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All About Bubbles

Big ones, long-lasting ones, even frozen ones are fun

There I was, in my bathtub, scooping up handfuls of tiny bubbles and wondering at Alan McKay's unbelievable feat. Last month, the New Zealander blew a soap bubble that was 113 feet long before it burst.

If I were to blow a bubble that long from my bathtub, it would go into the house across the street - that is, if the bubble ever made it through my window and didn't run into traffic, trees, birds, or dust.

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Bubbles are very, very delicate. The soap film that forms them is only a few millionths of an inch thick. "They are like next to nothing," says Tom Noddy, a self-styled "bubble magician." He has blown beautiful bubbles for audiences around the world.

"There's never an ugly bubble," Mr. Noddy says. "Bubbles have more colors than a rainbow."

Bubbles can look like overdressed rainbows. The colors are a result of how light is bent and reflected by soap film.

White light contains all the colors of a rainbow. And when white light shines on the bubble's surface, colors appear. The shifting bands of color on a bubble depend on the thickness of the soap film. The film is thinnest at the top of the bubble, so thin that it doesn't reflect light. Gravity pulls the soap film toward the bottom of the bubble. From the top of the bubble to the bottom, you will see stripes of yellow-white, magenta, and blue-green, in that order.

Bubbles are at their colorful best when they are newly made. As the water evaporates from them, the colors begin to disappear. When a bubble loses its color, that's a sign that it's about to pop.

Here are a few tips for enjoying your bubbles longer:

Watch the weather. Bubbles don't last long on sunny days, because the water in them evaporates too quickly. But right after a rain, when the air is humid, bubbles will last significantly longer.

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Watch the time of day. Wind is another bubble enemy. The wind is lightest before dawn and after sunset.

Watch the air pollution. Bubbles dislike dust. Dust particles, even microscopic ones, are like bullets to fragile bubbles. Carbon dioxide - a gas that's present in your exhaled breath - also eats away at bubbles.

Blowing long-lasting bubbles is not only an art but a science, a science some have strived to perfect. Eiffel Plasterer, a sorghum farmer from Huntington, Ind., once blew a four-inch bubble that he preserved in a jar for 340 days. He used a secret glycerin-spiked soap solution.

Put yourself in a bubble

Then there is David Stein of New York City, who created a 50-foot-long bubble in 1988, which "The Guinness Book of World Records" still cites as the longest ever. He made it using his patented "The Bubble Thing" and solution.

Richard Faverty, who calls himself the "Bubble Professor," routinely encloses people inside large bubbles. He's put as many as five people in one bubble.

Here's how you, too, can be inside a bubble: Fill the bottom of a wading pool with bubble solution (see recipe on Page 16). Put a crate in the pool to stand on. Put a Hula-Hoop in the pool, encircling the crate. Stand on the crate. (Careful: Soap solution is slippery.) Now have someone pull up the hoop quickly to form the bubble over your head.

Bubbles are fun, but scientists like to study them, too. Bubbles floating in still air come very close to being perfect spheres. They are so thin and light that gravity hardly affects them. Bubbles are so light, they float.

Frozen bubbles in Antarctica

What happens when you blow bubbles in winter? People tried blowing bubbles when the air temperature was minus 46 degrees F. at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. They found that most of the bubbles burst immediately. Those that didn't pop shrank, and eventually lay crumpled and frozen on the ground.

You can blow bubbles with paper-towel tubes, string, coat hangers, even your hands. Put your thumbs and index fingers together to make an opening, then dip your hands in bubble solution. Lift them up, and blow.

You can also play games with bubbles. I blew many weekends blowing bubbles with my brother. We invented a game called Bubble Trouble. It was mostly trouble. We made up the rules as we went along. Being the older brother, I made most of the rules. Sometimes, I also got to change them.

In Bubble Trouble, one person blows bubbles while the other one pops them. For every bubble my brother popped, he earned a point. For every bubble that escaped, I earned a point. It was a simple game, but keeping score was impossible. We finally agreed to not keep score and just play.

Besides, my brother was getting better at chasing bubbles.

*To learn more about bubbles on the Internet, call up: ronh/bubbles

Ron Hipschman's site has links to other Internet resources.

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