What Causes the Play of Colors in a Soap Bubble?
The shimmering colors we see in a soap bubble are caused by the interference of light waves. When light strikes a soap bubble, part of the light is reflected back to us from the outside surface. But some of the light is reflected from the secondary, inside surface, as well.
As the light passes in and out of the bubble film, the watery interference changes the light waves into colorful patterns. Changes in the thickness of the bubble film cause the shimmer of color. Similar iridescent colors can be seen in oil slicks, as well as on the surface of very old glass.
Some wavelengths will interfere destructively and others constructively, depending on the extra distance traveled by a transmitted-and-reflected ray. Whether the reflected rays are in or out of phase with each other depends on the extra distance (through the film and back) that the second ray must travel before rejoining the first ray. This distance depends on the angle of the incident light and the thickness of the film.
White light is made up of different colors, corresponding to specific wavelengths. As the film thickness changes, the extra distance the ray must travel changes. Interference is constructive when the total extra distance matches a specific wavelength of light, and is destructive when it is half a wavelength. So if white light shines on a bubble, the film reflects light of a specific hue, and this hue changes with the film’s thickness.
The iridescence of a soap bubble, which seems to contain a wealth of changing color, stems from light striking the bubble from varied angles. The path length varies with the angle of incident light, giving varying path differences for the internally and externally reflected rays at different points on the bubble.
This means that, even if the soap film is of uniform thickness, different colors can be seen. Light entering the bubble directly travels a shorter path than light entering at a wider angle. This allows different wavelengths to undergo constructive and destructive interference, so different colors are perceived.
The colors of a bubble are dependent on the thickness of the film. A bubble becomes thinner and thinner as it dries out (due to evaporation), before finally popping. As the surface film of the bubble becomes increasingly thinner, a change in overall color can be seen. Thick walls cancel out longer wavelengths in the red range. As the bubble film gets thinner, yellow wavelengths are cancelled out. As it gets even thinner, green light is lost. Beyond this point, even shorter wavelengths in the blue wavelength range disappear.
The resulting colors are a combination of the colors that do not undergo destructive interference and their degrees of constructive interference. Blue-green colors dominate in thicker films and yellow hues in thinner films. Eventually, the film becomes too thin to create interference of visible wavelengths, as all wavelengths are cancelled out. At this point the bubble appears colorless. Against a black background the bubble surface could appear black.