Helium is a chemical element with the symbol He and atomic number 2. It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, monatomic gas, the first in the noble gas group in the periodic table.[a] Its boiling and melting point are the lowest among all the elements. Helium is the second lightest and second most abundant element in the observable universe (hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant). It is present at about 24% of the total elemental mass, which is more than 12 times the mass of all the heavier elements combined. Its abundance is similar to this in both the Sun and in Jupiter. This is due to the very high nuclear binding energy (per nucleon) of helium-4, with respect to the next three elements after helium. This helium-4 binding energy also accounts for why it is a product of both nuclear fusion and radioactive decay. Most helium in the universe is helium-4, the vast majority of which was formed during the Big Bang. Large amounts of new helium are being created by nuclear fusion of hydrogen in stars.

The Surprising and Forgotten History of Helium

Humanity didn’t recognize the second most abundant element in the known universe until the nineteenth century. A significant source on earth wasn’t discovered until 1903. The discovery and understanding of the element helium played a central role in some of the most important scientific discoveries of the modern era, and helium continues to change the world today.

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