Discovering Oxygen: A Brief History

Because there are three different dead guys who regularly vie for credit for discovering oxygen, we’ve staged a little friendly competition to establish which of these great men deserves the title of the O-master. In evaluating the contenders, we’ll look at when they isolated oxygen and how their experiments furthered our understanding of the element. In addition to bragging rights, the winner takes home one zillion liters of oxygen.

Contender 1: Carl Wilhelm Scheele

Nationality: Swedish
Occupation: Apothecary

Biggest Accomplishment: In 1772, he was the first person to figure out a way – actually a couple of ways - to isolate oxygen. He discovered that mercuric oxide, silver carbonate, magnesium nitrate, and potassium nitrate all gave off the same gas when heated. Scheele dubbed the mystery element “fire air” because he noticed that it produced sparks when it came into contact with charcoal dust.

Other Biggest Accomplishment: Discovered chlorine

Biggest Shortcoming:

Bad timing. Scheele didn’t publish his discovery until 1777, in a treatise called Chemical Observations and Experiments on Air and Fire. By that time, Joseph Priestley had already written a paper describing his findings and published the comprehensive Experiments and Observations on Air. Lavoisier had also successfully isolated the gas. Because Scheele waited so long to get the word out, his groundbreaking experiment was often overlooked by other scientists, earning him the nickname “Hard Luck Scheele.”

Contender 2: Joseph Priestley

Nationality: British

Occupation: Radical Unitarian Minister

Biggest accomplishment: In 1771, Priestley noticed that a mouse in a sealed jar would eventually collapse. He then tried slipping a sprig of mint inside and realized the plant magically revived his subject. Realizing that plants did something to freshen up the air, he wrote to his friend Benjamin Franklin, saying he hoped his discovery would stop people from cutting down so many trees.

Priestley didn’t actually isolate this mystery gas until August 1, 1774, when he heated some mercuric oxide powder and discovered that it gave off a gas that could reignite a glowing ember. He collected large amounts of the gas and tried breathing it himself. After a few puffs, Priestley was hooked. He declared, “My breast felt peculiarly light and easy for some time afterward.”

Other Biggest Accomplishment: Invented seltzer water

Biggest Shortcoming: Priestley just wouldn’t let go of phlogiston theory – a crackpot hypothesis that argued combustion was fueled by an invisible substance called phlogiston. Priestley believed that his mystery gas supported combustion because it was pure and could absorb phlogiston released by burning substances. That’s why he was pushing to name oxygen “dephlogisticated air.”

Contender 3: Antoine Laurent Lavoisier

Nationality: French

Occupation: Tax farmer/Commissioner of the Royal Gunpowder and Saltpeter Administration

Biggest Accomplishment: Lavoisier debunked phlogiston theory. Up until then, scientists couldn’t explain why tin gained weight when it was burned; if it was releasing phlogiston, it should lose weight. Lavoisier realized that there was no way phlogiston could have a negative mass and set out to prove that combustion was caused by something else. He heated Mercury until calx formed, then he heated the calx until it gave off a clear gas. Lavoisier realized combustion resulted from a chemical reaction with this gas – not some flammable mystery element called phlogiston. He dubbed the gas “oxygen” – a name that referred to its ability to create acids.

Other Biggest Accomplishment: Helped establish this thing called the metric system, which some people supposedly use.

Biggest Shortcoming: Lavoisier might have been the one to name oxygen, and for that, we’re grateful (nobody would be caught dead in a dephlogisticated air bar). However, he was not the first to isolate the gas or recognize its unique properties. His methods weren’t even original. In fact, Lavoisier had been in contact with both Priestley and Scheele and borrowed from their experiments.

And the O-Master Is...

We’re giving this one to Joseph Priestley. Although he gets points for publishing first, his real breakthrough was his realization that plants gave off oxygen. This discovery enabled future scientists to understand cellular respiration and photosynthesis – both of which are absolutely essential to life on Earth. We’re also giving Priestley points for recognizing the commercial potential of oxygen when he anticipated that the pure air could be a hit at parties. Sure enough, over 200 years later, oxygen bars have become a thing!

So next time you take a breath (hopefully soon), think of Joseph Priestley and his iconic experiment, which took place exactly 238 years ago today.

The American Museum of Natural History
10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.


Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.


We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.


When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.


Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.


Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.


Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.


Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.


Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.


If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.


The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in our solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last month, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.


More from mental floss studios