Understanding Physics 5/3/23

Thoughts with Richard Bleil

As strange as it was for me, I went to visit my friend.  This was many years ago.  Her daughter, then in elementary school, was involved in sports and the team had won a tournament, so her mother was throwing a party for them.  My friend’s back yard was quite generous for the city where she lived, and on the back fence she had tied a series of helium filled balloons in the color of the school black and gold.  When I arrived, all of the gold balloons were floating, and between each was a deflated and black balloon that had exploded. 

On first glance, one might think that the black balloons had a defect, but they didn’t.  It was a warm, but not hot, sunny spring day.  I realized, as soon as I saw it, that the black balloons were absorbing more light than the gold, which, in turn, was heating the helium causing them to expand and explode.  If you prefer, they “popped”.  I would have probably made the same mistake.  Knowing science doesn’t always help to predict what will happen (although sometimes it does), but it certainly helps to figure out what has happened.

As I write this, a Mylar helium filled balloon is floating above me on the couch, making my cat very nervous.  I imagine it will last two or three weeks, and I’m looking forward to the time when it has deflated sufficiently to float midair.  Rubber balloons, however, last only a couple of days.  I’ve seen attempts to keep them inflated longer, usually involving some kind of clamp to pinch the knot shut.  These, however, are a waste of money and effort.  The problem isn’t in the knot.

The problem is that helium is the smallest element on the periodic chart.  Some could argue, and reasonably so, that hydrogen is smaller, but hydrogen is a diatomic element, whereas helium is not, so each hydrogen is essentially (and approximately) twice the volume of a single hydrogen atom.  Either way, both hydrogen and helium are small enough that they simply diffuse through the rubber.  The helium doesn’t leak through the knot, but straight through the material.  Mylar, on the other hand, is a plastic-coated aluminum.  Metals are so shiny because the outermost electrons don’t really belong to a single atom.  Instead, the electrons undergo dislocation and fill a “super-orbital” that covers the entire surface of the metal.  In essence, the cavities between atoms in a metal foil are blocked by electrons. 

But like anything, it’s possible to focus too much.  Today I was involved in a live online presentation where one of the young men said that in middle school, he knew he wanted to go into a career focusing on computers, and stated that in school he never paid attention to other things like art.  This story is much like my own, starting in middle school, only instead of computer science I chose to focus on chemistry.  I commented that there is a drawback in focusing so much at such an early age.  He read the comment and asked what the problem could possibly be.

After college, I realized that while I knew a lot about chemistry, my education was missing so much.  My world was too narrow.  I didn’t know art, literature, world culture or a plethora of other disciplines that any educated person should know at least something about.  Since then I’ve been trying to teach myself about these things.

A friend of mine is about to graduate high school and will be attending college.  I gave her a similar little speech, and I hope she didn’t just tune me out.  Any college or university includes, in their bachelor’s programs, a certain number of general education courses.  From my experience, it seems as though these courses are the least popular part of the program.  The truth is, though, that when you take these courses, it is pretty much the last opportunity you will have to learn about those disciplines.  Good, bad, or indifferent, once you graduate, that opportunity is gone, so the best thing you can do for yourself is to take advantage of the opportunity to learn about some things that are outside of your primary interest.  The worst thing that could happen is that you would be better informed.

Taking courses like science, for example, you can easily do a proverbial “brain dump” and forget everything that you have learned after the final exam.  But what you are learning in those courses can be thought of as tools to add to your toolbox.  You can use them to better make sense of the world around you, or you can let them rust from lack of use.  Seems like a lot of effort just to let those tools rust. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.