On the one hand, neon is what gives us the exciting bright coloured glow of Las Vegas’ neon lights. On the other hand it’s also possibly the least reactive of all elements – which means that most of the time it doesn’t do anything at all!
A colourless gas, neon is actually pretty common in the rest of the universe, but there’s hardly any of it here on earth. It makes up less than 0.002% of the air. It was discovered in 1898 in London when two chemists separated out the components of air by first cooling it until it became a liquid and then warming it so that the different gases boiled off one at a time.
The first time Neon was actually of much use to anyone was in 1910 when a French engineer worked out how to make a lamp by filling a vacuum tube with the gas and passing an electric current through it. This gave the neon enough energy to release light and produced a distinct reddish-orange glow. Neon lamps soon became common in advertising, and later other gases were used to create different colours.
Nowadays there are a few other uses for neon: in vacuum tubes, high-voltage indicators, lightning arrestors, wave meter tubes, television tubes, and helium-neon lasers. Liquefied neon (at extremely low temperatures) can be used to keep things cold, though to get things really cold you use liquid helium.
Neon is so stable that it almost never reacts with anything – you can try to burn it or add acid or fire it into the sun if you want – it still won’t do a thing. Science has yet to discover a single true compound of neon.