Monday, October 19, 2009

Balloon Boy Hoax??

The nation and its news channels were transfixed by a saucer-shaped hot air balloon traveling across Colorado. It purportedly might have contained a six-year old boy.

While the sheriff's office tracked the balloon, and many news channels trumpeted the "news," no one even thought to figure out whether a boy could be inside of this device.

Is our entire nation crazy, or do we, as a nation, simply lack simple scientific reasoning skills?

The first question anyone with any reasoning skills should ask is, "Can such a device lift a six-year old?" This sort of question is readily answered with available information.

At sea level, a hot air balloon might have a lift of 0.025 lb/cu ft or a bit more if the air is hot enough. For a boy to be alive inside of the balloon and not fall out dead or nearly so, the air could not be hotter than the estimate of 300° F. At Fort Collins, the lift would be substantially less because of the one mile altitude.

The balloon owners could readily provide the authorities with the dimensions of the balloon. We can see from images that its diameter is about 15-20 ft and its height around 6 ft. A few simple back-of-the-envelope calculations show that this device will have a lift of about 50 lbs at sea level and less at one mile high. Its own weight might be around 10 lbs. To be inside of the balloon, the child must have some structure on which to sit. That structure would also have weight, maybe around 10 lbs more.

The net lift of the balloon would be less than 30 lbs. If you know of a six-year boy who weighs less than 30 lbs, then he is very underweight for his age. But that's not all. According to reports, the balloon reached a height of 15,000 ft, about 2 miles above the starting altitude. With a six-year old boy as ballast, it could never have even come close to that height.

This hoax was more than just a publicity stunt. Perhaps inadvertently, it was a test of our population's ability to think. How could a large group of law enforcement officers and a fair number of news organizations not have considered the scientific rationality of the claim of a boy in such a small hot air balloon? Have we trained our citizens so poorly that those who present the world to us cannot ask and answer the simplest and most basic questions?

Shame on all of them for not bothering to spend just a few minutes thinking -- or at least asking someone who can think to do so. The question was obvious. Can a six-year be inside of that hot air balloon? The answer takes only a few minutes for any reputable scientist to answer.

If our students learned more about what science is all about, then they might have been able to answer this question or at a minimum to pose it. We most seriously must have an improvement in our education system right away. Real science labs will help to prepare a sufficient fraction of our people to confront issues such as this one so that we won't be duped repeatedly.

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