A Bonanza of Bubbles!

While it can be fun to just spend an afternoon lazily dunking a bubble wand in a tub of bubble solution, Science Explorers Club likes to understand the science behind the things that fascinate us. It doesn’t matter what age we are…blowing bubbles is always endlessly entertaining.  So for our March program, we took a closer look at the science of bubbles…

To kick off our program, I showed this terrific youtube video from ‘Carmelo the Science Fellow’ to our scientists. While his jokes may be corny at times, Carmelo does an excellent job talking about the science of bubbles while providing experimenters with some important tips for creating the strongest, most creative bubbles. What kind of science can be seen using bubbles? Well, first of all, bubbles can be a compelling way to prove that gases have mass. It’s easy to see that a desk or a chair (solids) have mass and take up space. But how can you show that air and other gases take up space? As you blow into a wand to create a bubble, the skin of the bubble expands and becomes a visual indicator of the increased area that the gas or air is taking up in space. Carmelo also had some great advice about creating bubbles, summarized by two clever catch phrases:

Bubbles love things that are wet, and they won’t be upset.

If a bubble touches something dry, the bubble will go ‘bye bye.’

As our SEC scientists discovered, by wetting a surface (like a paper plate), it was much easier to create large, long-standing bubbles. And a wet surface also helped to facilitate some pretty cool bubble tricks, like blowing a bubble within a bubble. You can even stab your bubble with a wand or a straw safely, as long as it’s wet! [That’s how you’re able to blow a bubble within a bubble :)]

We also watched a series of nifty videos on youtube highlighting professionals at work with their bubble shows – blowing smoke within bubbles, creating bubbles that glow in the dark, doing bubble work with just their hands (no wands), etc. Many of our SEC crew were excited by the possibilities.

OUR EXPERIMENTS

For our experiments, the first step was for me to create some bubble solution for our use. Last time I did this program, I used empty coffee cans to store the solution in. Sadly, I didn’t anticipate the cans rusting and turning all of my lovely bubble solution brown and murky over time (yuck!). So this time, I bought some cheaper tupperware from the food store, as well as some small snack-sized plastic containers (so that each scientists could take home some of our bubble solution!). I also used the following recipe (though tripled) from the experimentals web site:

  • 3 cups of water
  • 1/4 liquid detergent (must be dishwashing detergent – not body soap or laundry detergent; Steve Spangler recommends Dawn brand soap, so that’s what I purchased)
  • 2 tbs. pure glycerin (I found a small $5 bottle at CVS; Stop & Shop also sells it)
  • A pipette (or straw)
A pippette

A pipette

Though the glycerin is noted as being an optional ingredient in most recipes I found, I believe it is actually an important component and one that will make your homemade bubble solution as close to a store bought bottle as possible. The glycerine actually acts as a stabilizer, preventing the bubbles from breaking and evaporating as quickly as they would without it. You get much stronger, longer-lasting bubbles with the glycerin added in. We also used modified pipettes for creating our bubbles (though regular drinking straws would also work). We snipped off the tip of the widest portion of the pipette, and that became the end we dipped into the bubble solution, blowing in through the smaller, narrower end.

I let our scientists spend a significant portion of the program experimenting with creating bubbles. Many wanted to create the single largest bubble possible; others wanted to see how many bubbles they could pile one on top of another. Most of our SEC crew found success in blowing a bubble within a bubble, and many just had fun with blowing bubbles at each other or creating cooperative bubble experiments with a neighbor. I did, of course, want to challenge our scientists, so I tested their skills and asked them all to create a square bubble.

square bubbleSquare bubble?! With the right tools, a scientist can do almost anything. Using pipe cleaners and drinking straws, I gave the SEC crew instructions on how to create a 3-D cube. Steve Spangler actually provides some great instructions for creating the cube you need to produce square bubbles. But by happenstance as I was creating my own model I think I developed an even simpler way to make the cube. Instead of twisting the pipe cleaners together, I simply bent each pipe cleaner into an L-shape, and put a piece of straw on each leg of the L. You can easily fit more than one leg of a pipe cleaner in each straw piece, so the overlap that happens as you build the cube is no problem at all.

To build the cube in either way, we cut the pipe cleaners into 4 inch lengths, and the straws were cut into 2.5 inch lengths (essentially, each straw and each pipe cleaner will be cut into 3 equal lengths). Our scientists needed a little extra help putting the pieces together, but all of them had great success in creating their own square bubbles! Basically, when you completely submerge the cube into the bubble solution and then pull it out, bubble solution is stretched across each of the cube’s walls. Once you dip your pipette into the bubble solution, insert it into the center of the cube and then a blow a bubble in the center of the cube, the bubble you created pulls the walls of the cube to itself. Thus, the cube framework actually forces your malleable bubble into a square shape!

IF YOU’RE HAVING TROUBLE MAKING THE SQUARE BUBBLE… After dipping the cube into the bubble solution, gently jiggle/shake the cube until you get an hourglass shape with the bubble solution inside the cube. Then, using your wand, blow a bubble directly at the center of the hourglass. Then voila! You’ll see a square bubble in the center of your cube!

[FURTHER TESTING:  Build a 3-D triangle frame using pipe cleaners and straw pieces…do you think you could then create a triangle-shaped bubble?…]

Below is a short video showing just how much fun our scientists had with the science of bubbles. This science is definitely easy and safe enough to keep exploring from home!…