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Off with a BANG!

Editorial, Geoscientist 17.3, March 2007

Ted Nield has a revelation about the age of the Earth.

My first balloon launch was not very auspicious. My boss had had the idea for a photo opportunity to mark the publication of a booklet about university/industry collaboration, and decided that what she needed were 1000 balloons, released by herself to the cameras of the assembled media, from the steps of University College London. I was told to make it so.

Everything seemed so easy. The book's designer arranged for the balloons to be printed, delivered and inflated. And when the day came, I turned up early to find them all in a big string bag, tied to a tree in the quad. The College registrar had of course given his permission for all these shenanigans - but I don't think I asked anybody else. The photogaphers started to arrive a few minutes before the appointed hour, as did the boss – wearing a delightful pink two-piece suit, fresh out of Dickins and Jones, with matching coral shoes.

Having announced herself to the bedraggled lensmen she unhitched the balloon bag and climbed to about half way up the steps, holding on to the wallowing object with both hands, until they shouted to her to stop. One photographer, electing himself manager of the shoot, announced he would count to three. He had got to two when a sudden gust of wind blew in from Gower Street.

The boss made a clean take-off, drifting into the air by about two metres. At this point both her shoes fell off and rolled down the steps. It was a tense moment. The bag was pear-shaped, and that was where it was all going. But she was nothing if not game, and decided to hang on with one hand. With her stockinged feet dangling, there was a certain lack of elegance about the way she swung her legs to give her the necessary momentum to reach around as far as the ripcord. But it worked. The balloons drifted free against the sky, the shutters and motorwinds whirred and clunked, and the boss made a light touchdown, even remembering to bend her knees.
So, given this experience it was not without misgiving that, many months ago, I suggested to the Bicentenary Steering Group that the Society should launch its Bicentenary year with 4567 balloons, one for every million years of Earth history, in the Courtyard at Burlington House. This time, of course, I engaged a proper balloon company to do the business, and it was all done by the book. Everyone, from the Royal Academy and the other societies, to the Mayor's office, the Metropolitan Police and the Civil Aviation Authority, were fully involved throughout. The balloon bag was safely tethered, as is now compulsory, under the watchful supervision of the requisite number of Certified Balloon Artists, a happy band of brothers and sisters entitled to the postnominal CBA.

But it was in dealing through them with the CAA that I discovered a piece of evidence that should be seized upon immediately by the intelligent designers as betraying the hand of a higher power in the affairs of planet Earth. I discovered that because the CAA has been so overwhelmed by requests for balloon launch permissions lately, it has decided that any release under 5000 no longer requires a special permit. What a good job mother Earth isn't any older than she is. Coincidence? I think not.