From Millais to Wells

A history of science and the business of bubbles, an interview with Simon J. Schaffer

Simon J. SchafferDetail of Binghamton Soap and Candle Works, 1876 (artist unknown). Courtesy the New York Public Library Digital Collections 

In 2004, Lorraine Daston, the historian and executive director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, invited a series of prominent academics to contribute essays that responded to the meaning of “things” within their work. Simon J. Schaffer, renowned Cambridge professor of the history and philosophy of science, chose a thing that least resembles what things are supposed to be like – the soap bubble. In his essay, Schaffer traced the history of the bubble through the physics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – evincing its connection to the emerging technologies of cinema, time, soap and soft matter, and extracting a complex and profound heritage for the modest soap bubble in the modernist moment. Thomas Roueché talked to Schaffer about his essay and the fundamental importance of bubbles in understanding the development of our modern technological world.

It’s funny how everything seems to come back to the importance of the John Everett Millais picture Bubbles – in terms of art and commodity and empire. I was interested in how you bring the question of commodity into the way people were thinking about science at the time.
You know how this works, right? It is the job of historians to say that we’ve been there before and in a slightly tedious manner. Nothing new under the sun, thank you very much. However original and neophiliac you think a particular culture and formation is, a sufficiently ingenious historian is going to find more or less exactly the same connection. One of the things that informs my work on bubbles is simply to reinforce a particular bugbear that I have about modernism and its eruption into public culture in a period that is too often treated in the golden light of the Edwardian summer. So, for example, a work that absolutely inspires me is Stephen Poliakoff’s Century, an extraordinary film which insists on the modernity of the 1890s and 1900s. Not just modernity as precedent for our current predicaments, but the extremely intense entanglement between scientific work, commodity production, advertising, the department store, cinema, the music hall, display and projection, which are all in question during the 1890s in a spectacular way.

But at the heart of all this is the fact that the rate of change at the time was very high. If you use H.G. Wells as your benchmark, what he lived through in the first 20 to 30 years of his life is much more dramatic socially, clinically and technologically than what I lived through in the first 20 to 30 years of my life. I was born in 1955 and by 1985 we were still in the cold war. We still had the same geopolitics; we still had a nuclear threat; we still had a pretty conservative set of economic and social regimes. Domestic technologies had not changed dramatically in any way. Whereas Wells is living through material that he magnificently projects into the near future, in order to spell out what is actually happening around him. In terms of telecoms and in terms of the everyday – that is the key thing – these everyday bits and pieces of technology.

So bubbles, at least from that point of view, looks like a really interesting place to think – because it is domestic, it is about the kitchen and washroom and the cult of cleanliness. Hence my reference to The Water-Babies [1863], which is essentially a novel about soap and clinical ecology. Class is the same as soap in that novel and Tom does not have soap. What is his job? He cleans chimneys and his initial encounter with the aristocratic genteel girl is a cross-class encounter with the world of soap. Similarly, I quote the great and famous passage from Justus von Liebig, the inventor of modern chemistry, just before this conjunction, who says, “You measure the degree of civilisation of society by the amount of soap it consumes and produces.” That is a very deep point because the chemical technologies that go into making soap are making the first ubiquitous artificial substance. It is a really artificial substance, linked to a whole series of other technologies all the way from explosives to pharmaceuticals. So there is something about this substance that is perceived dimly. There were technology journalists at the time who wrote about visiting labs, visiting factories, the walls of soap they see, and the appalling – like we cannot imagine – smell of the soap works. Because it is basically animal fat being turned into its antithesis. The soap works, the filthiest thing in London, becomes the symbol of civilisation, but also its opposite. We haven’t escaped that world – I mean, that is the same as our world; the only difference is that the factory tourists and the analysts would have to go to southern China now. They would have to go much further to experience that relation. Whereas the guys I am talking about just go down the river to Deptford. So part of the analysis of the science and politics of soap that I am offering up in my article is that it is always about a certain kind of geography. It is always about where you have to go to see these things.

If you take the ridiculous Millais, it matters a great deal to my story that the painting is shown in the Grosvenor Gallery in Mayfair. As a gallery it is synonymous with the aesthetic of the Oscar Wilde world, right? Yet the Grosvenor Gallery is a massively commercial operation. Sir Coutts Lindsay, who ran it, was a massively entrepreneurial figure. It was the first art gallery in Britain to be lit by electric light – it actually had its own power and light system. If you look at a map of the first lighting systems in London in the 1880s, you see some of the more fashionable streets, some of the industrial systems downriver and then the Grosvenor Gallery. There is this little bit in Bond Street, in Mayfair, which is lit. We don’t normally think of the wonderful world of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley as being on the technological cutting edge, but it absolutely was, and that is where this painting is put on show. Then it becomes ubiquitous because – I don’t know whether or not this is true, but let’s go for it – it is the most widely distributed British painting. Forget about The Fighting Temeraire! It is this bizarre, completely surreal and slightly too uncanny painting, originally called A Child’s World, and later renamed Bubbles. The subject is Millais’ grandson who went on to the navy and then became a Tory MP – he must have had a terrible, terrible life. If I was in the navy the one thing I would not want to be is the child in that painting!

Simon _2An illustration of the Grosvesnor Gallery power plant taken from a 1912 pamphlet entitled Deptford Power Station.

We need to be aware of a very comparable, if not perhaps even more dramatic, cultural and technological shock around modernism. What is about to happen is Conrad and then Eliot, Joyce and Wolfe. But the technology and the crisis are already there. It turns out bizarrely, but by just following a little domestic object like a soap bubble around, you can visit most of the sites that matter.

Simon _3Illustrations taken from Arthur Worthington’s 1895 book The Splash of a Drop. 

You talk about Eadweard Muybridge and it is interesting that he has been taken into the avant-garde stable. But people like Charles Vernon Boys and Arthur Worthington, who are very much doing the same thing, are kept comfortably in the idiom of scientific photography…
I was helping myself there to work that was done by a really brilliant photo historian called Kelley Wilder, who has written the book on photography and science. It is a really wonderful book and one of the things it introduces is the difference between “photographic science” and “scientific photography” – which are both in play here. Photographic science is the analysis of how photography works, and by implication, how cinematography works. There is an enormous amount of work around image retention in the 1880s and 1890s, about the different kinds of emulsions you can use, about the engineering of image machines. All of that is absolutely, umbilically linked to what is going on in labs, engineering workshops and artists’ studios in London in the 1880s and 1890s. You see that in Muybridge’s work; you see that in Paris; you see that a lot in early cinematographers in London, notably with my hero Robert W. Paul. Then at the same time there is scientific photography, which is the use of image machines by scientists in experiments. This is completely underexamined. In a way, the cinema camera, above all the projector – this extraordinary machine – emerges partly from the laboratory and certainly from the scientific lecture. Its grandmother is the magic lantern, and if you are doing the archaeology of cinema, the tendency is to draw a very hard division between magic lanterns and cinematography. One sees the most amazingly sophisticated lantern shows through the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s. Then the great problem of cinematography, which Edison had not solved and which these guys do, is projection. That for me is not just a question of market but also a question of audience. 

Simon _4An illustration of the Scottish inventor and colleague of Thomas Edison, W.K.L Dickson’s 1894 Kinetoscope. 

The trouble with Edison’s Kinetoscope is that it only let in one person at a time. It was a bit like an internet café world, except in 1890, 1891, 1892. Along Holborn Viaduct, there were rows and rows of Kinetoscope parlours. You would pop in at lunchtime and watch a movie, but on your own, and the movie would last two and half minutes. Most of them were electrically powered, but some were hand-cranked. They are obviously amazingly appealing, but they are solitary. But there is an insurrectionary group that wants theatre on film and that has a big impact on the development of the projector. The technology of the projector is very strongly linked to scientific and almost psychological analysis of image retention. Because you have to break the image and then present it to the eye at the right rate, the famous 20 frames per second. This is sufficiently rapid to see continuous movement but not so rapid that the machine collapses. That is the trick and it is a really difficult one, because you have to break the light; you have to work out a way of interrupting the lamp. Those kinds of schemes are often linked to theories of optics, theories of physics, theories about images.

Which you see in bubble physics as well. The strange colours and so on. The fact that bubbles burst and you’re trying to capture that moment. The phenomenon that more than any other seemed to obsess these guys is bursting – it is “pop”! In the article I try to explain what those reasons might be, such as the overwhelming significance in this period of the strange forms of matter, which are simultaneously continuous yet discontinuous, the feel of the universe, the ether. They transmit and embody forces, but not just physical forces. There is a lot of psychic energy in the story. If you look at the images, it is basically the ghost world. That image is a ghost picture – the reflections you see in the surface of the bubble are very close to psychic phenomena.

Of course, during the same period there was a strong tendency towards spiritualism...
And not coincidentally, it was often the same guys. The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) really gets going in the 1880s and reaches its apogee in the 1890s, and then again during the First World War. It included among its membership the leaders of British physics and, reasonably enough, they are fascinated by scientific photography, which you have to be if you are a psychical researcher. Because by definition you are trying to capture the transient – and that, I think, is the big deal about bubbles. On the other hand, the SPR managed to maintain a slightly quizzical balance: “We are going to investigate this scientifically.” But a lot of really eminent physicists, like [Nobel-winning] Lord Rayleigh, are in the SPR. A lot of Cambridge physicists are in the SPR and take quite an active role in it. So it is not physics people and then psychic people; they are often the same people. They are completely fascinated by mediation and mediumism and they investigated the supposed spirit Katie King to see if she was a substance. But they are all mediums and they all mediate between what we see and what we cannot quite see. 

There was a debate in physics at the time in which the sceptics would say, there is something pretty spooky, to put it mildly, about psychical phenomena because they are so gross. People get kicked or the table moves but that is not what happens in atomic physics, where huge causes and big forces actually have tiny effects. Whereas somehow in psychical research, tiny forces – that you can hardly detect – have huge effects that everyone can see. So that became an interest and again, bubble science helps you think about that.

Simon _5The cover of the 1959 edition of Charles Vernon Boys’ Soap Bubbles and the Forces Which Mould Them. 

The bubble bursting is an example of that. It also takes us into the display element of the shows. It is amazing how bubble shows are still so huge.
Absolutely. I had not really absorbed how compelling bubble shows are today. They are a big part of the Science Museum’s outreach in education and children’s shows: being able to stand inside a very large bubble, the colours you see on the surface of bubbles, the relation between viscosity and surface tension. Bubble blowing and all of that is still supposed to be automatically appealing, which interests me as a science historian because it is somehow supposed to teach you things. Charles Vernon Boys’ Soap Bubbles is an extraordinary book that has never been out of print. Never. Which is amazing. You can now buy it in paperback, which is extraordinary. This was a book made in 1889-1890 for a series of New Year lectures at Finsbury Circus. That fact got me interested in Charles Boys and Robert Paul and Arthur Mason Worthington. You see, there is actually quite a lot going on in this desire to show, to entertain and to project. That matters to soap physics a great deal. What I think kicks in is there is this dim, and then quite sophisticated, awareness that different kinds of substances are at play here. Boys comes quite close to saying this.

Now we would say that what is going on here is the science of what is called soft matter, which is a very big deal in contemporary science – you can win Nobel Prizes with this. Pierre-Gilles de Gennes is the great French physicist who founded the new science of soft matter and he won the Nobel Prize for it. There is a class of substances, which very often have something to do with food: cappuccinos, soap, foam, soufflés, egg whites, that sort of stuff. Soft matter is very strange for two reasons. One is that it can form relatively robust structures, as we know; foam, for example, can sit there as quite a robust structure. But on the other hand, it does not quite obey the laws of solids, liquids and gases. Matter is supposed to exist in these three states, but soft matter violates that because it seems to move in a very febrile way between all three states, and it’s quite hard to analyse. It turns out to have the most useful, as well as economically useful, properties.

In late-19th century British physics they are obsessed with foam and potentially infinitely larger arrays of bubbles, not just singular bubbles. Not just a soap film in air, but a fluid array. That is what scientists like William Thomson Lord Kelvin became very interested in, because what we now call soft matter could be a model of, or a representation of, the universe’s basic substance. For Kelvin that is quite plausible; that is the fundamental structure of creation, and that is because of the laws of optics and magnetism. That is why he gets into these fantastical experiments about how you can fill small spaces with bubbles. That is still an issue in physics. That is why he has this wonderful letter where he writes to his friend, “The problem is solved in soap.” Scientists still talk about bubble computers, where you can solve quite complicated programming with soap bubbles. The big deal about soap bubbles is that they occupy the maximum volume with the minimum amount of stuff. So if you have a problem where you need to work out, occupy or connect the maximum amount of linkages with a minimum amount of resource, soap bubbles will do that for you. I find that absolutely fascinating: they are, as it were, computers. There are composition models that you can use bubbles to solve – that is great. You just get a wire mesh, you dip it in one of those wonderful soap solutions, and the structure that emerges is your solution, in both senses. See what we did there? 

Simon _6Image of a circuit board used in a bubble computer, 2006. When bubbles are directed through pathways they act like electrons in a circuit. Courtesy Manu Prakash 

We definitely live in foamy times!
In your world, bubbles clearly mean play. Part of my argument here is that it has always meant play and it was always ludic. In a way it is about a certain kind of joy, innocence, about being a child. Iconographically, it is almost always the kids who are making the bubbles; they are either girls or boys that look like girls. They are cherubs, either strongly sexualised females or not sexualised at all. They infantilised the bubble players; they have pipes, but the pipes have soap in them, not tobacco. So there is that theme, there is the cappuccino, foam, soufflé world of new-world cuisine and vertical cooking, and so on. It is about play and innocence multiplied by death, because it is about transience, because it is about what passes. Life is a bubble. Shakespeare’s bubble reputation in the cannon’s mouth. So bubbles are ubiquitous in Renaissance and early modern imageries of vanity, death, decay. So there is that two-faced quality there, right?

What is actually very interesting about the Millais is that there is obviously a vanitas element to it, but it is also extremely uncanny…
I think it is a very, very disturbing image. There are many reasons why it can be taken to be seen as a disturbing image. One is the Gainsborough dress that the boy is wearing. There is a very weird nostalgia, a gentrification; there is a class gesture there. That form of nostalgia for what is lost is absolutely present and then there is the way in which Pears picks it up and just makes this image. But into what? I mean, this is such commercial advertising, a PR, logo moment. The instability of that image means it works fantastically well, so by the time it was being used by Pears, its product recognition is basically one hundred percent. So, if you’re in the 1890s and you see that image, you think Pears soap. You just do. 

It is a bit like the HMV dog, similarly creepy. Thinking about display and occasion, does the bubble and what the bubble shows offer you an opportunity to display physics – almost like An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump – when science is not normally displayable?
I think that is absolutely right. Two things are at play: one is that physics is going on even if there aren’t any physicists. That is one of the problems physics has, because to the untutored and the actually quite tutored eye, it looks as if you have to have some physicists around for there to be any physics going on. That is a really powerful claim. Much more often it is important to say that there is a lot more physics going on in your own home. But those two claims don’t sit together terribly easily, even if they have to sit together. So a way around that dilemma is to make a big deal out of domestic physics, what you might call the physics of the kitchen, or the physics of the domestic sphere. This is no coincidence when the domestic sphere is being invested in an unprecedentedly intense way with machinery and with technology. It is about to be, as a great technology historian puts it, the moment when “the refrigerator gets its hum”. I think what was going on in a lot of public science in the 1880s through to the First World War was this relentless insistence that there is a hell of a lot of science, particularly physics and chemistry, going on in the privacy of your own home. Soap bubbles do that in a magnificent way. Charles Boys’ 1890 lectures trace the bubble around the privacy of your own home. Children’s games, how detergent works, the colours you see, how bubbles bounce off each other, how they form foam. Remember what the title is: Soap Bubbles and the Forces that Mould Them. He basically reconstituted the whole of late-19th century physics out of a series of highly domestic phenomena. The drawings in Boys’ book are amazing. 

A lot of physics seems to function on the level of metaphor – the atom visualised as a solar system, for example.
Certainly one of the roles that bubbles play is that they are an extremely rich source of metaphor. Life is like a bubble. So when Kelvin and the leading British physicists say, “It is as if space is completely full of bubbles,” they are trying to bring experience to the phenomenological presence, a substance on which their whole science relies, which is the ether. That is why you get these amazing numbers and these exquisitely tiny dimensions of the bubble. Especially the black surface that you see just before the bubbles burst, where the surface of the bubble – because it is water in air – is thinning out and thinning out. Kelvin and Boys are saying that a bubble goes basically to the level of molecular thickness just before it bursts. Almost by definition you can see a surface that is one molecule deep. So on the one hand it is a metaphor – the ether is structured as though it was a foam – but on the other hand it is much more literal, you can see directly and immediately the phenomena we are inviting you to imagine. Both strategies are used in public science, but really dramatically: the world is like this, and this is really what is going on. Charles Boys is very ambiguous about that. He moves beautifully, and that is why he is such a successful lecturer, between analogous talk – “It is like this” – and physical talk – “This is it andI am actually going to show you a molecule.”

I feel that is to do with the role of the body, how the human body is implicated in all of this, so I touch on the patent that H.G. Wells and Robert Paul take out in 1895 for the Time Machine, which I am still obsessed by and so are all cinema historians. Because in fact this patent is the first description of a projector. It is also something right on the edge of putting the body into the system, simply relying on a metaphor. So basically, they write a patent in 1895 for a machine that imitates the effects of travel in time, which is essentially a description of a sense-surround cinema. So the idea is you would have a projector – this is one of the first specs of a projector – that you can zoom with by moving it nearer and further away, and the seats would go up and down as you travel and there would be fans blowing different kinds of air and smell. There would be different kinds of sounds; it is essentially a sensory-3D cinema. What interested me about it is that it comes out of bubble physics and it comes out of projection physics: Robert Paul worked very closely with Charles Boys. On the other hand, it is about putting the body into the system. It is about seeing if it is possible to affect the whole of the body and not just the eye. There is a projector and moving screen, but there are moving seats, fans and noises. It is completely immersive. I think that does lead you straight to modernism, in the sense that we recognise from the Futurists, to a whole series of projects. 

But you also have the more direct link to modernism with Alfred Jarry.
He is always inexhaustibly splendid and it would be weird if he did not pick up on this, right? What is so striking is that he really picks up on it. It is not terribly surprising that a hypermodernist writer, poor, drunk, drugged in Paris in the 1890s, is picking up on these technologies; they are all over the boulevards. This is world of the Lumières. He read these guys so closely; he reads Kelvin and he reads Boys in French translation. That, I feel, is pretty striking. He instantly sees the potential of what was already in play in physics. He sees the connection between time travel and soap bubbles. Or the connection between the behaviour of bubbles and the behaviour of perception. What is magnificent about Jarry’s ’Pataphysique is that it is all done by cut-ups. So the effect of the demolishing, the effect of the satire is achieved through the disassembly of these texts and their rassemblement. But it is only a minor rearrangement of the text that he is engaging in. After all, Boys does say it is possible to go to sea in a sieve if you cover the sieve in soap solution. I think there is something quite deep about science culture that Jarry illuminates for us. He is the bloke who gives me one of my threads: “a science whose business is bursting”. If Jarry did not exist he would have had to have been invented. §