Saturday, 27 June 2009


Obligatory Michael Jackson reference aside, I was just reading about a remarkable bit of ingenuity: Tim Kehoe's invention of Zubbles, the world's first coloured bubbles. The product may be ultimately trivial, but the chemistry certainly isn't. It needed an intense dye (bubbles being thin) and bonded to surfactant (so that it would spread evenly over the whole bubble): but one non-toxic, and highly unstable so that it wouldn't stain. The article explains: The 11-Year Quest to Create Disappearing Colored Bubbles.

Ian Waton's QueenMagic, Kingmagic (see previously) , with its magical bubbles that are pocket universes, reminded me of a poem I saw way back: Korfs Verzauberung ("Korf's Bewitching") by Christian Morgenstern (who has been described as "a kind of German Edward Lear"). By pleasant coincidence, I just ran into an English translation while trying to find bubble-related books.
"The Bewitchment"

Von Korf finds out his distant cousin is—
a sorceress
who fashions planets out of herbal fizz;
and so he hurries, yes.
he hurries there to O-de-lée-de-lizz
to see the sorceress.

He finds her on a meadow by her home
and asks he if she be
the one who blows the planets out of foam—
and if she be the Faërie—
the Faërie from the O-de-lée-de-lome?
Ah, yes, indeed, she be!

She offers him the pitcher and the straw;
Korf blows,—and from a gleam,
Behold! A wondrous sphere without a flaw
expands in space supreme,
Expands as if it were a world he saw,
and not just foam and dream.

Detaching from its stalk, the planet veers
aloft, and gently up,
and blends into the music of the spheres
(a Heavenly Choir), floats up...
a strain as from the shepherd's pipe appears...
distant tones push up...

And in the rounded mirror of this world,
von Korf perceives with zest,
of all the happy things that ever swirled
into his mind, the best,—
his mouth agape, beholds his own fair world,
von Korf, possessed.

He names his cousin "Muse,"—von Korf possessed,—
But look! Oh, look again!
For something grabs him by the vest
and leads him far awain,
Abducts him out of O-de-lá-de-lest
toward the new domain.

- Christian Morgenstern, translated by Helen and Hans Lewy, The Parsimonious Universe
The Morgenstern poem is the preface to The Parsimonious Universe: shape and form in the natural world (Stefan Hildebrandt and Anthony Troma, Copernicus / Springer-Verlag, 1996, ISBN 0-387-97991-3). From the blurb, you'd expect this to be pretty dry:
The variety of sizes, shapes, and irregularities in nature is endless. Through illustrations and text, the authors of The Parsimonious Universe describe the efforts by scientists and mathematicians since the Renaissance to identify and describe the basic laws underlying the shape of natural forms. Can one set of laws account for both the symmetry and irregularity as well as the infinite variety of nature's designs? Complete answers to these questions are likely novel to be discovered. Still, down through the ages, the investigation of form and pattern in nature has yielded some fascinating and surprising insights. Out of this inquiry comes a specific branch of mathematics - the calculus of variations - which explores questions of optimization (finding designs that maximize or minimize a particular quantity).
But far from it: this is a lovely book, copiously illustrated, that weaves together history, mathematics, art and nature in an exploration of the idea that Nature is "thrifty" (as Pierre Louis Maupertuis put it) - that is, natural phenomena repeatedly produce outcomes that minimise some quantity (e.g. area, energy, material used). The minimal-area soap bubble being the classic example, it not unnaturally gets a full chapter, Soap Films: The Amusement of Children and Mathematicians, with lots of beautiful photos of soap film surfaces as well as buildings, particularly those by Frei Otto, using the derived minimal-surface principle. The bubblemeister Tom Noddy gets a mention.  One of his best-known effects is using smoke to make visible the nearly cubic bubble formed when a bubble is blown at the core of an octahedral group of six. Nowadays, according to this interview, he wisely uses a non-tobacco cigarette and, if you want to try this at home, there's technology for doing it without human-blown smoke). If this kind of thing appeals, see  and

There are various other books on soap bubbles, but the classic has to be the 1890/1911 Soap Bubbles: Their Colours and the Forces Which Mould Them by Professor Charles Vernon Boys (see Google Books): for its practical interest, it's still rightly popular, despite pre-dating many of the modern insights, techniques (and detergents) that underpin current understanding of bubbles.

Update: See Professor Boys' Rainbow Cup and other marvels, 16th Dec 2014.

- Ray

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