Even a short distance from the earth, however, at the top of a high mountain, the air becomes lighter, because it has less weight of atmosphere above it, and people who go up in balloons often have great difficulty in breathing, because the air is so thin and light. In 1804 a Frenchman, named Gay-Lussac, went up four miles and a half in a balloon, and brought down some air; and he found that it was much less heavy than the same quantity of air taken close down to the earth, showing that it was much thinner, or rarer, as it is called;* and when, in 1862, Mr. Glaisher and Mr. Coxwell went up five miles and a half, Mr. Glaisher’s veins began to swell, and his head grew dizzy, and he fainted. The air was too thin for him to breathe enough in at a time, and it did not press heavily enough on the drums of his ears and the veins of his body. He would have died if Mr. Coxwell had not quickly let off some of the gas in the balloon, so that it sank down into denser air. (100 cubic inches near the earth weighed 31 grains, while the same quantity taken at four and a half miles up in the air weighed only 12 grains, or two-fifths of the weight.)
And now comes another very interesting question. If the air gets less and less dense as it is farther from the earth, where does it stop altogether? We cannot go up to find out, because we should die long before we reached the limit; and for a long time we had to guess about how high the atmosphere probably was, and it was generally supposed not to be more than fifty miles. But lately, some curious bodies, which we should have never suspected would be useful to us in this way, have let us into the secret of the height of the atmosphere. These bodies are the meteors, or falling stars.
Most people, at one time or another, have seen what looks like a star shoot right across the sky, and disappear. On a clear starlight night you may often see one or more of these bright lights flash through the air; for one falls on an average in every twenty minutes, and on the nights of August 9th and November 13th there are numbers in one part of the sky. These bodies are not really stars; they are simply stones or lumps of metal flying through the air, and taking fire by clashing against the atoms of oxygen in it. There are great numbers of these masses moving round and round the sun, and when our earth comes across their path, as it does especially in August and November, they dash with such tremendous force through the atmosphere that they grow white-hot, and give out light, and then disappear, melted into vapour. Every now and then one falls to the earth before it is all melted away, and thus we learn that these stones contain tin, iron, sulphur, phosphorus, and other substances.