Shimmering soap bubbles have a dark side

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Zoom in on a soap bubble just before it bursts and brilliant, complex patterns emerge. Shimmery rainbows appear in thicker portions of the soap film, while clusters of dark spots appear in the thinnest regions.

The thickness of the soap film determines the color seen. Light rays that reflect off of the top and bottom of the film combine to amplify particular wavelengths, an effect known as constructive interference. In thicker areas of the film, longer wavelength colors appear, producing a rainbow. Under gravity’s pull, the soap film flows, causing the patterns to shift over time until finally the bubble pops.

When the film becomes even thinner than the shortest wavelength of visible light, dark spots appear, due to destructive interference that cancels out light reflecting off the bubble’s surface. Over about a minute, those spots grow and merge, physicist Li Shen of Imperial College London and colleagues reported November 22 at the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting in Portland, Ore.

<img alt="" class="caption" src="" style="width: 730px; height: 240px;" title="COME TOGETHER A time sequence shows how black spots on a bubble’s surface merge and grow over the span of about a minute, until the bubble pops. ~~ L. Shen” />

This effect, known as “coarsening,” pops up in other places, too. Shake up a vinaigrette salad dressing and it will gradually separate, as oil and vinegar droplets form and coalesce. This is the first time the effect has been observed in bubbles, says Shen, who used dishwashing detergent and a digital camera to study the phenomenon.

Bad news for the bubbles: The melding black spots are precursors to their demise. These bubbles popped shortly after the images were taken. 

BUBBLE TROUBLE Dark spots on the surface of a bubble mark thin regions of the soap film. These regions merge as the bubble nears its breaking point. L. Shen/APSPhysics


L. Shen et al. Before the bubble ruptures. American Physical Society Gallery of Fluid Motion. Published online November 2016. doi: 10.1103/APS.DFD.2016.GFM.V0092.

L. Shen et al. Marangoni-induced symmetry-breaking pattern selection on viscous fluids. American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics Meeting, Portland, Ore., November 22, 2016.

Further Reading

S. Schwartz. Bubble blowing gets scientific scrutiny. Science News Online, February 29, 2016.

I. Peterson. Trailing after double bubbles. Science News. Vol. 157, January 29, 2000, p. 77.


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