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Memoir on solar heat, the radiative effects of the atmosphere, and the temperature of space

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Memoir on solar heat, the radiative effects of the atmosphere, and the temperature of space, by Richard Taylor. Scientific Memoirs 4. (1846) London. Taylor and Francis. Pgs 44-90. English translation of "Mémoire su la chaleur solaire, sur les pouvoirs rayonnants et absorbants de l'air atmosphérique, et sur les températures de l'espace," by Pouillet, Claude S. M (1838) Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Sciences 7, no. 2, 24-65.

Essay about this article

Claude Servais Mathias Pouillet (1791-1868), professor of physics at the Sorbonne and member of the French Academy of Science, was the inventor of the pyrheliometer, an instrument that measured the quantity of heat received by the sun. He made early estimates of the thermal equivalent of solar radiation outside of the atmosphere, or the so-called solar constant, and provided the first estimates of the role of water vapor in the greenhouse effect. He is the author of Élémens de physique expérimentale et de météorologie, 2 v., 1827-1830. Paris, Béchet jeune.

In his 1838 memoir, Pouillet expressed his desire to determine, among many other objectives, "the general conditions of equilibrium of temperature of a body protected by a diathermanous covering analogous to the atmosphere." This teminology was based on the Italian physicist Macedonio Melloni's (1798-1854) definition of the term "diathermic" as "diaphanous for heat," from "dia" (across) and "thermo" (to warm). Pouillet compared the atmosphere to experiments he had done on solid and liquid diathermanous screens, for example, panes of glass and layers of water, concluding that "the atmospheric stratum acts in the manner of screens of this kind, and . . . exercises a greater absorption upon the terrestrial than on the solar rays." He called this the "effect of diathermanous envelopes." Pouillet was also quite interested in what was called "the temperature of space" and the quantities of heat the Earth received from the Sun, from space, and from other "celestial bodies."

Pouillet argued that the equilibrium temperature of the atmosphere must be lower than the temperature of outer space and higher than the temperature of the Earth's surface. This was mainly because the atmosphere exerts "unequal absorbing actions" on "rays of heat derived from space" as well as those emitted from the Earth's surface. He credited Fourier with this insight, which was itself based on earlier experimental work by the noted mountaineer Horace Benedict de Saussure (1740-1799): "M. Fourier [1824] is, I think, the first who has had the idea of regarding the unequal absorption of the atmosphere as exercising an influence on the temperatures of the soil. He had been led to this by the beautiful experiments made by De Saussure, in 1774, on some elevated summits of the Alps and in the adjacent plains, with a view to compare the relative intensities of solar heat. On that occasion M. Fourier states in a precise manner one of the principles which have served me to establish the equations of equilibrium."

Pouillet's pioneering work was later cited by Svante Arrhenius (1896).


Discussion Questions

a. What role did the French Academy of Science play in scientific affairs in the nineteenth century?


b. How did the language of climate change and the terms used then differ from today?


c. What can you find out about the history of the pyrheliometer, an instrument that measured the quantity of heat received by the sun?




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Wisniak J. (2002) Svante Arrhenius and the greenhouse effect. Indian J Chemical Tech vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 165-173.

van der Veen, C.J. (2000) Fourier and the "greenhoue effect"Polar Geography vol. 24 no. 2, pp. 132-152.

Ramanathan, V. (1998) Trace-gas greenhouse effect and global warming: Underlying Principles and Outstanding Issues Volvo Environmental Prize Lecture-1997. Ambio vol. 27 no. 3, pp. 187-197.

Crawford, E. (1997) Arrhenius' 1896 model of the greenhouse effect in context. Ambio vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 6-11.

Rodhe, H., Charlson, R., Crawford, E. (1997) Svante arrhenius and the greenhouse effect. Ambio vol. 26 no. 1, pp. 2-5.

Violle J., (1901) A report on radiation, presented at the International Meteorological Committee in Saint Petersburg in 1899. Annales de Chimie et de Physique vol. 22, pp. 329-370.

Rogovsky E. (1901) On the temperature and composition of the atmospheres of the planets and the sun Astrophysical Journal vol. 14, no. 4.


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