Images: Notebook of Sir William Ramsay (Braga, 2017; Courtesy of UCL, SCAR)

Navigating Death and Innovation





Ceramic model cart

Ceramic model cart

Amulet of Djed Pillar

Amulet of Djed Pillar



Tapir skull

Tapir skull

Oesophagus and heart piercing

Oesophagus and heart piercing

Hibakusha Portraits

Hibakusha Portraits

Notebook of Sir William Ramsay




Description: A seemingly ordinary laboratory notebook of Sir William Ramsay- UCL’s Head of Chemistry for many years- compiled by Travers Morris (Ramsay’s trusted assistant and eventual scientific partner). RefNo:RAMSAY/1-65/22-31/23, UCL Special Collections

Origin: Notebooks originally manufactured in early 1883. Notes taken between 1884 -1885. Compiled by Travers into a single notebook in 1928. Notebook cover from unknown date, but most likely from 1920s. London, United Kingdom.

Dimensions:  38cmx22cm Height: 5.7cm

Condition: Well-preserved. Cover slightly scratched and marred. Pages discoloured and aged at the appropriate rate given notebook's date.

Representation of Death

This notebook represents the discovery of a set of elements that have a particular connection with death and innovation. Although considered boring by many due to their inherent unreactiveness, noble gases are used today in many ways to prevent death and decay. Krypton lasers are extensively used in eye surgery, particularly to correct vision and blindness, while Helium and Argon are used to create devices that measure radiation (Basting and Marowsky, 2005). Furthermore, after the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, Helium has replaced hydrogen as the lifting gas in balloons and Zeppelins, making aviation considerably safer. Helium also had its mark in preventing death in ocean exploration. Helium-based breathing tanks reduce the effects of decompression disease and the chances of air bubbles forming in the blood vessels of divers. Lastly, Xenon is used in MRIs to detect diseases in the human body, and Radon is used in radiotherapy (Sander et al., 2005).

Most importantly, Noble gases are now used to protect humanity from nuclear threats. Helium is used in nuclear reactors as coolant (due to its inert properties) and, Krypton and Xenon are used by authorities to identify clandestine nuclear weapons and experiments. For instance, in the early 2000s, the USA Army found secret and illicit plutonium enrichment sites in Pakistan and North Korea using noble gas detection methods (Sanger, 2003; Bradley, 2000). This is because, when nuclear materials are enriched and tested, radionuclides are inevitably released into the atmosphere and soil. While most radionuclides either disintegrate too quickly for detection or are absorbed by the soil, radioactive noble gases can travel thousands of miles and are easily detected by special devices (Horhoianu et al., 1999). 

Nuclear detection through radioactive noble gases



Basting, D., Marowsky, G. (2005). Excimer laser technology. New York: Springer Press.


Burger, P. (2007). Charles Fenerty and his paper invention. 1st ed. Toronto: P. Burger.


Bradley, E. (2000). US Intelligence finds evidence of Pakistan producing nuclear weapons. CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.


DW, D. (2017). Scientists fight back against Trump. [online] DW.COM. Available at: [Accessed 12 Feb. 2017].


Giphy. (2017). Noble gases colours. [online] Gyphy Media. Available at: [Accessed 19 Feb. 2017].


Gosden, C. and Marshall, Y. (1999). The cultural biography of objects. World Archaeology, 31(2), pp.169-178.


Horhoianu, G., Ionescu, D. V., Olteanu, G. (1999). Thermal behaviour of CANDU type fuel rods during steady state and transient operating conditions. Annals of Nuclear Energy, 26(16), pp.1437–1445.


Sanders, R.,D., Ma, D., Maze, M. (2005). Xenon: elemental anaesthesia in clinical practice. British Medical Bulletin, 71(1), pp.115–135. 


Sanger, D. (2003). North Korea may be hiding new nuclear site. Oakland Tribune


Ingold, T. (2007). Materials against materiality. Archaeological Dialogues, 14(01), pp.1-16.


Travers, M. (1928). The discovery of the rare gases. 1st ed. London: Edward Arnold and Co.


Travers, M. (1956). A life of Sir William Ramsay. 1st ed. London: Edward Arnold and Co.


 Who Discovered It. (2017). Noble gases. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Feb. 2017].


Whiteboard Journal, W. (2015). The nature of notes. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Feb. 2017].

Further Reading

Travers, M. (1928). The discovery of the rare gases. 1st ed. London: Edward Arnold and Co.

Travers, M. (1956). A life of Sir William Ramsay. 1st ed. London: Edward Arnold and Co.

Fisher, D. (2010). Much ado about (practically) nothing: a history of the noble gases. 1st ed. London: Oxford University Press.

National Research Council, Policy and Global Affairs, Committee on International Security and Arms Control (2005). Monitoring nuclear weapons and nuclear-explosive materials. 1st ed. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

Colour of Electric Discharge in Noble Gases


Noble Gases used in art today.

Representation of Innovation

The notebook essentially highlights the cooperative nature of innovation. Innovation is often a joint effort between bright minds with shared ambitions. Ramsay cooperated thoroughly with his trusted laboratory assistant when writing his laboratory notes and observations. As one can see, there was active cooperation between the scientists in almost all of Ramsay’s scientific notes. Travers was responsible for numbering the pages of the notebook, relating one finding to its relevant specific pages, taking day-by-day results of experiments, revising all of the notes, and compiling all of Ramsay’s scientific notes into a coherent format. Travers was so deeply involved with Ramsay’s work and scientific notes, that, when Ramsay’s wife died in 1926, he took on the task of re-compiling all of Ramsay’s laboratory notes accumulated over the years for publishing and record keeping (Travers, 1928).

Furthermore, the scientists developed a “joint note-taking method” that stimulated cross-referencing and editing between their notes.Travers would not only help Ramsay with his notes, but would also take his own notes and observations about the experiments. These were then used to cross-reference, edit and ultimately endorse Ramsay’s notes. Academic and scientific discussions about these unknown elements would therefore be continued in the note-taking process. It is not farfetched to infer that the cooperation discussed above aided the discovery of the noble gases considerably. Within the span of only four years, Ramsay and Travers discovered four new chemical elements and a whole new column of the periodic table (Travers, 1928). This amazing, Nobel-worthy achievement could only be done in such a short time-span if Ramsay and Travers stimulated and helped each other constantly.


Connection with object theory

This seemingly ordinary laboratory notebook is great evidence of how an object’s value is derived from the people and events to which it is linked (Gosden and Marshall, 1999). There is absolutely nothing outstanding about the quality or production method behind the notebook in question. Its pages were made from standard English bark wood using a cost-efficient manufacturing process devised by Friedrich Gottlob Keller and Charles Fenerty in the middle of the 19th century (Burger, 2007). Its original cover and pencil used by Ramsay were also industrially produced, and generally ordered in bulk by university academics in the cheapest deal available. Yet, because within its commonly cheap pages there are carefully produced notes and observations that led to the discovery of an entire new section of the periodic table, this object is deemed of great value by society. Also, just the fact that this laboratory notebook was owned and used by one of the most famous scientists of the period already adds value to the object. This phenomenon essentially accentuates the mutual value creation process between individuals and things. It also shows that high-quality and tailored materials for note-taking are not at all necessary for important scientific innovation; great value does not necessarily lie in the material.

Sir William Ramsay and Morris Travers