29 January 2008

Freezers and Rockets

On this date in 1846, Karol Olszewski was born.

If you've never heard of Olszewski, that's no real surprise. Outside of certain physics and chemistry circles, the Polish scientist is not well remembered, but he made a few very significant additions to our knowledge of the most common elements in our atmosphere, as well as exciting new ways to use those elements.

Olszewski was an alumnus of the Jagiellonian University in his hometown of Krakau, long a distinguished center of learning in Poland. Jagiellonian boasts among its other famous alumni Pope John Paul II, science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, and none other than Nicolaus Copernicus.

Olszewski was an accomplished scientist, but is best known for his work on the creation of liquid oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. He and colleague Zygmunt Wróblewski were the first to achieve stable liquid states for these gases, and their discoveries are still in wide use today. Liquid nitrogen is, by far, the most common product of their work, used in all kinds of freezing applications, from the freezing and transporting of food to the removal of skin lesions and warts. Liquid oxygen was a vital propellant in early rockets, and is still used in some rocket systems, most notably the U.S. space shuttle.

In 1888, just five years after achieving the liquid states, Olszewski's most valued partner, Wróblewski, was killed during their work studying the basic properties of hydrogen. Olszewski bravely continued this work, eventually achieving a stable liquid hydrogen state and setting the new world record for lowest achieved temperature, at -225 C.

He is remembered today with a street named after him in Krakau.

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