Archimedes to Hawking: Laws of Science and the Great Minds behind Them

By Clifford A. Pickover | Go to book overview

GAY-LUSSAC’S LAW OF COMBINING
GAS VOLUMES

France, 1808. The volumes of gases that chemically react with each other, or are produced in reactions, are expressed in ratios of small, whole numbers.

CROSS REFERENCE: CHARLES’S GAS LAW, AVOGADRO’S GAS LAW, JOHN DALTON, JEAN-BAPTISTE BIOT, ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT, AND LOUIS JACQUES THENARD.

In 1808, the United States prohibited importation of slaves from
Africa, and Napoleon abolished the Inquisition in Spain and
Italy. Ludwig van Beethoven conducted and performed in a
concert that featured the premiere of his Fifth Symphony, Sixth
Symphony
, and Fourth Piano Concerto.

Gay-Lussac’s Law of Combining Gas Volumes states that the ratio between reacting gas volumes and the volume of gaseous product can be expressed in small whole numbers. In 1811, this law and related experimental data stimulated Italian chemist Amedeo Avogadro (1776–1856) to state his famous hypothesis that equal volumes of gases, at the same temperature and pressure, contain the same number of particles, or molecules (see “Avogadro’s Gas Law,” below).

In Gay-Lussac’s 1809 paper, “Memoir on the Combination of Gaseous Substances with Each Other,” he discusses the law that would someday bear his name:

It is my intention to make known some new properties in gases,
the effects of which are regular, by showing that these substances
combine amongst themselves in very simple proportions, and that
the contraction of volume which they experience on combination
also follows a regular law. I hope by this means to give a proof
of an idea … that we are perhaps not far removed from the time
when we shall be able to submit the bulk of chemical phenomena to
calculation.

Gay-Lussac had performed a number of experiments with Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) on the creation of water vapor by passing sparks through mixtures of hydrogen and oxygen. Gay-Lussac observed that, for any given volume of oxygen completely converted in the reaction, exactly twice this volume of hydrogen was required.

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