The Beautiful Science Behind a Bursting Balloon

Caitlin Schneider

When French physicist Sébastien Moulinet saw this photograph of a balloon by Jacques Honvault, an idea began to inflate.

Moulinet was curious about the way the particular fissures formed in a bursting balloon, and how they spread in relation to tension. So Moulinet grabbed the necessary tools: a latex balloon, a blade, and a high speed camera. Along with theoretician Mokhtar Adda-Bedia, he studied the popping balloons at different levels of inflation. The results appear in an October 30 edition of Physical Review Letters.

In short, a balloon bursts in one of two ways. With low inflation (and low tension), it will break along one or two cracks. After a certain inflation threshold, however, the tension becomes high enough that there are many cracks—as many as 40—through which the balloon will burst. Aside from being interesting in and of itself, equations for this relationship remain true for other materials like glass, which means their implications could be practical in innumerable ways.

To watch the slow motion bursts and hear New York Times science writer James Gorman discuss the study, check out the video above.