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Inert gases are chemically neutral. They don't react with anything.

So, How were they discovered?

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Inert gas is an engineering term; I think you meant noble gas. –  mbq Nov 23 '10 at 9:48
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As stated this sounds more like a chemistry question to me, not a physics question. Although admittedly there were physics techniques involved in the discoveries, and if this were rewritten to focus specifically on those techniques (mainly spectroscopy I guess), it might seem more on-topic. –  David Z Nov 23 '10 at 11:31
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Rayleigh and Ramsay received the 1904 Nobel Prizes in Physics and in Chemistry, respectively, for their discovery of the noble gases. You might find this amusing! –  Pratik Deoghare Nov 23 '10 at 13:26
    
I think there's room on this site for interesting physical chemistry questions. –  j.c. Nov 25 '10 at 15:44
    
And by the way, they where discovered by there physical quality (volume, density), despite their chemical (almost) perfect neutrality. –  Frédéric Grosshans Nov 26 '10 at 11:36
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2 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

First of all, this is not true that noble gases does not form any compounds -- it can be done with some chemical tricks, usually using fluorine and some hell conditions.

Yet, you don't need any chemistry to detect a new element -- helium was for instance first spotted in spectrum of sunligh. The isolation can also by made on physical means only; the most efficient idea is to cool down air isolating each new fraction that turns into liquid, but there are dozens other.

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Thanks! I am surprised to know that they can actually form compounds! wow! –  Pratik Deoghare Nov 23 '10 at 13:28
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The history is summed up in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_gas#History . The concept of noble gas emerged from the discovery of argon.

As said by mpq, the first to be seen spectroscopically was Helium. Then Argon was detected as a component of the air less reactive than nitrogen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argon#History ).

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