Classic Caterpickles: “What else pops balloons?”

It’s summer, I have The Five-Year-Old to myself, and I’m taking full advantage of it. Today I’m experimenting with Classic Caterpickles — a blatant attempt to give myself a day off by rerunning a year-old Caterpickle that I hope you’ll enjoy revisiting while The Five-Year-Old and I go out and play.

Where’s The Four-Year-Old? (Photo: Shala Howell)

The Four-Year-Old’s latest balloon trauma happened just this weekend, when her brand new purple balloon popped on impact with a silver car parked in the hot sun. After it happened, The Four-Year-Old just stood there for a moment, clutching the blue glittering ribbon from which trailed the few bits of purple rag that were all that remained of her balloon.

Her experience to date had taught her that the only thing she needs to do to take care of a balloon out in the wild is never let go. No one had said anything about keeping balloons away from cars. As I watched her face, it was impossible to tell which would win out: the trauma of the experience or The Four-Year-Old’s curiosity about why this unexpected tragedy had happened at all.

Fortunately, The Four-Year-Old has had quite a bit of experience by now dealing with balloon loss, so while the disappointment was still keen, her recovery was admirably quick. She was asking eager questions about why balloons pop while my Mommy-commiseration mode was still booting up.

The Four-Year-Old’s favorite question after “Why?” is “What else?” As in, “What else pops balloons, Mommyo?”

This question sounded like too much fun to waste on the iPhone. So after stocking up on helium balloons at our local party store and gathering a few other supplies from around the house, we decided to find out.

Balloon-Popping Force #1: Overinflation

Technically, this happened at the store while we were watching the saleswoman inflate the balloons. She was very skilled though, and of the 24 balloons she inflated for us, she only popped one.

There is an extremely technical explanation of the forces involved in popping overinflated balloons at Balloon HQ (see “Why Do Balloons Go Bang“), but, as you might expect, it mostly boils down to balloons pop when they are overinflated because at some point the latex simply runs out of stretch. (Bet you knew that already.)

Balloon-Popping Force #2: Hot Cars

We lost three balloons when they came in contact with the hot metal around our car door. As far as I can tell, this is a direct result of filling a balloon made of rubber with helium gas. According to Balloon HQ, rubber contracts if you heat it while it’s stretched out (this is called the Gow-Joule effect for those of you who like to put names to things). And according to my high school chemistry teacher, helium gas expands when heated. Put those two things together and you’ve got a balloon that acts as if it’s overinflated. In other words, BOOM.

When we got home, I used my husband’s Black and Decker Thermal Leak Detector to measure the temperature of the metal to see how much heat it had taken to pop the balloons. My readings ranged from 112.8F to 117.5F. Granted, pointing a laser thermometer at the spot on the door where I think the balloons might have touched some 15 minutes after the fact is at best science-y, but we’re just a bunch of preschoolers and English majors here. It was good enough for us.

And while I had hoped to get all 24 balloons into the car without incident, losing three to heat turned out to be for the best, as the balloon capacity of the back seat of a Toyota Camry is a bit less than two dozen balloons, which leads me to ….

Balloon-Popping Force #3: A Tight Squeeze

Forcing too many balloons and preschoolers into too tight a space is also an excellent way to pop balloons. Fortunately, we only lost one this way, which left us with some 20 balloons to experiment on when we arrived at the house.

Balloon-Popping Force #4: Pins and Single Object Variations on Pins

As a control object, we reached first for the classic straight pin. We had predictably satisfying results. The Four-Year-Old then tried a number of variations on the pin theme, some of which worked well. The best results from The Four-Year-Old’s perspective were achieved by cutting the balloons with scissors and poking them with pens. Poking with sharp fingernails required more force than The Four-Year-Old could generate. (Balloons are surprisingly tough.)

Balloon-Popping Force #5: Pins + Tape

Balloon HQ claims that if you put a bit of scotch tape over a balloon and then poke the pin through the tape, you can let the air out of the balloon without popping it–at least at first. There is a delayed pop when the rip caused by the pin become larger than the tape can hold together.

We thought that sounded pretty neat, so we tried it. It worked a bit differently for us. The air from the balloon created a bubble in the tape, eventually pushing it off completely at which point the balloon popped.

It really does work. (Photo: Shala Howell)

Balloon-Popping Force #6: Pins + Vaseline

Have you ever seen a magician put a pin through a balloon without popping it? According to Balloon HQ, the trick to doing that is to put Vaseline on the needle before inserting it into a relatively underinflated section of the balloon (either near its neck or the dark spot directly opposite the neck).

This really is magical. I was able to push the pin in twice without popping the balloon. We did this experiment at least an hour ago and the balloon still hasn’t popped.

Balloon-Popping Force #7: Static Electricity

All fired up from the success of our Pin + Vaseline experiment, we then tried to pop balloons with static electricity. We figured this would be easy as Balloon HQ’s FAQ talks in great detail about how to counter the devastating effect static electricity has on balloons.

Sadly, it is the wrong time of year for this. Try as we might we couldn’t scuff up enough static electricity from the carpet or from our TV or by rubbing balloons against one another to pop them. We will have to try this again in winter.

Balloon-Popping Force #8: Doing the Twist

Our final Balloon HQ-inspired experiment involved popping the balloon by creating a weak spot on its surface. Balloon-HQ presents several options for doing this, but we decided to go with simply twisting a small piece of the balloon until it popped. Although it did eventually work, it was surprisingly hard, claiming the lives of two fingernails in the process.

Balloon-Popping Force #9: Pulling the Neck

Having exhausted the ideas in the reference text, The Four-Year-Old was forced to improvise. So she tried stretching the neck of the balloon. At first, the balloon simply squealed as the air leaked out. She had to pull quite a bit harder to make the balloon pop.

Balloon-Popping Force #10: Smashing It With Things

The Four-Year-Old then went rogue and began smashing balloons with various objects. The package from our front porch just bounced off the balloon without harming it, as did the soccer ball.

She then tried sitting on a balloon herself. When that didn’t work, she bounced up and down on it as if it were a Hippity Hop. This is a reliable, if unpredictable, method. Each balloon popped sometime between the fourth and sixth bounce, sending The Four-Year-Old sprawling on the floor.

(Perhaps I should mention at this point that no preschoolers were hurt in this experiment. So much fun was had, in fact, that it was only with difficulty that I convinced The Four-Year-Old that jumping on balloons was a bad idea.)

And when all the balloon popping was done…

The Four-Year-Old used the rags and ribbons to make a collage.

About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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3 Responses to Classic Caterpickles: “What else pops balloons?”

  1. Pingback: In which we advance our pet search and have some fun with idioms | CATERPICKLES

  2. john says:

    I have three and four year old girls who love to pop balloons. We tried the tape trick sev eral times, never did work. Why is sitting on them a bad idea. its their favorite way to do it.

    Like

    • Shala Howell says:

      Hi there, thanks for stopping by caterpickles. The sitting on them idea freaked me out a bit because my daughter was never content to just sit. She would bounce up and down until they popped unexpectedly. She had a blast, but I worried a bit about her head & bottom (we had wooden floors). Some pretty impressive collapses happened before we ran out of balloons.

      Like

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