Scientists Forever Blowing Bubbles

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James Bird estimates that he watched thousands of bubbles pop while he was getting his doctorate at Harvard University. With the help of high-speed cameras, he and his colleagues discovered that bubbles birth baby bubbles when they burst, with implications ranging from hot tubs to global climate.

IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, our Video Pick of the Week, and with us right now is Flora Lichtman. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: I see on my paper here it says bubbles, bubbles.

LICHTMAN: Yes, it's breaking news. Ooh...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You're almost ready for this seat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...in case something like that...

LICHTMAN: I want to get all the puns out the system right at the top of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: So scientists report in Nature this week that they have discovered how bubbles pop.

FLATOW: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. (Unintelligible)

LICHTMAN: I know, right?

FLATOW: (Unintelligible) know how bubbles pop? Take a pin - you know?

LICHTMAN: It sounds like an Onion headlight...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...it definitely does. But apparently there's some nuance to this. So James Bird, who was an engineering postdoctoral student -sorry, getting his Ph.D., watched thousands of bubbles under high-speed video cameras...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...and discovered that for certain types of bubbles, interfacial bubbles, which sounds fancy, but they're really quite common. They're the bubbles you see when you're washing dishes. They're on water...

FLATOW: They float on things.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, they're half dome shaped.

FLATOW: Right. Right. Right.

LICHTMAN: Right. When you pop those bubbles, they create this ring of tiny baby bubbles around them.

FLATOW: Tiny baby bubbles.

LICHTMAN: Yes, and when you pop one of those tiny baby bubbles, there's grandchildren bubbles around them too.

FLATOW: And so you - he took video, really slow-motion video of popping these bubbles.

LICHTMAN: Right. There's no way you would be able to see this without this tool...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...so you actually see the shape of the bubble popping, and it's sort of like a wave breaking. So the rim of the bubble overshoots the film, basically.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: And you - it traps this donut of air...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: And that creates this tiny little bubble, tiny little bubble ring.

FLATOW: You have a ring of tiny little bubbles connected like a little bracelet together.

LICHTMAN: Right, right, right, exactly.

FLATOW: And no one knew that that was happening.

LICHTMAN: And no one - I mean, that's what's neat about the study, is that this is something that we encounter every day when we do our dishes or...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...whatever. I mean, you know...

FLATOW: And that's the kind of bubble you're talking about, that you might see floating on the dishes or something.

LICHTMAN: Yes, you can do this experiment at home.

FLATOW: And this is one we can do at home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And can you actually see the tiny bubbles, if you look for them?

LICHTMAN: Yeah, I did it. I actually was washing my dishes yesterday and...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...and I got to my plate and popped one of the bubbles that was on the plate, and yeah, the ring shows up.

FLATOW: Right. But no one knew to look for them before.

LICHTMAN: No one knew - yeah, no one had really thought of looking at this under a camera. And you know, the other thing is that it's not just, okay, bubbles form this ring. There are all these bubble industries where this actually is sort of relevant news for them, like the hot tub industry and - I'm not really kidding.

FLATOW: The hot tub...

LICHTMAN: And soda too.

FLATOW: Soda - that's why bubbles pop - that's why the fizz goes in your nose.

LICHTMAN: This is sort of an a-ha moment for me.

FLATOW: Yes, exactly.

LICHTMAN: We were - so we were talking and he said that that's - when these little bubbles pop...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...they shoot up this little aerosol and that's, you know, that's why our nose gets wet. And it also is related to how clouds form over the ocean.

FLATOW: Oh, when the bubble - they - the clouds need the nuclei that the little...

LICHTMAN: They seed the clouds.

FLATOW: They seed the - wow.

LICHTMAN: I know. (Unintelligible)

FLATOW: It's just nice to know. I don't care if the hot tub industry cares, you know? It's just nice to know that this is what happens with the bubbles.

LICHTMAN: It is interesting.

FLATOW: And you put all of this together in a video. It's on our SCIENCE FRIDAY Pick of the Week. It's on our website at sciencefriday.com. Go up there and watch these ultra slow - the thing that's going on forever but it's something like a quarter of second.

LLICHTMAN: Right.

FLATOW: Right?

LICHTMAN: Right, right, right. I mean, and that's the thing. It just makes you want to look at everything under a high speed video camera because you just imagine what - all these sort of basic things that happen all the time...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...imagine what they look like slowed down.

FLATOW: Wow, fascinating. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Flora Lichtman's Video Pick of the Week at sciencefriday.com. We suggest you go over there and take a look at it.

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