Tom Noddy – bubble magic (#73)


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

Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

Long ago I discovered that soap bubbles are not as fragile as most everybody thought. Some things break bubbles and some things don’t. People are often astounded when they see me insert a plastic straw or other thing into a bubble without it popping. That’s simply because the straw is wet. Wet things are bubble friendly. I noticed that bubbles touching dry skin or wood or metals or other materials popped but when they fell to the wool carpet on my floor they bounced a bit and then just sat there. Wool and other fabrics are bubble friendly. I could bounce a bubble off the arm of my wool shirt and people were astounded. I tested all my shirts and found that cotton is also good (wool is better) and so is raw silk and rayon but polyester and nylon and other materials broke them. For years I have compiled, in my head, which materials worked and which didn’t.

But then, in recent years, they started selling a kind of polyester fleece and it bounces bubbles great, at least as good as wool. But why is that? It’s still poly and it’s still ester … it’s just a rearrangement of the fibres. I wondered if one could rearrange the fibres of other bubble breakers and have something that bounces bubbles. How about wood? Could you rearrange the fibres of wood in such a way that it would bounce bubbles? Then I realized that that’s what Rayon is! It’s made from cellulose and most cellulose is obtained from wood. It could be thought of as a rearrangement of the wood fibres. So … how extreme could this thinking go? Metals? Could you rearrange metals in such a way that they would bounce soap bubbles? I tried steel wool and it bounced soap bubbles! I bought bronze wool and it does it just as well. After over 40 years of paying close attention to soap bubbles I found, not just a new trick but a new phenomenon!

What inspires you to be creative?

I’m not certain what inspires my creativity but it seems to me that the best thing that I can do is to engage my focus and then … see if something comes. Demanding results from the Muse is not a good idea.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

Where? I’m sorry, but this question pulled laughs out of me … the idea that it “comes from” a place feels silly to me. We do seem to locate some activity coming from the brain in our heads and there have long been arguments about whether our hearts are a location, an organ that holds feelings or inspiration but, while I believe following our heart or our “gut feelings” are efforts to identify this thing that you’re asking about but … the best I can do is to suggest that some things seem to come from *inside* and others seem to arrive from the outside, sometimes as babies that need nurturing and sometimes they’re born fully grown, like Aphrodite.


Can you tell me about how your career began?

I had written puppet plays. Short skits that included what I called “Political, Social and Spiritual Satire”. A friend made small cloth hand puppets and on weekends I would go into New York City to perform on the sidewalks and in the parks. Weekdays, I worked in a factory and when I came home at night, I became interested in getting good at a few children’s skill toys. Yo-yo and paddle ball and … soap bubbles. I was 21 and 22 years old and once I got the knack with the others I was bored with them but the soap bubbles were not only more challenging but, even when I got good at handling them … I was never bored.


Bubbles seem to have a universal appeal. What is it about them that captures people’s imagination and wonder?

I honestly think that they really are universal and something in us gets that. These forms are everywhere but that doesn’t make them easy to understand. Scientists use them as models for showing the atomic arrangement of metals and they’ve been used to explain the structure and relationship between clusters of super galaxies. We’re right to wonder.

The shifting iridescent colors and their near indifference to gravity can turn our heads upward and cause us to squint in an effort to follow their flight to higher realms. Our ability to watch their entire “lifespan” helps to identify them with the children whose love for them is made apparent by their instinct to end them, like the love that the tiger shows for the deer.

But I would add an observation about their fluid nature, or rather the place that they alone seem to occupy outside of or within three of the four fundamental states of matter: solid, liquid and gas. Of course, they are never truly solid but there is nothing about our experience with liquids, gases or plasma that accounts for the rigid crystal-like structures formed when bubbles combine.

The gas contained within them, whether it comes by scooping up some of the atmosphere and closing the liquid film around it or by filling it with our own spirit (breath, whether of a living being or of the wind is, in Latin, spiritus) forms an irreducible part of the system. If there is no gas within, it is no longer a bubble. But there is something wonderful about that observable liquid flow that can be seen when blowing bubbles. As a child I watched, one sunny day, as my beloved aunt blew through the plastic wand and I saw that colorful stream emerge and divide into separate floating spheres, like drops falling from the continual flow of a horizontal waterfall. In the air they might bounce off of each other or surprise us by acting as the liquids that they are and join together as two rain drops might.

… and there, I think, is a key to it all … despite the fact that they are omnipresent in our lives, from the morning sink water to the foam on our evening brew, from infancy on into old age they are, at once, familiar and surprising, common and unfathomable.

Central to all of this, though, is that they contain exquisite beauty … you cannot blow an ugly bubble.


Which is your favourite bubble shape to perform?

My favorite is the one that I call the Tornado Bubble or The Land of Oz Bubble. This one results in a spiral of fog inside of an otherwise clear bubble. The spiral takes a corkscrew form with a wide end tapering down to a fine point, just the shape of tornadoes in the real world but inverted. The pointy end is at the top.


The forces that create this are the same as the forces that cause real tornadoes. Usually, at the back end of a passing storm front “shear forces” collide … winds going in one direction meeting winds going in the other. This creates spirals and as they spin, that increased speed lowers the pressure in the center.

In effect, I recreate those conditions within the confines of a soap bubble: I blow a larger bubble, on the size of a melon is best … then I hang a small fog-filled bubble to the bottom of that. I then take a wet straw and insert it into the larger bubble and spin the air around … that is, I blow a stream of air along the inside of the sphere and that causes a rotation of the air. If one could stand in the center of such a bubble you would experience shear forces, the winds in front of you going one way and those behind you going the other. This is a spiral but it isn’t yet visible but when I break the wall that keeps the two bubbles apart, the fog in the lower bubble would mostly hug the lower part of this now-single bubble and it would show us the rotation.

When I break the opening in the circle of the bubble wand that is holding all of this up, the lower pressure in the center of the rotation would allow us to see this spiral as the fog is drawn up to the top and out.

This inverted fog tornado is slightly different every time I do it, depending on how strongly I blew, how long I waited, and several varying factors, the image of the tornado it different but always beautiful. This is the one figure most likely to draw me out of myself while performing … to hold my attention. It’s just gorgeous.


And which is the most challenging bubble shape?

I’ve looked to find certain shapes in clusters of bubbles from time to time. I long ago found that an arrangement of seven bubbles, one surrounded by six others of similar size, will produce a Bubble Cube.

Finding an arrangement of twelve bubbles to contain a single bubble to produce a regular pentagonal dodecahedron was much more difficult. It took a great deal of persistence to find that. I had to get better and faster and … I needed an insight that came in a flash. After many hours I had the skills but not the insight, I made enough bubbles in time but the faces were not all pentagons. I stayed with it, over and over and over … when I finally took a break and walked away from it … when I had gotten far from the place, far from the bubble jar and wands … I saw it. I saw it complete and it was just simpler. Simpler and with greater symmetry! that was the answer … symmetry. I had to make my way back to the place and when I got there, I could do it the first time. I created the thing that I’d seen in my mind’s eye. A regular dodecahedron bubble.


That is no longer the most challenging … I went on to other forms, a truncated octahedron, a form with the grand name of the Great Rhombicuboctahedron and other shapes, I hope one day to make the Weaire Phelan Structure and the Buckyball … but that dodecahedron breakthrough set the stage.


How have advances in technology changed your performance over the years?

I changed the tool that I use for making the bubbles more visible. I started by filling some with cigarette smoke but now I use a very small handheld fog making device.

I started as a street performer and I was able to take it to cafes and bars and eventually to theatres. I had disdained television, I saw it make other acts look small. It seemed to me to be a great advertising medium but it stole the life and the art from some wonderfully alive performers and performances. But … the first time that I saw the camera come close and fill the screen with the bubble, I realized that, for me, this was an artistic medium. They could show my audiences the colors and the angles, the part of the show that I’d always wished I could share with them, the show that I saw.


Do some people view your work as childish?

When I was a kid I remember being surprised to hear that all of those grownups had, themselves, once been children. I’d never met a kid that couldn’t instantly leap into a world of imagination and share it with the kids around them. But these dour grownups, if they once knew about the world under the table or how to run across the ceiling or swoop down while flying over the playground they seemed to have all forgotten. This seemed important to me and I vowed to not forget.

It did seem like a good idea, this growing up thing. They let you stay up late and you can drive cars and probably other good stuff. But somewhere in our teens they started mocking any childlike qualities that we showed “Cut it out man, you’re acting like a kid!” “Like a kid?”, that’s a bad thing? They wanted me to forget everything that I knew and start over and learn to be a grownup. It doesn’t make sense, there are things that kids know that grownups don’t … what’s the point in forgetting all of that? We don’t know … there may be a cumulative test in the end.

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