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Shiny Bubbles : Ephemeral Orbs of Soap Film Fascinate Children, Confound Scientists, Delight Toy Makers

Times Staff Writer

The 2-year-old’s eyes grew practically as big as the shimmering bubble being blown inches from his nose.

As the bubble floated free, the toddler, unable to contain his excitement another second, reached out and shattered the gossamer sphere, then danced with glee.

“Bubbles are sort of magic,” said Mark Dorfman, the bubble blower, who runs structured play sessions in Orange County for babies and preschoolers. “It’s all based on science, but the kids just know they have a good time.”

People are forever blowing bubbles, but toy manufacturers say there is a bubble season: the long, hot days of summer.

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“Out west, your season is longer. In Minnesota, it’s a short season,” said Myron B. Shure, chairman of the board of Strombecker Corp. of Chicago, which makes Tootsie toys, Wonder Bubbles and Mr. Bubble, the biggest line of bubble soap and toys in the nation.

Bubble wands, bubble hoops, bubble trumpets, a “Swiss army bubble knife” (“for emergencies,” according to Dorfman), bubble snakes, bubble pipes, bubble bears (with a wand that pops up when the bear’s belly is squeezed, cutting down on bubble soap drips), toy lawn mowers that blow bubbles--all line toy-store shelves for the summer.

“It’s the best time of year,” said artist Michael Marks, who uses bubbles as an art form. He exhibits bubbles and giant balloons for children at museums and libraries. The La Habra Children’s Museum hopes to host a Marks bubble exhibit, a museum official said.

Other bubble exhibits featuring respected scientists and bubble enthusiasts have been held at San Francisco’s Exploratorium and at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

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Shure said bubble soap--sometimes as cheap at 30 cents a bottle--is the biggest-selling toy, if you count bottles instead of dollars. He said his firm sells 50 million bottles a year, “and if you figure how many bubbles you get to a bottle, we’re talking about billions and billions of bubbles.”

Why such enduring popularity for an object made of soap and air and so transitory that it seldom lasts a minute?

“Bubbles are one of the few things in life that we are allowed to break,” said Tom Noddy, known as “The Bubble Guy” and author of the book “Tom Noddy’s Bubble Magic.”

“They don’t have a long life. So it’s a brief love affair,” conceded Luke Knowles, sales manager of Small World Toys of Beverly Hills, an importer of European toys. “A bubble is born and you enjoy it. It’s the anticipation: How big will it get, how high will it go? It allows adults to be kids, and it allows kids to enjoy being kids.”

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Marks encourages children to forgo the commercial toys and to invent their own bubble wands. A bent coat hanger, the pull tabs from beverage cans or a six-pack holder can be “better than anything you can buy in the store.”

A simple straw is a great bubble blower, Dorfman said. Or a coat hanger wrapped with yarn. Or a string passed through two straws, then tied to form a rectangle when the straws are held apart. You can even blow a bubble just using your fingers formed into a circle, he said.

But bubbles are not just child’s play. Scientists have been fascinated by them for years, and bubbles pose mathematical questions that still go unanswered, Noddy said.

A bubble is born, he explained, because mixing soap and water molecules increases the distance between the water molecules, reducing the surface tension and allowing the solution to stretch into a film. When air is steadily blown into the film, it stretches until the film closes itself off into a bubble.

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The Evaporation Enemy

The biggest enemy of soap bubbles is evaporation, which can make the bubble wall even thinner, causing it to burst. Consequently, bubbles work best in humid weather. “Bubbles are not so great in the desert,” Shure said.

Touching anything dry--a finger, a piece of dust--means the end of a bubble. To handle bubbles requires hands and equipment thoroughly doused with soap solution.

A bubble’s iridescent hues come from two sets of reflected light waves--one bouncing off the outside of the bubble, another off the inside, said Gary Chanan, a UC Irvine physics professor. The colors result when the two sets of light waves collide or “interfere,” he said. Different thicknesses of the soap bubble causes different light-wave interference and therefore different colors, he said.

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Recipes for soap solution vary. Commercial solution is quite light, making thin walls so bubbles will float. Bigger bubbles require thicker, sturdier walls. Enthusiasts often add glycerin as a thickening agent, and some claim that aging the solution overnight improves it.

Dorfman, who often mixes his own solution, recommends a simple recipe: one large bottle of baby shampoo (the tearless kind), one tablespoon of glycerin and 2 tablespoons of water.

Marks mixes his own solution because he needs 40 gallons per exhibit, enough to pour into the inflatable wading pools he uses in his shows. “You should see the looks I get when I go into the store and spend $100 on soap solution.”

Dorfman said he has learned to respect the power of the simple bubble. Toward the end of each play session, tots flock to him, drawn by the pied-piper allure of bubbles filling the air.

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“Bubbles,” he said, “are serious things.”


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