Why does a helium balloon in a car seem to defy Newton’s laws? When you accelerate forward suddenly, the balloon moves forward and when you brake, the balloon moves back. Is that because the air inside the car compresses when you accelerate? — CT, Charlottesville, VA
Since the air in the car is denser than the helium balloon, the air’s motion dominates the helium balloon’s motion. When your car accelerates forward, the air’s inertia tends to move it toward the back of the car-the accelerating car is trying to leave the air behind. The balloon moves forward in the car to give the air more room near the back of the car. When you stop suddenly, the air in the car continues to coast forward and accumulates at the front of the car. Again, the balloon moves backward in the car to give the air more room at the front of the car. You’ll see exactly this same effect if you watch an air bubble in a bottle of water as you drive the bottle around in a car.