Science! Just when everyone's having a great time, it comes along and tells us to turn down the music. Or, at the very least, to stop blowing up party balloons with helium, you heathens, because you're ruining some very important experiments.
The Guardian reports this week that "research facilities probing the structure of matter, medical scanners and other advanced devices" that depend on helium for experimentation are at risk, and many may have to "reduce operations or close" while we sit at our stupid birthday parties, tooting noisemakers and eating ice cream cakes:
"It costs £30,000 a day to operate our neutron beams, but for three days we had no helium to run our experiments on those beams," said [researcher Oleg] Kirichek. "In other words we wasted £90,000 because we couldn't get any helium. Yet we put the stuff into party balloons and let them float off into the upper atmosphere, or we use it to make our voices go squeaky for a laugh. It is very, very stupid. It makes me really angry."
It's wrong to call Oleg a party pooper, because helium is important:
Helium is an inert gas that does not react with other chemicals and is therefore safe to handle. It is important to science because, even at incredibly low temperatures, it does not solidify and so can be used, in liquid form, to run super-cool refrigerators, a vital resource for scientists working in many fields.
Robert Richardson, a professor at Cornell University, suggests that we solve the world shortage by charging more realistic prices for party balloons—he says £75 (or about $100) for a single balloon, would do the trick.
"We are squandering an irreplaceable resource," he says. He's right: Only Hydrogen is more abundant in the universe than helium, but helium exists mainly in lunar soil. Scientists say that existing supplies "remain uncertain," and we may have to one day "build mines on the moon to supply us with helium."
Which is all very sad and alarming, until you read this sentence in a helium voice.