheels: Neutrons are the final piece of the atomic puzzle… but we can go smaller. After all — what makes up protons and neutrons and electrons?

The Smallest Atom: In both hydrogen’s episode and this one, I’ve been careful to avoid calling either one the “smallest element,” even though it’s a pedantic hill to die on. Here’s why: Hydrogen is less massive than helium, but helium technically takes up less space. This is because the two electrons and two protons in helium experience greater attraction to one another than hydrogen’s one of each — so helium densely packs all its subatomic particles into a smaller radius.

I Can’t Believe They Screwed That Up: “Ozone” is not an atom, by the way, despite what’s written in Occult Chemistry. It’s a molecule made of three oxygen atoms bound together, or O3.

Caveat Emptor: I feel like it’s important to mention that the helium tanks a civilian can rent or purchase for private use typically have a significant amount of oxygen added to the tank, so that anyone who inhales a great deal — intentionally or otherwise — will not die. But as far as I can tell, the  tanks that professional balloon-fillers have access to is the pure stuff.

Let It Go: There’s a lot more to learn about helium if you’re interested, and there’s at least one entire blog dedicated to this element alone. It’s a great resource, but maybe not the most unbiased source, since they’re also trying to sell tanks of helium to anyone who will have them. But if you’re just a casual reader, check out what happened at the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, for instance!

Click To Read Transcript


  1. Time, There’s A Helium Shortage On — And It’s Affecting More Than Just Balloons. Tim Newcomb, August 21, 2012.
  2. The Fabricator, What’s Up With Helium For Welding Applications? Dan Davis, December 3, 2012.
  3. Wired, That Dire Helium Shortage? Vastly Inflated. Brendan Cole, June 29, 2016.
  4. Access Science, A Brief History Of Spectroscopy. Maurice M. Bursey, 2017.
  5. Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements from Arsenic to Zinc, Hugh Aldersey-Williams. pp. 191-192.
  6. Space.com, Main Sequence Stars: Definition & Life Cycle. Nola Taylor Redd, May 5, 2015.
  7. Berkeley Lab’s Smoot Group, Formation Of The High Mass Elements: What Happens Inside A Star?
  8. Quora, What Is The Process To Convert Hydrogen To Helium? Harry Chikoo, June 12, 2016.
  9. Stanford Solar Center, Is The Sun Shrinking? Amara Graps.
  10. Cornell University: Ask An Astronomer, What Happens To The Helium Formed In The Sun? David Bernat, February 10, 2016.
  11. Phys.Org, The Sun Won’t Die For 5 Billion Years, So Why Do Humans Only Have 1 Billion Years Left On Earth? Jillian Scudder, February 13, 2015.
  12. Nature, Possible Existence of a Neutron. James Chadwick, February 27. 1932.
  13. Commission on Isotopic Abundances and Atomic Weights, Helium.
  14. Khan Academy, Hydrogen Bonding In Water.
  15. I don’t want to be glib in cribbing Reagan’s remarks following the Challenger disaster, so let’s call it a reference to the original poem by David P. Brown.
  16. The book is available in its entirety at Project Gutenberg.
  17. Encyclopedia Britannica, Theosophy. John Gordon Melton, last updated February 25, 2015.
  18. Chemistry World, Clairvoyant Chemistry. Philip Ball, March 15, 2013.
  19. A Synthetic Environment, Adyarium and Occultum. June 26, 2007.
  20. Technology Through Time Issue #43: Coronium.
  21. The Zephyr Blog, Grades Of Helium: The Differences And Uses. Kathi Leiden, February 26, 2016.
  22. CryoGas International, Increased Availability Of Balloon Grade Helium: An Opportunity For Independent Distributors. Phil Kornbluth, February 2016. Originally from Kornbluth Helium Consulting, backed up on this site for archival purposes.

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