The Helium Balloon With a Magical Ending

In 2001, a nine-year-old girl named Laura Buxton was in Staffordshire, England, attending an anniversary party for her grandparents. At her grandfather’s urging, Buxton endeavored on a simple and not uncommon science experiment. The young Ms. Buxton let loose one of the helium balloons adorning the festivities, but not before attaching a note to the soon-to-be-airborne decoration. That note read, simply, “Please return to Laura Buxton.” The assumption, and hope, was that the wind would carry the balloon for a few miles but ultimately, it would land somewhere in or near Staffordshire, and Laura and her grandfather could measure the distance.

When the balloon came back down to Earth, it ended up caught in a hedge abutting a farm. The farmer, checking on his cattle, noticed the shiny, gold-color flicker in his neighbors’ bushes and went to check it out. Before discarding what appeared to be trash, the note caught his eye — again, “Please return to Laura Buxton.” And as luck would have it, he knew the Buxton family.  He did as the note requested and returned the science experiment back to the girl. But there was only one problem: Laura Buxton had never seen the balloon before.

The balloon didn’t land in or near Staffordshire; it landed in a town called Milton Lilbourne, a good 120 miles away. By car, it was about a three-hour drive; by foot, a couple of days walk. The Laura Buxton who ultimately received the returned balloon wasn’t the one who sent it. As luck would have it, the balloon traveled from one girl named Laura Buxton to another girl named Laura Buxton.

Their curiosities piqued, the second Buxton family contacted the first. (Laura Buxton Prime and her grandfather included the original Laura’s address on the note. The farmer who found the balloon, though, either didn’t notice that or didn’t think much of it.) The two girls spoke over the phone and had a chance to meet. And what they realized along the way was that the similarities went well beyond their names. Priceonomics dives in:

[T]he two Laura Buxtons not only shared the same name, but were nearly the exact same age, were the same height (which was unusual, considering they were both well above average for their age at 4 feet, 7 inches), had brown pigtails and blue eyes, and were in Year 5 in primary school. In a Radiolab interview, the girls recalled the astonishing similarities that arose as they spoke for the first time: they both had three-year-old female black labrador dogs, grey rabbits, and guinea pigs with identical markings (orange spots on hind legs). Upon meeting, they unintentionally chose to wear identical outfits — a pink sweater, and jeans.

The two have, understandably, become lifelong friends since. (And if you want to know more about their lives since their chance meeting, the Radiolab interview is a great listen.)

While there’s no deeper meaning here, the story of the Buxton girls is a reminder that just because something is highly improbable doesn’t mean it’s impossible — hardly. The odds of something like this happening, according to statistician Chris Chatfield of Bath University (via the Guardian) is small — “a million to one – if not more.” But even at a billion to one, with seven billion people in the world, coincidences of this magnitude are bound to happen every so often. (And you should probably listen when your grandfather wants to do an impromptu science experiment.)

Bonus fact: While the outcome of Laura Buxton (the Staffordshire one)’s experiment is unique, the experiment itself isn’t — balloon launches are, or once were, a hallmark of elementary school education in many parts of the world. Not so much in Florida, though; there, launches like this are illegal. Under Florida law, “it is unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation to intentionally release, organize the release, or intentionally cause to be released within a 24-hour period 10 or more balloons inflated with a gas that is lighter than air ” with some rare exceptions. Violating this law won’t get you prison time, though; it comes with a fine of up to $250.

From the Archives: Richard Parker: A bad name to have if you’re on a boat. Also, Pipe Nightmare: Proof that you aren’t the same person as someone else just because you have the same name.