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From Soap Bubbles to Technology
Nov 1, 2008

Children love playing with soap bubbles; they like to blow a circle after dipping a bubble wand into soapy water and watch the bubbles flying out of it. However, it is not only children who play with soap bubbles and soap film. Scientists have, for hundreds of years, been doing experiments with soap bubbles, developing mathematical theories, obtaining various surfaces and transferring the data compiled in this way into technology.

The surfaces of soap bubbles have a very important feature. These surfaces which have minimum surface-tension potential energy also have minimum areas. That is, soap bubbles or clusters have a natural tendency to minimize area for the volumes they enclose. Two different frames and the areas formed are shown in Figure 1. For a given closed frame, at least one such minimal area can be formed; however, mathematicians have had to strive to prove it.

The famous mathematician Richard Courant (1888–1972), together with his students, did soap bubble experiments with various frames.

Minimal areas can also be formed by using more than one closed frames. Figure 2 shows the minimal surfaces obtained by holding two circular frames parallel. If the frames are kept too far from each other, no surface will form. If they are kept sufficiently near to each other, surfaces similar to those shown in Figures 2a and 2b will be obtained. If they are kept close enough to each other, then three minimal surfaces adjacent to each other as shown in Figure 2c can form.

The minimum energy principle is commonly observed not only in living organisms, but also in lifeless matter. A chain will take the shape which produces the least potential energy of attraction when it is fastened at two points onto a rod as shown in Figure 3. This form (function) is called “catenary” in mathematics.

The areas which are formed as a result of rotating the catenary curve around an axis A are called catenoids. Two different types of catenoids are shown in Figures 4a and 4b. As presumed, catenoids are minimal areas and can be obtained by the use of soap bubbles. If such formations were selected and used in everyday utensils, such as glasses, dishes and so forth, ideal shapes which cause the least loss of heat could be designed.

If the katenoid shown in Figure 5a is cut from its edge as shown in Figure 5b and turned by being slightly extended, a helical form or a helicoid will be obtained as shown in Figure 5f. This helicoid also is a minimal surface. Architects have widely used this form in spiral-shaped staircase structures. See Fig. 6.

Fig. 1-Closed frames and soap film surfaces formed1 Fig. 2a&b–Single foam film surfaces over two parallel circular frames1 Plus, the perpetual screw system which is widely in use in technology is also in a form similar to this geometry.

If a cylinder of the smallest volume that can house a helicoid is drawn (Fig.7a) and the lines on which the surface and the cylinder intersect are marked, then a double helix structure (Fig. 7b) is obtained; this is used in modeling DNA molecules which are the genetic codes of living species.

There are two elementary principles related to soap bubbles. The first principle says that if a bubble touches a surface that supports it, it unites with that surface in a way to make 90° angles. The soap bubble on that plain surface forms into a semi-spherical shape and the angle between the bubble surface and the supporting surface will be 90° at every point of contact. The second principle says that if three soap bubble surfaces come together, they form 120° angles along a line. If soap films come together within a tetrahedron frame as in figure 8, then the angles between the lines will be 109° 28' 16".

The Steiner problem which is an elementary problem in mathematics can be solved by the application of the 90° and 120° principles. The Steiner problem investigates how n points over a surface can be united in the shortest way by a web. Two transparent surfaces are connected with thin and parallel pins of equal lengths and then dipped into a soapy solution. When it is taken out, soap films will form. These films have a 90° angle with the supporting transparent surfaces and when three soap films come together, they connect at 120° angles with one another.

When observed from above, the intersecting lines between the soap film and one of the surfaces give the shortest web which unites the points in n numbers. How four points are united is shown in Figure 9a and how five points are united is shown in Figure 9b. Someone seems to have equipped lifeless objects such as soap bubbles with the ability to solve complex problems like a math genius.

Periodically repeated minimal areas have been observed on walls separating organic and inorganic substances in the skeletons of certain sea animals like the sea urchin and the starfish. Figure 10 shows the micro structure of a sea urchin’s skeleton. It has calculated that the geometry of its skeleton has perfectly been shaped in such a way as to prevent the extension of possible cracks.

Experiments with soap bubbles have been a source of inspiration also for architects. Such experiments have yielded inspiration for roof and tent designs. The German architect Frei Otto is one of the most eminent names in this regard. Figure 11 shows the minimal areas which Frei Otto managed to obtain by dipping hair-thin threads in soapy water.

In order for such a soap bubble model to be converted into an architectural structure, it is carefully photographed and precisely measured. Later, solid models are made and tested in wind tunnels. The tensile pressures likely to form under loads of wind and snow are measured by special precision instruments. In real structures, thin steel cables having high tensile strengths replace the hairy threads, and transparent plastic and synthetic materials replace the soap bubble film.

Figure 12 shows roof of the Munich Olympic Stadium, Figure13 shows the roof of the Munich Olympic Athletic Arena and Figure 14 shows the roof of the Olympic Swimming Arena in the same city. All these roofs have been designed and erected using the minimal surfaces obtained from soap bubble experiments.

Children love playing with soap bubbles very much; they usually blow a round circle after dipping a wand into soapy water and then watch the bubbles flying out of it. However, it is not only children who play with soap bubbles and soap films. Scientists have, for hundreds of years, been doing experiments with soap bubbles, developing mathematical theories, obtaining various surfaces and transferring the compiled data into technology.

Experiments with soap bubbles have been a source of inspiration also for architects. Such experiments have yielded inspiration for roof and tent designs.

2) These roofs can easily be erected, dismantled and transported to elsewhere, whereas traditional buildings cannot easily be re-located.

3) These structures which are designed according to tensile strengths are very sturdy all over, whereas the tensile pressures of classical buildings are so high that extremely heavy materials such as concrete and brick are used in order to balance the pressure.

The structures of light and strong materials granted to living things are splendid. The lightness and endurance of our skeleton system, the perfect endurance in the stems of slender plants such as wheat and barley, the extremely thin and elastic structure of a fly’s wing, and thousands of similar examples can be given.2 The word of German architect Frei Otto in this subject are expressive: “Biology has become indispensable for architecture.” Witnessing similar perfections also in inanimate structures such as soap bubbles proves that laws in nature originate from the same hand.

Obtaining minimal surfaces has become much easier as a result of immense increases in computer capabilities. Extremely complicated minimal surfaces which can be obtained through computer-aided-designs and calculations have become easily available as alternatives to soap bubble experimentations. If we, as human beings, are aiming to realize developments in science and technology, we should look,more carefully and meditatively, at events which are seemingly simple and unimportant around us and we should also discover the beauties and perfections that God has granted us and put them into service of humanity. The more our designs are compatible with the laws of nature, the higher our chances of success will be.


  • S. Hilderbrandt, A. Tromba, The Parsimonious Universe, Springer-Verlag, New York, 1996.
  • M. S. Polatöz, Tabiatta Mühendislik (Engineering In Nature), Kaynak Publications, Izmir, 2003.
  • A. B. Smith, The stereom microstructure of the echinoid test. Special Papers in Palaeontology, 25, 1–85, 1981.