Helium balloons


We’re eating fish and chips on the beach in Herne Bay. We see three heart shaped helium balloons float away from a group of people standing on the flood defence walls. The three balloons are heading down the coast, following the strong breeze that we feel, making our fish and chips go cold. I know a little bit about Helium – it has such a low density that when released it makes it’s way out of our atmosphere – as soon as it’s out, it’s out, never to return. These balloons will start to expand as they move away from earth and into the lower pressure of the outer atmosphere. The balloons will pop, the invisible gases inside will be dissipated and continue to float away from our planet, lost forever. A heart shaped helium balloon holds roughly 0.14 cubic meters of helium. We just witnessed the passing of 0.36 cubic meters of helium into space. Helium is mined, and the supplies we have left are running out. It is the result of Uranium-238 and Thorium-232 decay. These elements have a decay cycle of billions of years – the helium held inside the plastic-foil balloons is as old as the earth itself. The plastic-foil balloons, after popping, will fall back down to earth, the plastic that once held the helium has no known lifespan. It will most likely land in the sea, where it will float. It will remain for hundreds of years, gradually being made brittle and broken down by the UV rays from the sun and the effects of waves and currents. Parts will start to sink, over the course of hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, the elements that make up the complex plastic will eventually break down, fish will eat it.

The balloons represented an expression of love, perhaps an anniversary, someone probably took a photo of them releasing the balloons on their iPhone. I find myself irrationally angry. I want a bang, an explosion, anything that’s more dramatic than letting go. The objects used to commemorate an event seem far more important than the event being commemorated. They stretch massively both spatially and temporally. What gets organised to commemorate the loss of the ancient Helium, or the birth of an object that will inhabit the earth long after these two are dead? The true event is the process. I imagine instead that the kiss, the photo, the release, the applause, is to commemorate the genesis and loss of two hyperobjects, irrationally created and celebrated.

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