After a party at work, a friend tied a helium balloon to his car’s gearshift lev…

After a party at work, a friend tied a helium balloon to his car’s gearshift lever and drove off. As he started driving forward, the balloon first went forward and then backward. That’s not what happens to everything else. Why does it happen for the helium balloon? — S

The helium balloon is the least dense thing in the car and is responding to forces exerted on it by the air in the car. To understand this, consider what happens to you, the air, and finally the helium balloon as the car first starts to accelerate forward.

When the car starts forward, inertia tries to keep all of the objects in the car from moving forward. An object at rest tends to remain at rest. So the car must push you forward in order to accelerate you forward and keep you moving with the car. As the car seat pushes forward on you, you push back on the car seat (Newton’s third law) and dent its surface. Your perception is that you are moving backward, but you’re not really. You’re actually moving forward; just not quite as quickly as the car itself.

The air in the car undergoes the same forward acceleration process. Its inertia tends to keep it in place, so the car must push forward on it to make it accelerate forward. Air near the front of the car has nothing to push it forward except the air near the back of the car, so the air in the front of the car tends to “dent” the air in the back of the car. In effect, the air shifts slightly toward the rear of the car. Again, you might think that this air is going backward, but it’s not. It’s actually moving forward; just not quite as quickly as the car itself.

Now we’re ready for the helium balloon. Since helium is so light, the helium balloon is almost a hollow, weightless shell that displaces the surrounding air. As the car accelerates forward, the air in the car tends to pile up near the rear of the car because of its inertia. If the air can push something out of its way to get more room near the rear of the car, it will. The helium balloon is that something. As inertia causes the air to drift toward the rear of the accelerating car, the nearly massless and inertialess helium balloon is squirted toward the front of the car to make more room for the air. There is actually a horizontal pressure gradient in the car’s air during forward acceleration, with a higher pressure at the rear of the car than at the front of the car. This pressure gradient is ultimately what accelerates the air forward with the car and it’s also what propels the helium balloon to the front of the car.

Finally, when the car is up to speed and stops accelerating forward, the pressure gradient vanishes and the air returns to its normal distribution. The helium balloon is no longer squeezed toward the front of the car and it floats once again directly above the gear shift.

One last note: OGT from Lystrup, Denmark points out that when you accelerate a glass of beer, the rising bubbles behave in the same manner. They move toward the front of the glass as you accelerate it forward and toward the back of the glass as you bring it to rest.