Slow-Mo Footage Reveals How Balloons Burst in Two Different Ways

When a balloon bursts, it doesn’t just simply burst. New high-speed camera footage shows that they either snap cleanly open or become covered in many cracks, depending on the stresses within the skin.


A team of researchers from Paris Diderot University have been analysing the exact ways in which balloons burst, inspired by footage of weather balloons bursting at altitude. They actually used clamped latex sheets of varying thickness and tensions, which they inflated until they touched a sharp blade to pop them.

The team found that the way the balloons burst depends on the stress — that is, the tension divided by the thickness — within the material of their skin. At low stress, a single crack forms, spreading out from where the puncture occurs. At high stress, multiple crack propagate out from the same point. You can see the difference clearly in these animations.


Speaking to New Scientist, the team explains that the difference is likely due to the speed at which the crack propagates:

“If you have cracks that go above the sound velocity, it means that the material in front of the crack does not know it is arriving, so it cannot reconfigure its stress and mechanical properties. It cannot arrange itself so that a single crack continues.”

It’s thought that the finding could help material scientists to design new materials, which fracture more predictably.

[Physical Review Letters via New Scientist]


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I guess the thing I can say about this is that sometimes you don’t have enough data to understand a problem or event well enough to model it accurately. Sometimes you just have to do the experiment and watch closely to see what happens, to see how nature does it.

Then you take what you’ve learned and adjust your math accordingly. This makes your models more accurate.

Physics Review Letters is one of the leading professional journals in the field. You open the cover and it’s dense, brutally deep math, interspersed by terse sentences and short paragraphs that assume you know what the hell the math is doing—what various formulae do and how they were derived. It’s not for public consumption. (Well, it is for public consumption but, no handholding kids. You’re on your own.)

However it is kinda cool when you come across papers in PRL or similar journals where they’re dealing with things that don’t require million dollar apparatus to explore. This is what is called “kitchen sink science.” And it refers to experiments an average person can do to see for themselves how nature works.

Balloons popping might seem trivial and accessible to everyone but, what we’re seeing here is a set of details that our mathematical models don’t represent accurately enough. It’s all about refining our knowledge and understanding of something.

Boyle would have loved this. Just do the experiment under controlled conditions and look very closely and see how it really works.