99 Luftballoons: Chemistry professor returns to yet another prank

Posted on August 16th, 2011 by

Professor Scott Bur arrives at his office to find it filled with over 1,000 balloons.

At 9:40 AM, Professor Scott Bur said good morning to his two research students, senior chemistry major Michelle Kirkvold ’12 and sophomore Michael Sterling ’14, both innocently working on a research presentation on a clunky desktop computer right outside his office door. Kirkvold and Sterling blasted the German song “99 Luftballoons” as Bur pulled open his door, and to his surprise, nearly 99 balloons rolled out of his office.

Although Bur’s researchers traditionally decorate Bur’s office at least every other summer, the 1,000 balloons filling his office still came as a surprise. He told Kirkvold, “I was not expecting this at all. I thought you’d been cowed into submission after last year’s tinfoil.” Kirkvold and her fellow researchers made international news last summer when they covered every item in Bur’s office with tinfoil, then replaced the objects in their rightful place, including individual tissues in the tissue box, pencils, coffee cups, and books lining the walls.

Previous pranks include princess themed decorations and pirate themed decorations. Bur mentioned that his students chose a pirate theme before the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies made pirates popular. Walking into his office, one can still find remnants of each prank. Said Bur, “I’ll probably have balloon fragments in my office for years.”

Michelle Kirkvold '12 and Michael Sterling '14 pose next to their research adviser, Scott Bur. The students waited outside Bur's office to catch his reaction to the balloon-filled office.

Kirkvold and Sterling decided to fill Bur’s office with balloons because they occasionally use nitrogen balloons in their lab for chemical research. The students liked the idea of connecting the theme to their research, and the fact that they would not need to fill up the balloons by mouth made up their minds to do it.

Even using equipment to fill the balloons, the prank took two days and a lot of experimentation to carry out. Initially, Kirkvold and Sterling purchased 100 balloons. “100 balloons sounded like a lot,” said Sterling. “We thought that would be plenty. But when we filled them all up they barely even covered the floor in his office.”

Following their first failed attempt at estimation, the students tried to figure out mathematically how many balloons were needed to fill Bur’s office. “We used Pi R2, but maybe it wasn’t accurate because balloons aren’t quite a sphere,” Kirkvold explained to Bur.  “We bought 500 more and the balloons only reached your desk. So we bought another 500, and that was finally enough.”

Bur smiled in response, and told Kirkvold and Sterling, “You are so organic chemists.”


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