1. Hydrogen: Close To The Sun

As we investigate our first element, we’ll meet warring balloonists, witness mass media’s first major tragedy, and see how the tiniest mistake can cost a lot of money. Plus, we’ll try to pin down where hydrogen belongs on the periodic table.

Featured above: The Pillars of Creation, as captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995.

Show Notes

In this episode, I mentioned Antoine Lavoisier only briefly, in the opening of this episode, but we’ll hopefully be hearing much more about him in future episodes. He lived a fascinating life and made innumerable contributions to the then-nascent field of chemistry.

Lavoisier was not the discoverer of hydrogen, per se — that credit is often given to Henry Cavendish. However, Lavoisier was the first to recognize it as a discrete element and name it as such. Cavendish called it “dephlogistated air,” as part of a theory of combustion that was very popular at the time. Incorrect, but popular.

Atomic Structure: I deliberately tried to avoid invoking the Bohr model of the atom, which shows electrons as orbiting their atomic nucleus in a manner similar to planets orbiting their star. This is an obsolete model, and doesn’t illustrate the pure weirdness that happens on the atomic scale. The realm of very small things simply does not work anything like the world we live in.

The story of how this image was captured is fascinating in its own right, and can be read at Geek.com.

The image here pushes the limits of what could be called a “photograph,” but it accurately shows the structure of a single hydrogen atom. The red center is the nucleus, with its one proton, and the light blue portion of the image is the electron cloud. Although the electron is extremely small — much smaller than the proton — it moves unbelievably fast. This motion is not anything that would look familiar to us, which is why the Bohr model, with electrons “orbiting” the nucleus, can be rather unhelpful. We can’t tell exactly where the electron will be at any given moment in time, but we do know it will be somewhere in that cyan cloud.

Balloon Fights: In this episode, I briefly mention the tale of Icarus and Daedalus from Greek mythology. For anyone who’s curious, Amy Adkins put together a wonderful animated retelling of the tale with TED Ed. (Do note that the full story does include some unusual lewdness, the type of which is not uncommon in ancient mythology.)

Interestingly, it’s possible that balloon flight may have been invented more than once in ancient history. Chinese accounts from the 12th century BCE might depict humans flying in balloons, and pottery from Peru indicates that the Nazca Lines might have been created with direction from supervisors flying overhead in hot-air balloons. (This theory is not without controversy.)

Verifiable reports of balloon flight begin in 1782 with Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier, French brothers who were some of the earliest pioneers in modern flight.

Thaddeus Lowe, the Civil War aeronaut, has a story that’s worth a little more attention than I could afford in this episode. He had a particularly outlandish rivalry with John La Mountain — two men with exactly the kinds of egos you’d expect from 19th century balloonists petitioning the government.

I should note that my claim of the USS Fanny being “America’s first aircraft carrier” is rather tongue-in-cheek. Probably every serious historian would agree that the United States’ first aircraft carrier was the USS Langley, which took her maiden voyage in 1934.

There does, however, seem to be some hemming and hawing over whether the USS Fanny counts as the “real” “first” aircraft carrier, or if that honor should go to the USS George Washington Parke Custis, a barge that was specially outfitted for the task, rather than the jury rigging that took place aboard the Fanny. Since the Fanny‘s expedition is reliably sourced to an earlier date, that’s what I went with. There’s a lot more to that story, too.

By the way: That second ship, the George Washington Parke Custis, is named after one man, and his life story is compelling in its own right. He was the adopted son and step-grandson of U.S. President George Washington, and that’s only the beginning.

At any rate, the Union Army Balloon Corps was useful, and scrappy, and was only disbanded for petty bureaucratic reasons after a change in command high up the chain. In a just world, America would be home to a long-respected Balloon Corps that found even more use in peacetime than war.

Wowee, A Zeppelin!: There’s a legend that the Empire State Building was built with a mooring mast for zeppelins, but this is, at best, half true. There was practically no demand for a dirigible terminal in Manhattan, and it’s unlikely that a mooring mast in such a location could even operate safely. There were a few attempts, but not much success. The real motivation behind the stated goal was that the ESB’s investors simply wanted to ensure that it would be the tallest building in the city — and the world. For some reason, it would be too improper to just say that. There’s a fascinating New York Times story with some excellent photos, including a fake photograph of the US Navy airship Los Angeles docked atop the Empire State Building.

However, here is that real photograph I mentioned of the Hindenburg floating above New York:

The Hindenburg flies over Manhattan on May 6, 1937.

I’m afraid that Herbert Morrison will be forever remembered by history as a somewhat hysterical man. He did legitimately display some extreme emotions as the Hindenburg exploded in front of him, but the high pitch and speed of his voice really add to the sense of panic.

The thing is, Morrison was actually renowned for his deep and pleasant voice, like many broadcasters in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, on the day of the Hindenburg disaster, his recording equipment was running a little slow, so when played back at “normal” speed, it was actually sped up considerably, and the pitch shifted higher.

A man named Bob Ingrassia “corrected” the audio to emulate how Morrison’s voice actually sounded, with a comparison to the more well-known version:

I debated including the corrected audio in the podcast, but ultimately decided to use the version that people actually heard back in 1937.

Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album, released in 1969.

One of the Hindenburg disaster’s lasting cultural echoes is in the name and artwork of the band Led Zeppelin. Keith Moon and/or John Entwistle, both of The Who, famously cracked that a new band with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and Jeff Beck would “go over like a lead balloon.” Page ran with the thought, dropped the “A” from “Lead” to prevent mispronunciations, and used Sam Shere’s photograph as artwork for their debut album.

One person was decidedly not a fan of Led Zep: Eva von Zeppelin, the granddaughter of Ferdinand. She didn’t like the idea that these young rascals were making money off her family name, particularly in such a poor light. It didn’t help that she hated the music, too. She dogged the band at the beginning of their career, threatening lawsuits and causing the band to change their name to “The Nobs” on at least one occasion.

Rocket Science: The problem of rockets bringing along fuel, which has weight and requires more fuel, is a problem often called “the tyranny of the rocket equation.” It sounds like an unsolvable paradox, but ironically, the basics were figured out by Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky decades before the first rocket was ever built.1

Lenses for the Big Lens: Sometimes, an instrument called COSTAR is called “Hubble’s Contact Lens,” but that’s only half the picture. The heavy lifting was actually done by the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. For more details, see Fixing Hubble’s Blurry Vision from Space Flight Now.

Here are the notable images taken by Hubble that I mentioned in this episode. Hundreds more are available at HubbleSite.org.

Hubble’s “First Light” image, which was not as sharp as it was supposed to be.
Left, before Hubble’s vision was improved; right, after.
The Pillars of Creation

After recording, I learned that NASA is currently building yet another meticulously precise instrument in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. Here’s hoping they’ve learned a few tricks in the past several decades.

My Own Private Hydrogen: As promised in the show, here’s a link to Theodore Gray’s Homemade Hydrogen electrolysis experiment. He gets into a lot of detail, but in such an accessible way that you should go straight to his website rather than listen to me try to explain it.

Click to read transcript


  1. NASA, The Tyranny Of The Rocket Equation. Flight Engineer Don Pettit, May 1, 2012.
  2. Elements and Atoms, Chapter 6: Water is not an element. From lemoyne.edu.
  3. City Collegiate, Position Of Hydrogen In Periodic Table.
  4. Info on hydrogen’s chemistry and place on the periodic table: Encyclopedia.com, Hydrogen. Science of Everyday Things. Copyright 2002, The Gale Group Inc.
  5. Overview on balloon technology and history: what-when-how.com, Balloons.
  6. Naval History Blog, The Birth Of The Aircraft Carrier. From the Naval Institute Archives, August 1, 2012.
  7. America’s First Aircraft Carrier Sorties, Bill Lee. Originally from nnappentice.com, backed up on this site for archival purposes.
  8. Zeppelin in Minnesota, A Study In Fact and Fable, Rhoda R. Gilman. Originally from The Minnesota Historical Society, backed up on this site for archival purposes.
  9. University of Houston, Engines Of Our Ingenuity. No. 1682: Zeppelin In Minnesota, John H. Lienhard.
  10. “Goebbels wanted to name the ship for Adolf Hitler.” Christopher Klein, History.com. The Hindenburg Disaster: 9 Surprising Facts. May 4, 2012.
  11. An absolute wealth of information about the Hindenburg was found on airships.net, the kind of robust website all aficionados of niche interests should aspire to create.
  12. NASA, The Tyranny Of The Rocket Equation. Flight Engineer Don Pettit, May 1, 2012.
  13. The Centaur Upper Stage Rocket: 1958-2002, iv-xiii. Liquid Hydrogen–The Fuel Of Choice For Space Exploration. Virginia P. Dawson and Mark D. Bowles, NASA Office of External Relations, 2004
  14. Space.com, Hubble Telescope At 25: The Trials And Tribulations Of A Space Icon. Nola Taylor Redd, April 20, 2015.
  15. Space.com, Why Are Space Telescopes Better Than Earth-Based Telescopes? Remy Malina, April 24, 2010.
  16. Texas A&M University, Hubble Error: Time, Money and Millionths of an Inch. Robert S. Capers and Eric Lipton. Originally from people.tamu.edu, backed up on this site for archival purposes.
  17. Wired, May 20, 1990: Hubble Opens Its Eye … And Blinks. Betsy Mason, May 19, 2010.
  18. Time Magazine, The Story Of Hubble’s First Photo — 25 Years Later. Jeffrey Kluger, May 19, 2015.
  19. Science Clarified, Chapter 5: Hubble.
  20. Info on Hubble’s altitude and speed: Popular Science, The Man Who Fixed Hubble. Shannon Stirone, October 10, 2016.
  21. The New York Times, Mission To Correct Hubble’s Flawed Vision Faces Many Pitfalls. John Noble Wilford, November 30, 1993.
  22. Overview of the Hubble repair mission: NASA, STS-61 (59).
  23. Spaceflight Now, Fixing Hubble’s Blurry Vision. William Harwood, April 23, 2015.
  24. Hubblesite, Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula (M16): Pillars of Creation in a Star-Forming Region. November 2, 1995.
  25. SpaceTelescope.org, New View Of The Pillars Of Creation — Visible. January 5, 2015.
  26. Theodore Gray, Homemade Hydrogen.

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