First published in The Record, April 26, 2018
Ever see a bubble trick? He invented it.
A tetrakaidecahedron is many things. It’s a mouthful, obviously. It is a 14-sided polyhedron, often arranged in a jumble of squares and hexagons, and it resembles that partially deflated soccer ball you kicked into the corner of your garage last September and forgot about.
A tetrakaidecahedron also is a magic trick for smart people. Lord Kelvin, one of the Victorian era’s great physicists, hypothesized that ether-filled tetrakaidecahedra form the building blocks of the invisible universe. (They don’t.) Kelvin imagined these complex shapes arranged in a honeycomb of “soap bubbles, large or small.” In his 1887 treatise on the matter, Kelvin began by stating, “This problem is solved in foam.”
Kelvin’s problem had a problem: For the next century, mathematicians searched for a tetrakaidecahedron bubble, but never managed to find one.
This fact caught Tom McAllister’s attention.
McAllister is the world’s original bubble performer. Starting on his dad’s couch in Paterson in 1969, and later performing from Tokyo to Berlin to "The Tonight Show," McAllister built a career blowing bubbles into shapes nobody had ever seen.
Was a tetrakaidecahedron really so impossible?
“Think about it! When I blow the head off a glass of Guinness or eat a slice of white bread, there are so many bubbles! And nobody ever saw one? Not one?” said McAllister, 69. “I’m good at bubbles. If I can make one, then nature is doing it.”
McAllister, who performs under the stage name Tom Noddy, an old British name for a fool, was invited in 1998 to the International Congress of Mathematicians, which awards the prestigious Fields Medal. He took the stage and blew the first tetrakaidechahedron bubble the world had ever seen.
Hundreds of the world’s best mathematicians gasped. These people use tools like the Large Hadron Collider to re-create the Big Bang by slamming particles together at 6.83508 mph slower than the speed of light.
McAllister wowie-zowied them using Dawn dish detergent, tap water, a McDonald’s straw and a plastic wand. Remember blowing bubbles as a kid? Yeah. That same wand.
From nothing, McAllister creates the sublime.
“I prefer to just use the wands that come in the jar,” said McAllister, who stars in a documentary directed by Charles Poekel that will be screened this weekend at the Montclair Film Festival. “We thought we completely understood bubbles when we were kids. But we didn’t. Bubbles are these amazing things. It’s just that people aren’t paying enough attention.”
Poverty + hippies + time = bubbles
If you have two kids, $180 and a free Thursday afternoon, you can ride the train into New York City and catch the "Gazillion Bubble Show," 85 minutes of bubbles blown into caterpillars, carousels and doughnuts by Fan Yang, a former acrobat turned bubble entrepreneur.
Nearly every bubble trick you see in the "Gazillion Bubble Show" or on "America’s Got Talent" or the "Ultimate Guinness World Records" show was invented by Tom McAllister.
“When I started this, nobody was doing bubbles. It didn’t exist,” he said. “Fan saw my act on this big German TV show and started to figure out the moves. I don’t blame him. If you can do this, why would you stop?”
This whole bubble thing started because McAllister was bored and high. His father chased low-paying jobs across New Jersey and California, eventually moving his wife and five kids into a basement apartment in Paterson, where he worked as the building manager.
McAllister attended Memphis State University because it was the cheapest college he could find. He dropped out in 1969 to hitchhike through the counterculture.
“I walked the rainbow trail for a good number of years,” said McAllister, who retains the long, crinkly hair of his hippie wanderings.
He wanted to travel across Europe, but he was broke. So McAllister got a factory job. To save money, he stayed home every night. He tried yo-yos to occupy his mind, then paddle ball. Both were boring.
Then he tried bubbles.
“And I never got bored,” he said. “It was beyond fun. I got obsessed.”
Blessed with no money, a little marijuana and lots of time, McAllister began creating bubbles like no one had ever seen.
“When he first started doing it we laughed at him,” said Don Mariconda, McAllister’s friend since the eighth grade. “It just seemed like he was wasting his time, you know?”
McAllister blew bubbles inside bubbles. He filled the interior bubbles with smoke. He adorned the skin of a big bubble with rings of tiny cousins. He poked bubbles with knives, needles and plastic straws. So long as he kept the pointy things wet, the bubble never burst.
Combined, these four discoveries enabled McAllister to create bubbles that function like packing peanuts, forming pressurized containers for geometric shapes like pyramids and dodechahedra.
“Bubbles are weird things,” McAllister said. “They’re not fragile. They’re infinitely flexible. They’re not what we think they are.”
For a decade, McAllister hitchhiked or lived in a van. He performed bubble tricks on sidewalks, always fighting the elements.
“There’s only a few things that break bubbles,” he said. “The first one is kids. The second is dust.”
A complicated chain of events led him to "The Tonight Show," where he found no wind, no dust, no hecklers, no distractions.
“People asked, ‘Weren’t you nervous?’ I was so relaxed,” he said of his 1983 appearance. “I don’t have to hurry. If I ... leave a silence here ... nothing ... will happen ... until I ... break it. Ha!”
Johnny Carson’s vouch changed McAllister’s life. Suddenly he could headline vaudeville tours across Europe and organize bubble festivals at science museums. He performed for Merv Griffin and David Letterman, and bought a house in Santa Cruz, California.
“To me it’s about finding your calling,” said Poekel, the filmmaker. “In Tom’s case it’s not something that already exists. It’s something you have to discover and create. Nobody took bubbles as far as he did.”
One last trick
During a family trip to New Jersey last week, McAllister agreed to perform some tricks. (He’s back in California now, and will miss his film debut in Montclair.) He did the caterpillar and the jewel, in which he splits two bubbles down the middle with a foggy hexagonal prism.
McAllister has performed the same tricks for nearly 50 years.
“Whodathunk you could make a living blowing bubbles?” said Mariconda, McAllister's childhood friend.
Certainly not McAllister. But as his career expanded into theater shows and television, he also fell in love with bubbles’ hidden intricacies. A bubble’s skin is thinner than a single wavelength of light. As it hovers in the air, its liquid sinks to the bottom, creating layers of green and violet, each band siphoning out a different color of light.
“Magenta, OK, that’s 201 nanometers thick,” he said.
McAllister’s next project is to create the world’s first Weaire-Phelan structure, a cluster of foam shapes imagined by the physicists Denis Weaire and Robert Phelan that replaced Lord Kelvin’s tetrakaidecahedron as the best way to encapsulate air using the smallest possible surface area.
“It’s a lot of bubbles, and I’m not even clear how many of them I have to blow,” he said. “I do it because it’s hard. It challenges my hands and my breath and my ability to hold the weight.”
He still uses a plastic wand. It's the same type of wand we used as kids, before we abandoned bubbles for things that appeared shinier, more intricate, more worthy of our attention.
“I love it because bubbles have always been here, right in front of our noses,” he said. “What else are we not seeing?”