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Funny He He! - but this is no Laughing Gas!
By Bowser
16, Dec 2001 - 19:24

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At this time of the year Helium could be mistaken for laughing gas. At every Christmas party in town - the Welcome Inn, TF and Breaffy - balloons galore floating over tables giving that nice light party atmosphere. If you are sober enough you can sometimes manage to untie the end of the balloon and you can experience a strange lightness of being for yourself. This is fun and safe if you don't overdo it - but remember that breathing excessive amounts of helium can replace the lung's supply of oxygen, resulting in sudden lung collapse and death! If you still want to risk it; for maximum effect you must be in the middle of a serious conversation about the woes of the world - you know the kind of one where you have just figured out how to sort the Middle East, put an end to illegal dumping or solve Ireland's homelessness? Take a breath from the balloon, giving it a second or two to reach your vocal chords, and then continue speaking. For men especially, the effect is quite amazing because your voice will now sound exactly like Alvin the chipmunk. Your voice should jump about four octaves until the gas finally clears out of your system. Why does it work? Who cares - it's just a bit of gas! (something to do with the physics of how fast your vocal chords vibrate in low density media?).

Helium is the number two most abundant element in the universe formed by the fusion of hydrogen in stars. In turn it produces carbon if the climate is right, i.e. over 100 million degrees C. This is important at the end of the star's life because none of the heavier elements are formed until a star finally implodes on itself. The lighter elements such as carbon are scrunched together under the weight of the collapsing star and forced to form heavier elements such as iron, copper, gold, silicon, calcium, nitrogen and oxygen even in its final supernova. So the line in the old Joni Mitchell song Woodstock "We are stardust... we are golden.... billion year-old carbon..." is perfectly correct. An awesome thought indeed that a star had to die to make the materials that we are formed from.

A plea from marine mammal conservationists - don't let helium balloons go - so tie the balloon onto your child's hand before you step outdoors. Inevitably, the deflated balloons end up in the sea and are often found inside dead whales, dolphins and porpoises. So helium is no laughing matter really - but neither is the next on the list....

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