Soap Bubbles and Vanitas: Mathematicians at the Time of Virus

Soap Bubbles and Vanitas: Mathematicians at the Time of Virus

Author: Michele Emmer – Univ Rome Sapienza & IVSLA, Venice, Italy


  • Michele Emmer – Universita Sapienza, Rome

Communicating mathematics to the non-experts has proven to be particularly complex, frequently resulting either trivial or non-understandable to most audiences. Soap bubbles provide a unique opportunity, as they are capable of grasping the imagination throughout different age groups and eliciting their interest in mathematics, given that they are at the origin of one of mathematics’ contemporary areas, minimal surfaces. They have been studied by physicists and mathematicians. Their structure has caught the interest of biologists and architects throughout the last 100 years. Artists have been fascinated by them since the Sixteenth Century, depicting them as a symbol of Vanitas, reminding the ephemeral nature of human life and the inevitability of death.

The COVID19-caused lockdown prompted an initiative by mathematicians wishing to communicate among themselves and the general public on Maths at the time of corona (Springer-Nature, 2020). This is a reflection on the role of mathematics, the role of purely abstract research and how mathematicians can play a role in communicating their interests and their roles in this dramatic period. Soap bubbles are a stimulating example in this reflection, remembering their link to the theme of Vanitas, symbol of the fragility of human life and their links to scientific research, their stability as surfaces in mathematics, even their being a game for children. In this presentation, I will build on my career-long experience with soap bubbles and soap film, initially from a purely mathematical perspective and subsequently from the perspective of art, cinema (I made a film that was shown at the Venice Art Biennale), architecture, theatre and literature, including courses for future scientific journalists. I will also build on a recent experience in which I curated an exhibition Soap Bubbles, Forms of Utopia Between Vanitas, Art and Science. (March-June 2019). Is it all simply Vanitas at the end of 2020?

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Visual presentation
Theme: Time