Kavli Institute For Theoretical Physics
The KITP Public Lecture Series

Intellectual Courage and Scientific Ballooning

sponsored by Friends of KITP

WHEN most people think of hot air balloons they think of colorful, romantic flights taken on vacation in wine growing regions. Delicate flower patterned balloons flying gently, while passengers sip champagne. In Julian Nott's ballooning world, the picture is extraordinarily different. Enduring uninterrupted flights of several days without touch- ing down, skirting thunderstorms and flying over the Sahara Desert, Nott has broken 79 world ballooning records. His patented balloon designs use the most advanced technology and he has created the first entirely new type of balloon in over two centuries.

Balloons have been in use for 220 years and their applications continue to develop. More balloons are fl own today than at any time in history. Tiny weather balloons make forecasting possible, central to so much human activity. At the opposite end of the spectrum, vastly larger balloons are routinely fl own today, and for much longer periods, than at any time in history. At 120,000 feet, so little of the atmosphere is left that it is possible to make many observations just as effectively as from satellites.

The instruments carried by some of these giant balloons are of special interest at KITP. The Nobel Prize for physics announced in October 2006, was for measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation made with the COBE satellite. Precursor instruments for COBE were tested at the very top of the atmosphere under giant balloons before the satellite was launched. Penzias' discovery of the cosmic microwave background was first confirmed with an experiment carried under a huge balloon. Experiments on cosmic rays, antimatter searches etc., are currently fl own under giant balloons.

In addition to his own projects, Nott's illustrated lecture covers these achievements, the fascinating history of ballooning and the current wide application of balloons in science and technology. Nott presents the history of ballooning as a microcosm of the history of science and technology, and suggests that there are lessons of intellectual courage to be learned, central to all major human advances, and particularly to scientists exploring the greatest of the uncharted unknowns, the future.