Part of Exhibition: Seeing the Light



of an Exhibit

by Tom Nielsen

Published on July 28, 2009 , Modified on July 29, 2009

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    I’ve been meaning for a while to write down some thoughts about soap bubble exhibits in science centers and children’s museums; now Wendy Pollock’s recent suggestion in the Exhibit Files blog, that members contribute case studies or reviews in the spirit of K. C. Cole’s just published biography of Frank Oppenheimer, has spurred me into action. I have not yet read the book, called “something incredibly wonderful happens”, but its cover art looks lovely, framing Frank’s face in a flight of floating, shimmering, iridescent bubbles; maybe I’m not alone in thinking of him as a bubblehead of the highest order. I anticipate a great read, when I get the chance. In the meantime, here are my own thoughts about scientists, kids and bubbles.

    I previously wrote a review for Exhibit Files about the exhibition Seeing the Light which originated at the Exploratorium and has been displayed for many years now at the New York Hall of Science. That exhibition, I believe, was a distillation of the best of the work during the Explo’s formative years under Frank Oppenheimer’s leadership. Among the many many wonderful components it contains are three simple soap bubble exhibits, which have since been copied at many, maybe hundreds of other museums.

    Only one of the three, Soap Film Painting, is a particularly good fit with the exhibition’s theme of light and vision: it displays the dazzling colors produced by light reflected from ultra-thin transparent films, invaluable insight into the wavy nature of electromagnetic radiation. Visitors, however, sometimes show little interest in the colors. They will blow a lungful of air at the film; or pass an object through it intact by first wetting it; or just pop it, because, why not, you can always make another. In fact, many of the copies of this exhibit that I’ve seen at other museums omit the special lighting required to really see the colors.

    The other two displays also show the same color effects, but only incidentally: one is designed to demonstrate how soap films always form a surface of minimal area, and the other is just a shallow pan of liquid soap with large hoops to form impressively large bubbles. It impressed me that whoever had curated the exhibition — and perhaps Frank had had a role in the decision as well? — had included that last exhibit despite its weaker thematic links. It was certainly among the most popular of all the activities, for people of all ages, pretty much in constant use throughout the day.

    For a newly hatched exhibiteer, my daily casual observations of people forever blowing bubbles — even when the public thinned out, Explainers and other staff would wander by to practice — sparked my interest in questions I’ve now spent many years pondering. What makes a good exhibit? Is popular a subset of good, or a superset? Visitors may be yearning, but are they learning? Are we having pun yet?

    Along with my understanding of these issues grew an appreciation of a subtle sophistication that is hidden in many of the Explo’s better exhibits. The first thing I realized is that there was really nothing new in the idea of using soap bubbles to explore scientific principles. Bubble play must be as old as the invention of soap itself — possibly far older, if you can believe what you see on YouTube:


    Scientists surpass even kids and dolphins in curiosity; no wonder then that Leonardo and Newton and Oppenheimer would be drawn to such ephemeral phenomena, shimmering fragile structures built of only liquid and gas. The symbolism of bubbles however, has a solidity in inverse relation to their flimsiness. My favorite example of bubbles as metaphor is H. C. Andersen’s beautiful story Kometen —The Comet. It’s set in 1835. Comet Halley, which that year would see Sam Clemens born, and which would return 76 years later to see Mark Twain die, appears in the usually cloudy skies over Denmark, a topic of universal interest. Halley’s prediction in 1682, that the comet would return every 76 years, had already been verified in 1758. Anxiously awaiting the visit of 1835 was a world all the more advanced in science, well along in the Industrial Revolution. The level of public interest in astronomy in those days can be roughly gauged by the diversity of characters depicted in Joseph Wright’s famous and wonderfully named picture “A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun”, painted around 1766:


    Still, as always, the apparition in 1835 is attended by talk of omens and mysterious forces as the people wait for the skies to clear. Meanwhile, a little boy sits in a candlelit room, blowing bubbles with an old clay pipe: “…de bævede og svævede med de dejligste kulører, der skiftede fra gult til rødt, lilla og blåt, og så blev det grønt som skovens blad, når solen skinner gennem det.” [ “…that quivered and floated with the lovliest colors that changed from yellow to red, purple and blue, then turned as green as leaves in the forest when the sun shines through them”.] (Bubbles by candlelight, if you have never seen any, really are that beautiful. And isn’t Danish a dejlig language?)

    But a sudden flaring of the candle startles the boy’s superstitious mother; she fears it forebodes a short life for him, but tells him instead that he will live a year for each bubble he can blow, and he sets to work: “Der flyver et år! der flyver et år, se hvor de flyver!” sagde han ved hver boble, der løsnede sig og fløj. [”There flies a year! there goes another, look how they fly! he cried for each bubble that floated free.”] Then the neighbors cry out that the clouds have cleared. Mother and son go out to view the great comet that he indeed does live to see once again as an old man.

    One reason I love this story is the glimpse it gives us of popular interest in science centuries before our own age. Bubbles, I suspect, were always a useful tool for those trying to guide interest toward understanding — what we today call informal learning. Public lectures and demonstrations by highly skilled performers carried the weight in those days that’s now borne by science centers and the Discovery Channel, with more than enough panache, to judge from C.V. Boys’ wonderful book from 1896, “Soap Bubbles: Their Colours and the Forces that Mould Them” (available as a Dover reprint, or digitized online at Google Books:


    I should begin though to turn this elliptical if not cometic excursus back toward its focus: the Explo’s simple and straightforward bubble exhibit was nothing new; all the groundwork had been done long before. But it was built with great care and thoughtfulness. Take the hoops, for example: welded from stainless steel in three in different sizes, The smallest is easy to use, the medium somewhat harder, but the largest is almost impossible without lots of practice. Each hoop has two handles, to first dip it in soapy water, then wave it through the air to make a bubble. For reasons I don’t understand, graceful movements seem to bring more success than clumsy ones. A particularly good strategy I have seen reinvented countless times, is to lift the hoop high overhead, then quickly walk a few baby-steps backwards to inflate, and finish with an upward twist of the wrists to pop the bubble free.

    I never tired of watching the spontaneously improvised creative activity around this exhibit. Over time I came to see it as emblematic of an Exploratorium vision, that is embodied as well in the very name Exploratorium. There are places called “discovery centers” — some of them wonderful institutions indeed — but I don’t think discovery is really their principle outcome. There are other places that I think of as “Imploratoriums" — please like us, they seem to ask, we are so good for you! But, “Exploratorium”, I think, nails it — exploration for the joy of it, up to your elbows in soapy water, shoulder to shoulder with other visitors. If there are discoveries, if there is learning, if test scores improve, fine. But without exploration there’s nothing.

    I don’t know for sure that Frank would have agreed with any of these ideas. But to see his face framed in a bubble on the cover of his biography gives me some hope that the picture I’ve formed of him only through his work has some truth. I do know that he spoke for viewing exhibits always as works-in-progress, experiments, trial balloons. So if after I have read “something incredibly wonderful happens” I should be forced to revise my thinking, or even to admit I was totally wrong — well, that would just be something incredibly wonderful happening too, I suppose. We’ll see.

Latest Comments (1)

Beautifully Written

by Patricia Guerrero knight - August 27, 2009

Tom, I’m blown away by how beautifully you described your experience, the experience of bubbles themselves, and your knowledge of and passion for exploration…. Great read. Thanks.

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