Components of the Air
The best known constituent of the air is oxygen, already familiar to us as the feeder of the fire without and within the body. Almost one fifth of the air which envelops us is made up of the life-giving oxygen. This supply of oxygen in the air is constantly being used up by breathing animals and glowing fires, and unless there were some constant source of additional supply, the quantity of oxygen in the air would soon become insufficient to support animal life. The unfailing constant source of atmospheric oxygen is plant life (Section 48). The leaves of plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air, and break it up into oxygen and carbon. The plant makes use of the carbon but it rejects the oxygen, which passes back into the atmosphere through the pores of the leaves.
Although oxygen constitutes only one fifth of the atmosphere, it is one of the most abundant and widely scattered of all substances. Almost the whole earth, whether it be rich loam, barren clay, or granite boulder, contains oxygen in some form or other; that is, in combination with other substances. But nowhere, except in the air around us, do we find oxygen free and uncombined with other substances.
A less familiar but more abundant constituent of the atmosphere is the nitrogen. Almost four fifths of the air around us is made up of nitrogen. If the atmosphere were composed of oxygen alone, the merest flicker of a match would set the whole world ablaze. The fact that the oxygen of the air is diluted as it were with so large a proportion of nitrogen, prevents fires from sweeping over the world and destroying everything in their path. Nitrogen does not support combustion, and a burning match placed in a corked bottle goes out as soon as it has used up the oxygen in the bottle. The nitrogen in the bottle, not only does not assist the burning of the match, but it acts as a damper to the burning.
Free nitrogen, like oxygen, is a colorless, odorless gas. It is not poisonous; but one would die if surrounded by nitrogen alone, just as one would die if surrounded by water. The vast supply of nitrogen in the atmosphere would be useless if the smaller amount of oxygen were not present to keep the body alive. Nitrogen is so important a factor in daily life that an entire chapter will be devoted to it later.
Another constituent of the air with which we are familiar is carbon dioxide. In pure air, carbon dioxide is present in very small proportion, being continually taken from the air by plants in the manufacture of their food.
Various other substances are present in the air in very minute proportions, but of all the substances in the air, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide are the most important.