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Tom Noddy’s Bubble Magic

Tom Noddy’s Bubble Magic

“Tom Noddy introduced America and the world to Bubble Magic via television in the early 80’s. Before that, he spent a decade inventing and developing this astounding art.”

Stage name of Tom McAllister, Tom Noddy spent almost a decade constructing a new type of performance piece before initially bringing it to television in the early 1980s. Sitting alone with a dime-store bubble solution, a childhood sense of wonder, and an adult sense of comedy, he created “Bubble Magic”.

Tom was included on the ‘Best of the Year’ Tonight Show section after three appearances on America’s Tonight Show. He has been on prime time, daytime, and late-night television shows, as well as nightclubs and universities, throughout his +30 year career as America’s Bubble Guy. At the International Congress of Mathematics in Berlin, Germany, Tom’s work was presented to 900 mathematicians.

Following the attention that this exposure gave him, Noddy collaborated with the Exploratorium in San Francisco to create a Bubble Festival in 1983, which featured Noddy’s performance as well as that of another bubble performer that Noddy met on his travels. The event drew an estimated 15,000 people over a weekend in 1983, with octogenarian Eiffel G. Plasterer performing his Bubbles Concerto and Exploratorium exhibits emphasizing the physics of soap films and letting the audience experiment with soap bubbles for themselves.

Tom has entertained audiences all around the world with his distinct warm appeal and academic interest in soap bubbles. The bubbles are absolutely magnificent, and Tom’s vibrant wit and engaging sense of fun please and enthrall his audiences. He is equally at ease playing for pre-schoolers as he is entertaining audiences in Germany’s Varieté theatres, the Paris Opera, Monte Carlo’s Le Casino nightclub, corporate parties, trade exhibitions, or television programs in over 50 countries.

Soap Bubbles are so pure and simple, it’s only natural that kids, physicists, and mathematicians are their biggest fans. Understanding why bubbles have piqued the curiosity of mathematicians ranging from Isaac Newton to modern-day scientists working with supercomputers has lead Tom to some beautifully abstract thoughts.

If you look closely at the suds in the sink the next time you are doing the dishes you’ll be tempted, at first, to agree that this is a good example of the chaos of nature.

A single soap bubble in the air is nearly perfect. This is due to the same reason that planets are spheres or stars. The shape of the item is minimized by a single force (gravity for the planet and star, electrical attractions that manifest as surface tension for the bubble). A sphere is nature’s most cost-effective form, requiring the least amount of surface area to accommodate a given volume.

If a bubble were any other form (it is commonly oval when being blown), it would continue to move until it found a spherical shape, at which point it would cease altering its shape. It has reached its nadir, and only there will it be able to stabilize.

When two or more bubbles come into contact, they form a shared wall, conserving material for both. They don’t, however, accept any arrangement where their edges meet. They are fluid, moving until they reach the smallest possible configuration, which is three walls along an edge connected at 120°, and four edges at a point at 109° 28′ 14″. That seeming disorder is actually a network exhibiting nature’s emphasis on basic shapes. Nature is always minimizing but seldom do we find such a great example of that tendency as when we look at a soap bubble or a cluster of soap bubbles.

© Olivier Blaise
© Olivier Blaise
© Olivier Blaise
© Olivier Blaise

For decades, physicists and mathematicians have been captivated by bubbles. Sir Isaac Newton created his own bubble formulae, although others came before and after him in their endeavors to grasp their nature. One of the most important ways they have aided science is in demonstrating minimum regions when applied to diverse geometric frameworks. 

If you were to take a ring or a hoop and ask what shape would be required to fill the area within the circular ring you may instinctively think of a flat round disc. Any hills or valleys inside that disc would result in the form having an excess surface that was not required to fill the ring. If you dipped the ring or hoop in soapy water, you’d obtain a flat circular disc-shaped film.

In episode two of The Code, the bubbleologist shows Marcus du Sautoy how bubbles form the most efficient shapes and how these change the more bubbles are joined together © BBC TWO, The Code – Episode 2, The Bubbleologist

Assume you twisted the ring here and there into an unusually curved form (but still closed like a ring). What is the smallest form required to fill that new wavy ring? This is a piece of an old mathematical problem known as the Plateau Problems. Plateau, a Belgian physicist, posed similar concerns in the 1880s, and many of his problems remain unsolved. It is well known that if you dip that wavy ring into soapy water, you would have a film with the most minimum form conceivable. Soap films must reduce since they have no other option.

Plateau derived some universal conclusions about bubble membranes and what they represented in terms of what mathematicians call minimal surfaces — surfaces that naturally assume low surface energies and tensions to maintain their thin surface areas — from his numerous observations and 80-odd bubble contraptions. This also means that, in the instance of a soap bubble, the surface has the lowest feasible area that may hold the volume of the spherical.

In 2004, New Scientist asked if it is possible to blow a toroidal soap bubble (one shaped like a ring doughnut) and if it is if it would collapse immediately to a sphere. In the computer simulation produced by John M. Sullivan, professor of mathematics at the University of Illinois, torus bubbles do arise in unstable equilibrium in double soap bubbles wrapped around another bubble in the middle. Tom Noddy responded that he had previously created such a bubble:

Torus Bubble © Tom Noddy

Water bubble enthusiasts can read his “Bubble Magic” book, in which he explains how to create elegant bubble forms and perform other tricks and activities involving bubbles. But his legacy to the field is undoubtedly not only visually inspiring but also mathematically challenging, providing clues and means for calculations for mathematicians worldwide.

Describing what he does, Tom tells about a few of his figures:

Bubbles inside of bubbles, smoke bubbles, clear bubbles, clear bubbles inside of smoke bubbles, smoke bubbles inside of clear bubbles, inside out bubbles, yin yang bubbles, caterpillar bubbles, love bubbles and a bubble cube. The yin yang bubble is a double bubble; a smoke bubble inside of a clear bubble and a clear bubble inside of a smoke bubble, it’s my most difficult trick … to say.

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