When the ball is suspended in the air stream, the air flowing upward hits the bottom of the ball and slows down, generating a region of higher pressure. The high-pressure region of air under the ball holds the ball up against the pull of gravity.
When you pull the ball partially out of the air stream, the air flows around the curve of the ball that is nearest the center of the air stream. Air rushes in an arc around the top of the ball and then continues outward above the ball.
This outward-flowing air exerts an inward force on the ball, just like the downward flow of air beneath a helicopter exerts an upward force on the blades of the helicopter. This explanation is based on Newton’s law of action and reaction.
Another way of looking at this is that as the air arcs around the ball, the air pressure on the ball decreases, allowing the normal atmospheric pressure of the calm air on the other side of the ball to push the ball back into the air stream.
People immediately raise several questions when they hear the second explanation: Why does air flowing over a surface in an arc exert less pressure on that surface? To answer this question, consider a rider on a roller-coaster car going over the top of a hill at high speed. The force the rider exerts on the seat decreases as the car goes over the top of the hill. In the same way, the air that arcs around the side of the ball exerts less force on the ball.
Why does air follow the surface of the sphere? Consider what would happen if the air did not curve around the ball. An “air shadow” would be formed above the ball. This air shadow would be a region of low pressure. The air would then flow into the low-pressure air shadow. So the air flows around the ball.
An alternative explanation is provided by the Bernoulli principle. If you pull the ball far enough out of the air stream, then the air flows over only one side of the ball. In fact, the air stream speeds up as it flows around the ball. This is because the middle of the ball sticks farther into the air stream than the top or bottom. Since the same amount of air must flow past all parts of the ball each second, it must flow faster where it is pinched together at the middle. The Bernoulli principle states that where air speeds up, its pressure drops. The difference in pressure between the still air and the moving air pushes the ball back into the center of the air stream.
When you approach a wall with the balanced ball, the high-pressure region under the ball becomes a region of even higher pressure. The air that hits the bottom of the ball can no longer expand outward in the direction of the wall, so it drives the ball to a greater height.