[Footnote: An address before the Paris Academy.]


Of all the gases that the atmosphere contains, there is one which offers a special interest, as well on account of the part ascribed to it in the mutual interchange going on between the two organic kingdoms, as on account of the relation that it has been observed to occupy between earth, air, and water; this gas is carbonic acid.

Ever since the fact has been established that animals consume oxygen and give out carbonic acid as the product of respiration, while plants consume carbonic acid and give out oxygen, the question has often been asked whether the quantity of carbonic acid contained in the air did not represent a sort of sustaining reservoir which was being continually drawn on by the plants and resupplied by animals, so that it has doubtless remained unchanged owing to this double action.

On the other hand, Boussingault has long since shown that volcanic regions give out through crevices and fumaroles enormous quantities of carbonic acid. The deposition of carbonate of lime that is continually taking place on the sea-bottom is, on the other hand, fixing carbonic acid in quantities which we may accurately estimate from the strata of limestone seen on the surface of the earth. We might imagine, that in comparison with the huge volumes of carbonic acid sent forth in volcanic districts, even in the oldest one, and the mass of carbonate of lime deposited on the sea bottom, the results attributed to the life of plants and animals would be of no consequence either for increasing or diminishing the physiological carbonic acid in the air comparable with those which are accomplished by the purely geological exchange.

Schloesing has recently succeeded, by a happy application of the principle of dissociation, in showing that the amount of carbonic acid in the air bears a direct relation to the quantity of bicarbonate of lime dissolved in sea water. If the quantity of carbonic acid diminishes, the bicarbonate of the water is decomposed, half of its carbonic acid escapes into the atmosphere, and the neutral carbonate of lime is precipitated. The aqueous vapor condensed from the air dissolves part of the carbonic acid contained therein, and carries it along, when it falls as rain upon the earth, and takes up there enough lime to form the bicarbonate, which is thus carried back to the sea.

The physiological role of carbonic acid, its geognostic influence, and its relations to most ordinary meteorological phenomena on the earth's surface--all these contribute to give special weight to studies concerned in the estimation of the normal quantity of carbonic acid in the air.

Nevertheless, this estimation is attended with great difficulty. Not everyone is able to take up such questions, and not all processes are adapted to it. The first thought which would naturally arise would be to inclose a known volume of air in a given vessel, and then determine its carbonic acid by measuring or weighing it. In this way we should obtain the exact relation between a volume of air and the volume of carbonic acid in it, for any given moment, and in any given place. If, however, this be done with a ten-liter flask, for example, it would only hold 3 c.c. of carbonic acid, weighing 6 milligrammes; and, whether it is weighed or measured, the error may easily equal 10 per cent. of the real value, hence no deductions could be drawn from the observed facts.

For this reason larger volumes of air were taken, and a current of air, whose volume could be accurately measured by known methods, was passed through condensers capable of retaining the carbonic acid. But in this case the air must pass very slowly through it, so that the process may last several hours; and since the air is continually in motion, owing to vertical and horizontal currents, the experiment may be begun with the air of one place, and concluded with air from a far distant spot. For example, if an experiment lasting twenty-four hours was made in Paris when the air moved but four meters per second (nine or ten miles per hour), it might be begun with air from the Department of the Seine, and end with air from the Department of the Rhone, or the Belgian frontier, according to the direction of the wind.

So long as we had no analytical methods of sufficient delicacy to estimate with certainty the hundredth, or at least the tenth of a milligramme of carbonic acid, it was very difficult to determine the quantity in the air at a given time and place. It is frequently possible to analyze upon the plain air that has descended from the heights above, and to examine by bright daylight the effect of night upon the atmosphere.

Still other difficulties show themselves in such investigations. It seems very easy to collect carbonic acid in potash tubes, and to determine its amount from the increase in weight of the tubes; but, alas! to how many sources of error is this method exposed. If the potash has been in contact with any organic substance, it will absorb oxygen. If the pumice that takes the place of the potash contains protoxide of iron, it will also absorb oxygen. In both cases the oxygen increases the weight of the carbonic acid.

Every experimenter who has been compelled to repeat the weighing of a somewhat complicate piece of apparatus, with an interval of several hours between, knows how many inaccuracies he is exposed to if he is compelled to take into calculation the changes of temperature and pressure, and the moisture on the surface of the apparatus. After fighting all these difficulties, and frequently in vain, the experimenter begins to mistrust every result that depends only on difference in weight, and to prefer those methods whereby the substance to be estimated can be isolated, so that it can be seen and handled, weighed or measured, in a free state, and in its own natural condition.

The classical experiments of Thenard, of Th. de Saussure, of Messrs. Boussingault, on the quantity of carbonic acid in the air, are well known to every one: they need only to be organized, repeated, and multiplied.