Joy in the art and science of bubbles: The Tribune India


BN Goswamy

Make a bubble and watch it; you could spend a lifetime studying it

– Statement attributed to Sir William Thomson

A soap bubble is the most beautiful and exquisite thing in nature… I wonder how much it would cost to buy a soap bubble if there was only one in the world.

-Mark Twain

I would like to tell you, Mercury, that for me all men and their lives are alike. Have you ever observed those bubbles that form in the basin of a waterfall? Foam that is made up of bubbles? The tiny ones break and disappear immediately… This is how human life is.

— From a dialogue between Charon and Mercury: 2nd century, Greece

A view of the Olympic Stadium in Munich. By architect Gunther Behnisch and engineer Frei Otto. 1972

As true as it is, using a bubble — with all its fragility, its impermanence — to describe life has become a cliché: over time and across cultures. No one is surprised by the use, the parallelism; no one is moved. He’s just there, representing vanity now, mortality another time. Kshana-bhangur – “burst to disappear in the twinkling of an eye” – is how life is repeatedly described in Sanskrit literature. Nazar tum zindagi samjhe ho jis ko/faqat paani ka hai ik bulbula woh, said a contemporary in Urdu. Homo Bulla – “man is but a bubble”, once shouted the great scholar Varro in ancient Rome.

Newton’s discovery of the refraction of light. Painting by Pelagio Palagi. 1827

In this context, however, I was fascinated when I recently came across an article, not about bubbles as such, but about soap bubbles. We – my siblings and I – used to make these, these shiny, shimmering, iridescent spheres, in our childhood. Previously, it was pure pleasure, without any thoughts that weighed on us then. But that there are so many aspects in bubbles, or soap bubbles, I honestly had no idea. Apparently soap bubbles have been a theme in art, science, philosophy for a very long time. So I was a little surprised by the opening sentence of an article by Angelica Frey: “What is the roof of the Olympic stadium in Munich, Glinda the good witch, Disney’s Cinderella, the series of ‘Unweave a Rainbow’ art by neo-surrealist painter Ariana Papademetropoulos, Sir Isaac Newton, the first ‘viral’ advertising campaign of the late Victorian era, and moody Dutch still lifes have in common?” The answer: soap bubbles Not all references in this sentence can be decoded, but the import is clear.

Reflections on a soap bubble. Photograph.

Soap bubbles in the visual arts? I don’t think you see them in Indian painting, but in European art they started to appear somewhere in the latter part of the 16th century, in Holland in particular. Perhaps the very first time we see them is in a work that Cornelis Ketel painted in 1574. It was on the back of a portrait – Ketel was essentially a portrait painter – and showed a putto, an undressed innocent little boy , in the open air, blowing bubbles from a small dish he is holding in the air. The reference was clearly to the impermanence of life, and the painting can be seen as belonging to a genre – Vanitas – which made the fortune of a whole generation of moralistic Dutch painters. Paint after paint bubbles of soap being made appeared, often including other meaningful objects: musical instruments to suggest the fading of sound; watches alluding to the passage of time; “fragile, like human pleasures” glass; half-burnt candlesticks. The ephemeral was, in essence, the theme. The motto “All I embrace, but nothing I grasp” seemed to be everywhere.

From a technical or scientific point of view, soap bubbles are “extremely thin films of soapy water enclosing air that form a hollow sphere with an iridescent surface. Iridescence, in this case, means that they change color depending on the angle you view them from, due to light interference.” Isaac Newton, the great scientist, is known to have seen a child make soap bubbles and was very fascinated. In his book ‘Opticks’ he observed that the colors seen in them are reflected rays. This refraction of light led him to develop his own theories; and as someone wittily put it, “bubbles must have been to optics what apples would have been to gravitation”.

Scientists – of course, there’s been a lot of writing on the subject as well as experimentation – have invaded the field for a very long time, studying soap bubbles. Mathematically, as has been said — we quote with apologies because there is very little that I understand of all this — soap bubbles are examples of the complex mathematical problem of minimal surface. “This means that given a certain volume, they will always take the shape with the least amount of surface area.” Leonardo da Vinci, having observed soap bubbles, wrote about them in his famous diaries with characteristic lucidity. “Water attracts to itself another water when it touches it: this is proved by the bubble formed by a reed with water and soap, since the hole through which the air enters it into the body and the enlarges, immediately closes when the bubble is separated from the reed, bringing one side of its lip against its opposite side, and joins with it and makes it firm Clearly there have been hidden lessons in bubbles and now they have been used in mathematical problem solving – leading to the design of better roofs, for example.The groundbreaking design of the Olympic Stadium in Munich, built in 1972, is clearly an example that is cited, as it is where these ideas were put into practice. At the experimental level, work continues. Soap bubbles were frozen at extremely low temperatures and exposed. Less than 10 years ago, Professor Eleanor Stride of Oxford received a prestigious award for his work on the use of microbubbles for targeted drug delivery in cancer patients to avoid side effects.

While all of this is going on, however, it has to be said that the fun of blowing soap bubbles hasn’t entirely disappeared. Again. Poet John Keats’ lamentation over Isaac Newton’s “Opticks” – that his discoveries would “unweave a rainbow”, that they “destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by shrinking it to prismatic colors” – has not been denied. understood. There are now “bullologists” around, one of them having become something of a celebrity for having recently burst the largest floating soap bubble in the world. There are also soap bubble circuses going around, emphasizing “learning and laughing”, and proclaiming, rightly, that “few things in the world so perfectly combine art, science , mathematics and joy like soap bubbles do”.

Christopher S. Washington