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How many balloons would lift a house?

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By Tushna Commissariat

A recent Guardian article in its “Improbable Research” series drew my attention to the Journal of Special Topics, produced by undergraduate physics students at the the University of Leicester.

The Guardian article focused on a paper discussing the feasibility of playing football on Mars and how gravitational and environmental differences would affect the game. Not being a big football fan myself, what really had me amused was the mention of another paper called “Determining the smallest migratory bird native to Britain able to carry a coconut”. Fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will remember King Arthur suggesting that the coconuts in his possession could have been carried by a bird from the tropics and the ensuing debate about which migratory bird actually could carry said coconut. The authors found that the only bird that fits the bill (sort of) is the white stork.

Upon digging around in the journal’s archive, I found a few other gems…

If you enjoyed the film Up, you might want to peruse the paper that asked how many helium balloons would actually be required to lift a small wooden house – like the one in the film – as well as a common brick house found in the UK. The authors found that it would take almost 10 million helium balloons to lift the small wooden house and 400 million helium balloons to lift a typical UK house! They note the downfalls of this particular method of relocation though, by concluding that the balloons would “deflate very quickly at high altitudes” and that the “foundations and drainage of the house would be removed, making the structure very unstable, if by some miracle the journey is possible.” Pity, balloons would make moving so much easier!

Fans of the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory may recall a character attempting to “See how long it takes a 500 kW oxygen-iodine laser to heat up my Cup-A-Noodles”. And later claims the necessary time is two seconds. In the paper “The Pot Noodle Proposal”, the authors conclude that, while it is possible to use the laser to heat the noodles, “the heat transfer process is very ineffective” because the pot would melt long before the noodles would heat up. So physics labs will have to hold on to their microwave ovens!

Another paper calculates just how fast an average ball point pen can write on paper and how temperature and so, geological location affects the speed achieved. The paper, titled “How fast can a pen write”, found that the speed is approximately 153 m/s at room temperature, with maximum speeds of 181 m/s and 192 m/s at Sahara-like and Siberia-like temperatures respectively. While the authors acknowledge that these speeds could not be humanly achieved, they point out that the ink viscosity, determined by the temperature, is the “bottom line”.

The last paper I will mention is one that had me in splits. “How radioactive is a banana?” looks at just how harmful the radioactivity of a banana can be. But wait a minute, you say, bananas are not radioactive, are they? Bananas contain potassium – which has a naturally occurring radioactive isotope, potassium-40. Luckily all you banana lovers can rest easy as the authors found that “a person would have to consume more than 37 billion bananas to cause any risk of death” from radioactivity alone. Also, “even surrounded by bananas, it would take over a billion to cause any harm”. So no need to stop gulping down that banana smoothie in the morning just yet.

For papers like these, which are probably being penned by future Ig Nobel prize winners, take a look these and other papers – they are sure to make you laugh and think!

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