The Science of Soap Suds

Odd Jobs, People
on January 18, 2009
Hank Randall Keith Michael Johnson, of Warwick, R.I., creates giant bubbles and performs sudsy stunts during his fascinating and educational "Secret World of Bubbles" shows.

Keith Michael Johnson, 44, dips a wire wand the size of a tennis racket into a tray of soapy mixture and draws a gigantic, shimmering bubble through the air as his audience of wide-eyed students at Campbell Elementary in Dracut, Mass., watches in wonder. Then he holds up a pickle jar containing a golf-ball-size bubble and asks, "How long do you think this bubble can last before it pops?"

By the end of the school day, Johnson, of Warwick, R.I. (pop. 29,581), has performed three 50-minute Secret World of Bubbles shows packed with sudsy stunts and knowledge–and the bubble in the jar still hasn't popped.

"It's amazing, the way he can keep a bubble in a jar without it popping," says third-grader Charlie Ritchie, 9, after learning the three reasons that bubbles pop: they dry out (evaporation), are shaken too hard (agitation), or are broken (perforation)–sometimes by something as small as a speck of dust.

Johnson, known as the Bubble Guy, earns a living entertaining and educating at schools, libraries and festivals, primarily in New England. During his shows, he creates bubbles as big as bathtubs, makes bubbles dance toward the ceiling and return to him like boomerangs, defies gravity by making bubbles travel uphill, and surrounds young volunteers in a giant bubble tunnel.

Trained as a clown and a mime, Johnson began using his theatrical talents at schools in the 1980s, offering educational programs titled "Science Isn't Always Pretty," "Mad About Math," "Hats Off to Reading" and "Wild About Weather," and happened upon the artistry and science of bubbles by accident.

"I needed a bubble that would live for 30 to 40 seconds and illustrate for kids how we literally live in an ocean of air, our atmosphere, where everything inside is part of the earth and everything outside is outer space," Johnson recalls.

During his soapy research, Johnson not only discovered how to make bubbles last, he also developed a bubble-based show when he realized that bubbles are perfect teaching tools all by themselves.

"At first it was the science of why they exist, keep the shape they do, or reflect colors," he says. "Then I began to see soap-bubbling as an art that shows kids how something they encounter every day–each time they wash their hands–reveals the wonders of nature."

Tailored to the educational needs of 5- to 12-year-olds, Johnson's shows please teachers by reinforcing lesson plans for science, math, history, citizenship and weather. Like in-school field trips, his performances match learning with fun to help students see the subjects they study in a whole new way.

"Bubbles, like life, can be unpredictable, so you have to be willing to experiment and improvise," says Johnson, who combines humor and audience participation to impart the importance of creativity, invention, imagination and hard work to his young listeners.

Rather than keep all the fun to himself, Johnson encourages students to, "Do try this at home," and, at, provides information about how to make your own bubble fun.

"My kids came home wanting to test out the bubble-making tricks that same day," says Heidi Ritchie, who helped arrange Johnson's visit to the Dracut, Mass., school. "Even the teachers ask when he's coming back."

Johnson often amazes adults with his ability to captivate students, even those with the shortest of attention spans. Many teachers who plan to catch up on some work during his shows inevitably set aside their marking pencils to watch Johnson perform his bubble magic.

"Working with bubbles started the way everything does for me, by asking, 'I wonder why?'" he says. "Trying to find answers is what brings me the most pleasure, and I'm hoping kids will catch that excitement, too."

Found in: Odd Jobs, People