Left or Right?


A curious physics puzzle from Mark Levi’s excellent Why Cats Land on Their Feet: Suppose two astronauts, Al and Bob, are strapped to opposite ends of a space capsule’s interior, Al on the left and Bob on the right. Al is holding a large helium balloon, and everything is at rest. If Al pushes the balloon toward Bob, which way will the capsule drift?

It would be reasonable to guess that the capsule will drift to the left. Newton’s third law says that action equals reaction, so as Al pushes the balloon to the right, the balloon pushes Al to the left, and since he’s strapped to the capsule, he and it should drift left.

In fact the capsule will drift right as well. Because there are no external forces, the center of mass of the whole system is fixed. The helium balloon has less mass than the air it displaces, so from Al’s point of view the center of mass moves left. But the center of mass of the whole system is fixed in space, so the capsule must move right from the point of view of an external observer.

One way to make this intuitive is to imagine that the capsule is full of water rather than air. The mass of water essentially stays in place while we transfer a bubble of helium from the water’s left to its right. To accommodate this, the shell (whose mass we neglect) must move to the right.