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Bubbling questions

Columnist Vamsi Varanasi considers intellectual curiosity after observing bubbles in a cup on a flight. (Public Domain Pictures)

Tonic water is one of the few tastes that I picked up while abroad at Oxford—Bartender Nick’s £1.60 G&T’s at the OKB kicked up the class a tad on many a questionable Tuesday night. These days, I’m not pretentious enough to stock bottles of Fever Tree in my room, so airplane refreshments are just about the only time I get my fix. So begins our story.

On my flight home the other day, American Airlines served me an abnormally fizzy tonic water. Like, ferociously fizzy. Not a shaken-up-Natty fizzy, but an almost painful, carbon dioxide-saturated-Fourth-of-July-in-your-mouth kind of fizzy. Think liquid Pop Rocks—I had to take a break after every few sips. As I sat mustering up the courage in between rounds, I started inspecting my plastic cup. It was textured, with little crags and crevices along the inside of the cup—perfect nucleation sites for bubbles to cling to. And cling they did, a constellation of them huddled like bats hanging onto the ceiling of a plastic cave. Every once in a while, a bubble would extricate itself from the pack and hurry up to the surface, where it would remain for a minute or so before the CO2 diffused out and the bubble vanished.

Here’s where it got interesting. When two or more such bubbles were both on the surface, they acted like little homing missiles, zooming towards each other with preternatural intent. But they wouldn’t coalesce—no, they would all cluster, forming a small collection of bubbles all seemingly stuck together. The bubbles eventually diffused normally, winking away just as they would had they remained individually at the surface.

Now, I understood nucleation, the process in which CO2 molecules “clump up” into a bubble: a hydrophobic CO2 molecule prefers to fraternize with another CO2 molecule or the nonpolar plastic cup over the highly polar water. I understood why bubbles then detach from the surface (minute vibrations and perturbations from the environment decrease contact area with the plastic), rise to the surface (gaseous CO2 is far less dense than water), and finally diffuse out into the atmosphere (Are you still reading? If the science bores you, push on—perhaps you’ll be inclined to loop back once you’ve read to the end). But for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why these bubbles attracted each other the way they did. I must’ve looked crazy, staring intently at my drink for twenty minutes, my mania cut short only by the flight attendant’s nudge to fasten my seatbelt for landing.

Only once I’d been shaken from my reverie did I realize how out of place that experience was for me. And I study physics – a discipline whose adherents profess to seek to explain the world around them (and venerate those who have mastered the art). But my education has instead largely consisted of slogging through nasty integrals to solve contrived problems rather than endeavoring to learn about the world. If this is the status quo in physics, the discipline that self-identifies as looking to explain things, I can’t imagine that other disciplines without this explicit primary focus do much better.

As such, the classical technical education focuses on teaching techniques that can be used to study the world,  without digging into not only how they manifest in real life (a common complaint), but why we should care to study the world in the first place. While a liberal arts education professes to equip students with an appreciation of the humanistic world around them, there is little focus on building an appreciation (not just an “understanding”, whatever that may mean!) of the physical one. So why should we, college educated youth, by and large with the privilege and energy to be curious, be curious?

When was the last time you thought about bubbles? Not cultural theory, or your favorite sorting algorithm, but plain old bubbles? Broadly, how often do you notice the little things, those enriching details about our physical world that make life more vivid? Are you inured to their existence, or instead, when something catches your eye, do you want to know how it works? Why? Hell, do you want to want to know? At the crux of it all is our valuation of curiosity without any instrumentalist justification. And joined at the hip, our valuation of truth (and our valuation of knowledge of truth, yada, yada).

Macroscopic physical truths, the kind we can observe with the naked eye, are as close to universal as truths get — within the right limits, the sky is blue everywhere in the world. Millennia of philosophers have devised and revised theories for why we should seek out absolute truths of all kinds, and to be honest, I haven’t read any of them. Instead, in the spirit of curiosity, I’ve simply thought about it. Specifically, I’ve wondered (in an attempt to dodge the weightier general arguments for the pursuit of any arbitrary truths): why pursue insignificant, irrelevant truths, explanations for phenomena which have little consequence to your daily life?

My working theory is as follows: why do people climb mountains, or seek vistas when they sightsee? Beyond showing you how small you are in the grand scheme of things, a vista allows you to zoom in and out of a landscape, honing in on how features fit into a swath of our world. Common to all humans, exposure to and appreciation of intricacy drives the experience of beauty. Noticing details about our universe essentially entails gaining a perspective on the beautiful intricacy weaved into our very existence. And just as understanding the technique behind an elaborate painting leads to a deeper appreciation of the detailing, so too does understanding, the explanation, the second layer of curiosity. Further, the deeper level of understanding permits synthesis—a view of how disparate paintings (and, by analogy, physical phenomena) utilize similar techniques (physical processes) to excite the similar effects in viewers (similar physical behavior). Such unity is beautiful, too. We are, or rather should be, curious, because curiosity reveals such beauty, and appreciation of beauty is a source of happiness. As are an infinite number of phenomena one could be curious about, curiosity is a master key that unlocks a bottomless reservoir of potential joy.

Now, I’m aware that there holes in my reasoning that I haven’t figured out yet. I’ve identified for myself that intricacy and unity are vectors of beauty and beauty drives happiness, but haven’t wrapped my head around how. Maximizing happiness is also an instrumentalist justification for curiosity (it’s a result, after all!), but definitely of a different sort than the I-want-to-learn-about-things-so-I-can-build-useful-stuff mentality we often find around here. I’m sure some answers to my ponderings lie in musty philosophy books. Regardless, I’m still digesting this, and if you’ve made it this far, I hope you are too.

But maybe you’ve got it all figured out. If so, or (especially!) if you can explain how those damn bubbles work, drop me a line.

Contact Vamsi Varanasi at vamsijv ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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