The following article was originally written for Discover Magazine, and provides a wonderful account of Louis Pearl, Tangent Toys, and Bubble-ology:
Spend half a day with Louis Pearl in the cluttered dockside headquarters of Tangent Toys in Sausalito and you will emerge with a newfound respect Š for bubbles. That's right, bubbles, the symbol for everything flimsy and inconsequential, all form and no content, whimsy without weight, the essence of impermanence. If you have taken bubbles for granted in a world of technical wizardry and material glut, one afternoon watching a master at work will remind you of the magic they held for you when you were five.
Pearl is a member of the bubbleocracy, a small band of performers, physicists, mathematicians, and amateur connoiseurs who devote themselves to the astonishingly complex and increasingly useful world of bubbles. He is the owner, ceo and chief bubble evangelist of Tangent, a small toy company that manufactures an amazing array of toys designed to turn soapy film into irridescent, evanescent jewels. In the manner of certain Northern California software entrepreneurs -- and there is no softer ware than bubbles -- Pearl seems anything but a hard-working executive. With long, not overly-tended hair, a T shirt and sandals, he looks like just what he is, a man who lives on a houseboat about a mile north on Richardson's Bay and kayaks to work every morning. A spare Marmot Mountain Works kayak hangs from the ceiling of the company's storage warehouse.
Pearl invents the bubble toys that Tangent manufactures, but it is as a performer at schools and parties that he shows how much more there is to bubbles than the shimmering beauty of the delicate globes he launches into the air from one of his many devices. Though quick to disclaim scientific credentials, Pearl can make the complexity of bubbles ‹ the subject of daunting books and mind-numbing academic treatises ‹ instantly understandable. Why does a soap bubble invariably take the form of a closed globe or a hemisphere? Surface tension. And how does surface tension work? According to Pearl's wisdom, like this: Water molecules are only happy when surrounded by other water molecules. Just as water seeks its own level, water molecules seek their own company. What makes them unhappy is to have one side exposed to the air, and when this happens, say at the top of a glass, the outside molecules try to pull themselves back down among all the rest of the other water molecules, creating a kind of "skin" that allows the water to rise slightly higher than the edge of the glass. To illustrate, Pearl fills a wax paper cup up to and just above the brim. Then he puts one miniscule drop of oil on the water surface, which "fools" the top layer of molecules into believing they're back in the fold. The surface tension breaks, and instantly water spills over onto the desk. One of life's persistent mysteries, nicely explained.
But it's what Pearl does with bubbles that captures the imagination. Dipping one of Tangent's plastic bubble trumpets into a soapy solution (recipe: 1 oz. Dawn or Joy, 1/2 oz. glycerine or Karo syrup, 2 cups water), he begins producing perfect bubbles that range in size from soccer balls to golf balls. His repertory is hypnotic. First he blows a large bubble, keeps it floating by waving his hand underneath, then, with tiny puffs of air through pursed lips, creates a little solar system of smaller bubbles floating around inside. He forms several baseball sized bubbles and attaches them in such a way that the bubble in the center of the cluster is a cube. He creates a vertical chain of three large bubbles, rings the "waists" where they connect with belts of smaller bubbles, then, using two straws carefully aimed, spins the topmost globe and the bottom globe in opposite directions. And so on through a bag of bubble tricks that makes most television magic shows seem prosaic.
Presumably, no one involved every day in the bubble economy decided as a kid to make bubbles his life. Doctor, fire fighter, president, maybe, but bubble wrangler? Pearl's path to founding Tangent, therefore, was a twisty one. Son of an eminent doctor who headed San Francisco's Mt. Zion Hospital (a position Pearl's older brother currently holds), Louis opted out of a medical career when his father rather ill-advisedly had him attend an autopsy at the age of 16 -- a classic case of far too much quite a bit too soon. (Years later, while reading a book by Alan Watts on Zen Buddhism, Pearl remembered with a shock that it was the author's autopsy he had seen performed.)
Instead of the medical arts, Pearl chose the fine arts, and went to the University of California at San Diego to study painting. There he encountered Allan Kaprow, an artist and professor who had invented the sixties phenomenon of "happenings." Kaprow's idea was to get people to make art when they didn't know they were making art. This, for reasons no longer quite clear, made Louis Pearl think of bubbles, beautiful objects that we're all capable of producing. For an class project, he simply formed a trumpet out of cardboard in such a way that let mere mortals blow sublimely large bubbles -- brief but beautiful artistic happenings. Some years later, Pearl encountered a plastic version of this trumpet at a failing toy company in Eureka, California, and bought a couple of dozen from their leftover inventory.
After college, a sailing trip to the Galapagos Islands with his cousin convinced Pearl, by this time living in Berkeley, that he wanted nothing more than to work a little and sail a lot. Since cash flow in such a life tends to be more out than in, he found himself one day with an appointment in San Francisco but not enough money for the train ride under the Bay. He decided to stand out on University Avenue and sell his supply of bubble trumpets; an impromptu do-it-yourself demo seemed one way to lure customers. Business was brisk, and what turned out to be a profitable happening made Pearl realize that there might be a future in bubble toys. Tangent, a kind of Bubbles 'R' Us, was the result.
Ask Pearl what it is about bubbles that exerted such a powerful hold on him, and he'll hand you a pair of paper framed, light refracting glasses and take you out into the bright Sausalito sunlight to study the bubbles he blows them through a standard circle-on-a-stick bubble toy. Magically, the glasses reveal light beams radiating from the floating spheres at precise 90-degree angles, putting each bubble at the center of a precise cross.
"With the light coming off them like that, you can see how perfect bubbles are," Pearl says. "I think that's really what's so appealing about them. We're always striving for perfection in life, and we rarely achieve it. But every bubble is perfect every time."
As any bubble aficionado -- and there are many -- will tell you, the close study of bubbles will yield a lot of big ideas, which is why many schools hire Pearl and other bubble performers. The shows they put on are an intriguing way to get kids to do science without realizing (God forbid) they're doing science. That bubbles are perfectly spherical, for instance, illustrates the law of nature that decrees getting the most done using the least energy. Surface area can be said to equal energy, so bubbles and the soapy film they're made of will invariably seek to cover a given distance with a minimum of surface. Since a sphere surrounds a given volume using the least surface area, that's the shape a bubble takes, no matter what the shape of the opening used to produce it.
Because of this particular "genius" for comprehending instantly the easiest way to accomplish something, soap film can be used as a kind of natural calculator to figure out such complex problems as the most efficient route between several cities. By attaching two sheets of clear plastic by spacers representing the locations of the cities (allowing, say, half an inch of clearance between the sheets) and dipping the device into a soapy solution, you will be able to see how the film connects the dots. The principle of least energy dictates that the shortest total surface will join the points, leading the soap film to "figure out" how to get from here to there, and there, and there using, say, the least jet fuel.
Besides being the source of many such revelations and thus a powerful teaching tool, bubbles have surprising properties that are variously useful and destructive. Air bubbles in water are especially intriguing. For instance, zap an air bubble with an intense pulse of sound and it will expand (something it presumably doesn't want to do), then collapse at such speed that enough energy is created to produce a flash of light. Harness this process, known as sonoluminescence, and you might come up with a potent source of non-polluting power.
Energy being an upside-and-downside kind of thing (consider the splitting of atoms), underwater bubbles can also create havoc. In a phenomenon called cavitation, bubbles are generated when fast-spinning ship propellers literally tear water apart and produce water vapor. When these small bubbles implode, the same tiny but powerful burst of energy that produces sonoluminescence can also pit the surfaces of metal propellers and turbine blades, causing huge economic losses to ship owners and navies. So far, no one has discovered any way to prevent the attack of the killer bubbles, but much expensive research is going on. Cavitation isn't all bad, however; it helps make dyes penetrate fabrics more thoroughly, and may even provide a method for sterilizing surgical instruments. The energy of cavitation may also have remarkable medical uses, such as breaking up kidney stones and blood clots, and generating of heat in specific areas to stop internal bleeding.
If, someday, you may find yourself grateful for the healing properties of bubbles, we may all owe our continued existence on earth to the little wonders. The oceans are vast sinks for greenhouse gases, and many scientists think it's likely that these gases enter sea water through thin layers of bubbles formed by waves, surf, and rain. The idea of bubbles as heroic savior may seem a stretch, but obviously they are far more than mere froth.
Of course, the bubbleocracy has never thought of bubbles as beautiful but dumb. High end thinkers such as Jean Taylor, a mathematics professor at Rutgers University, and several of her colleagues around the country, spend their working lives trying to plumb the complexities of bubbles behavior. These academics comprise the un-whimsically named Minimal Surface Team based at the Geometry Center at the University of Minnesota. Using bubbles as the basis for their ongoing research, they program supercomputers to model and investigate the seemingly chaotic organization of bubble clusters. Beneath the chaos, certain invariables -- such as the immutable fact that three bubbles will always join at 120 degree angles -- indicate that the principal of energy saving will dictate patterns that can teach us how to do all sorts of tricky tasks better. In one of Jorge Luis Borges' short stories, the author suggests that the great secrets of life are written out everywhere in plain sight, but human beings simply don't have the ability to decipher the languages they are written in. Looking at a photograph of soap bubbles in a cluster, it's not hard to imagine that some elusive but vital message is written there. It is that implied message that so tantalizingly beckons Taylor and her fellow members of Minimal Surface Team.
Like any other "ocracy", the bubbleocracy has its founders, heroes and legends. High on the pantheon of soap film auteurs is Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau, a blind Belgian physicist who worked for much of his life on the mathematics that governs the way bubbles and soap film minimize their surface area. Figuring out how to replicate this efficient minimalism is still called Plateau's Problem.
One of the most famous popularizers of the mysteries of the bubble was C.V. Boys, a physicist from Britain who in the late 19th Century began giving lectures on bubbles, soap film, surface tension and other ordinary-but-extraordinary subjects. In 1911, Boys published "Bubbles, Their Colors and the Forces That Mold Them," a quasi-scientific text that remains required reading for anyone who wants an introduction into why bubbles do what they do. No true bubble person is without a cherished early edition. Encountered today, the book has a rather quaint, the-don-goes-slumming sound, but it is clear that Boys was responding to a keen public interest in the nature of bubbles.
This kind of public fascination inspired a certain Eiffel Plasterer, one of bubble history's near-mythic figures, the American equivalent of C.V. Boys, but a showman rather than a scientist. Plasterer lived all his life on a farm in Indiana, and spent much of his time as an adult inventing bubble tricks to be performed for Midwestern audiences in the days when radio was an imperfect entertainment medium at best and television wasn't even a gleam in Philo Farnsworth's (or CBS's) eye. Eiffel -- born in 1899, of course, on the day Alexander Gustave Eiffel presented France with his tower at the Paris Exposition -- grew famous with his repertory of bubble tricks. At the same time other, more sensation forms of entertainment pushed vaudeville and carnivals to the edges of audience interest, the vogue for bubble performance dwindled, and with it Plasterer's fame. Then, late in his life, a television station in DeMoines, Iowa [??] revived his celebrity.
To the bubble adepts who built their acts on the foundation of Plasterer's inventiveness, he was a combination Harry Houdini and Charlie Chaplin. Those who made trips to Indiana to see him when he was in his nineties ‹ as did Louis Pearl ‹ have the extra aura of Medieval pilgrims who beheld the bones of St. Mark in Venice.
"He was an incredibly sweet old man," recalls Pearl. "Very willing to share his knowledge. Except for his recipe for bubble solution, which seems to have died with him."
As Pearl reminisces about his hours spent in an Indiana barn with Plasterer, he casually blows a bubble the size of a softball, lays it delicately in a bowl-shaped holder in the bottom of a mason jar, and carefully screws on the jar's cap. Then he explains why soap bubbles have such brief life spans. Unlike many of us, bubbles grow thinner as they age. Their membranes, made up of a layer of water between two layers of soap, change colors as the thickness of the membrane approximates the thickness of the wave lengths of yellow light, blue light and so forth. As the bubble thins, it loses color completely and soon after that even the slightest breeze is enough to put a hole in the membrane and end the career of yet another beauty contestant. This is the fate of all bubbles, and normally it happens after a matter of seconds, or a minute at most. But the bubble in Pearl's mason jar shows no sing of aging. Like Cher, it seems to have discovered the secret of eternal youth -- without surgery!
"If you can protect a bubble from air currents, it can last a long time," Pearl says. "I once had one go for a month. And in the end, they don't pop. What happens is that the bubble shrinks as the air slowly leaks out."
The Guinness Book of Records entry for bubble longevity belongs, appropriately enough, to Eiffel Plasterer, who managed to keep a bubble as a pet for just one day short of a full year. Not quite as exciting as the Indy cars at the Brickyard, maybe, but it helped put Indiana on the map for bubble fans.
In a 500-channel world (well, 200 or so, but who's counting), bubbles aren't high on the list of entertainment favorites anymore. On the other hand, there is still a power to charm in simple soap bubbles that seems able to communicate with us at a level far deeper than adult irony and cynicism can ever reach. In the late seventies, someone at the Exploratorium in San Francisco came up with the idea for a bubble festival. According to Ron Hipschman, a 28-year veteran staff member, the director at the time, Frank Oppenheimer, thought the idea was too frivolous. Because everyone else was so enthusiastic, however, he told them to go ahead. The result was one of the most popular events ever held at the redoubtable educational institution, with thousands of visitors coming to the weekend-long exhibition to see bubbles and bubble experts work their magic.
The festival presented a wide range of enthusiasts, from authors such as poet Muriel Ruckeyser, who did a children's book about bubbles to performers ‹ a very young Louis Pearl was there, and the venerable Eiffel P., as well as Sterling Johnson, a lawyer with the extra-legal specialty of blowing large bubbles using only his hands.
"There were also a couple of Japanese inventors," Hipschman says, "who had brought a machine that blew a zillion bubbles very quickly. The only trouble was that the solution they used was so incredibly slippery that when the bubbles broke they left the floor really dangerous to walk on."
The festival turned out to be so successful that two sequels were held before the air leaked out of that particular exhibition bubble. But bubble power lives on. Earlier this year, bubbles even made primetime television when the Fox Network broadcast the Guinness record attempt for bubbles-within-bubbles-within-bubbles (hemispheres blown on a light box); luckily, the audience held its breath as TK, a bubble expert from TK managed to construct a delicately beautiful edifice with seven domes in domes.
Amazingly, fascination with bubbles is not exclusively the territory of the human race. Researchers at Sea Life Park Hawaii on the island of Oahu have discovered that dolphins have created a bubble show of their own, what observers have called a "ring culture" that is apparently passed along from older dolphins to their juniors. After swirling the water with their fins, the undersea mammals blow bubbles into the vortex from their blowholes to form rings, sometimes swimming through the doughnut shaped tubes of air. One especially talented dolphin has even contrived a way to create a helix from her air bubbles. The creatures are not trained to do this, and aren't performing tricks for food; rather, they seem to blow bubble rings as a kind of leisure-time source of amusement. Once, the researchers blew soap bubbles in front of the window in the dolphins' tank, and one of the dolphins responded by producing a perfect ring of his own ‹ the first known instance of cross-species communication through the language of bubbles.
Which leads to this modest proposal: In the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," visitors from outer space, a different species at least as alien to our way of thinking as ours is to dolphins, are greeted with a carefully calculated series of musical notes. In the hopeful script, these notes successfully bridge the gap between cultures. But in reality, a given set of notes might be incomprehensible, or worse, insulting. When the fateful day actually does come when we are visited by alien creatures, we should take a lesson from the dolphins and use bubbles. They may be even more universal than music, they are no less beautiful and true, and even the most tone-deaf among us can make them as perfectly as the most technologically superior traveler from Alpha Centauri.