Surface tension holds small droplets in a partial sphere known as a spherical cap. But when droplets become larger, they flatten out into puddles due to the influence of gravity. In contrast, soap bubbles remain spherical to much larger sizes. The bubble pictured above, for example, is more than 1 meter in radius and nearly 1 meter in height.
There is a maximum height for a soap bubble, though, and it’s set by the physical chemistry of the surfactants used in the soap. To support itself, the bubble requires a difference in surface tension between the top and bottom of the bubble. A higher surface tension is necessary at the top of the bubble to help prevent fluid from draining away. The difference in surface tension between the top and bottom of the bubble can never be greater than the difference in surface tension between pure water and the soap mixture – thus those values set a maximum height for a bubble. The researchers found their bubbles maxed out at a height of about 2 meters, consistent with their theoretical predictions. (Image credit: C. Cohen et al.; via freshphotons)