On the Soap Bubble

by Kurd Lasswitz

translated by Noel Middleton

to Auf der Seifenblase


“Uncle Wendel, Uncle Wendel! Just look at the soap bubbles, the wonderful colours! But where do the colours come from?”

My young son was calling down to us from the upstairs window where he was blowing the iridescent bubbles into the garden. Uncle Wendel sat next to me in the shade of the tall trees and our cigar smoke enriched the heady fragrances of a beautiful summer’s afternoon.

“Hmm...” said — or, rather, rumbled — my uncle, turning towards me. “Hmm... Tell him, why not? Hmm... I’d like to hear how you’d do that. Interference colours on the thin surface, yes, of course, the different wavelengths, the colour sectors don’t spread evenly, and so on. But will the boy understand, Hmm?”

“Well,” I replied, a little embarrassed, “the child can’t understand an explanation in terms of physics, admittedly, but neither is that necessary. Explanations are relative and must be based on the standpoint of the questioner. That is to say; any new fact must be of the same type as is usual in their thought processes, and combined with familiar ideas. And mathematical physical formulae are not part of my son’s usual thought processes.”

“Not bad... hmm,” nodded Uncle Wendel. “You’ve about got it. It can’t be explained, not in combination with familiar ideas, there is no point of reference, that’s just it. The experience of a child, it’s another world; there are things which have no connection. It’s the same everywhere. Those with knowledge must remain silent and educators must tell untruths. Otherwise they are crucified, burned at the stake or ridiculed in the press, according to the fashion of the day. Microgen... microgen...”

These last two words, Uncle Wendel murmured to himself. I would not have understood had I not often heard him utter the name “microgen” before. It was his latest discovery.

Uncle Wendel had already made many discoveries. In fact, he did nothing else but make discoveries. His residence was a veritable laboratory: half alchemist’s workshop, half modern scientific establishment.

It was a particular honour if he permitted anyone to enter, as he kept all his inventions to himself, but occasionally, when we sat talking together, he would lift a corner of the veil which lay over his secrets. Then, I was astonished at the depth of his knowledge, his keen insight into scientific methods and their consequences; into the whole development of cultural progress.

But he would not be moved to publicise his views, and neither, therefore, his inventions. As he pointed out, without knowledge of his new theories, the inventions themselves could not be understood.

I had seen for myself, when staying with him, how he had produced a kind of artificial protein directly from inorganic materials. But when I urged him to make known this epoch-making discovery, which perhaps had the property to transform our society, he always replied, “I have no desire to make myself a laughingstock. Don’t you see? They’re not ready. They have no point of reference... different worlds... different worlds. Wait a thousand years; let the people argue; each knows as little as the other.”

Now he had discovered microgen. I was not sure whether it was a substance or an apparatus, but I had gathered that, by its use, he was able to effect a miniaturization in both spatial and temporal dimensions in whatever ratio he wished. A miniaturization not simply for the eyes — as is possible with ordinary optical instruments — but for all of the senses.

Each of the conscious capabilities would be altered so that all qualitative perceptions remained the same, but all quantitative relationships are reduced in scale. He maintained that he could shrink any individual he chose — along with their view of world — to one millionth, even one billionth part of normal size.

How did he do it? Well, he just laughed quietly to himself and rumbled, “Hmm... It can’t be understood, I can’t explain it to you; it would be no use. People remain people whether large or small. They never look beyond themselves. Why should I let it cause trouble?”

“But why do you think microgen would do that?” I asked.

“Quite simple, my dear nephew. Microgen is, to the educated people of today what soap bubbles are to your young son. A plaything perhaps, but they are lacking every pointer to its understanding. However, because these learned people are not children, and profess to know everything, it would result in endless conflict if I were to allow my doctrines to become known. Completely without purpose, since the judgment needed lies far beyond all of today’s understanding. They would laugh me all the way... hmm... to the madhouse.”

“But all the same,” I cried, “it’s one’s duty to tell the truth, even if one has to accept the martyrdom of being misunderstood. Only in this way will cultural progress be achieved. Show them your evidence.”

“Hmm,” said my uncle. “But what if no-one can understand the evidence? If people cannot speak the same language? Then the argument ends with the destruction of the minority, either physically or morally. I have no desire for that.”

“Nevertheless,” I replied, confidently, “I would recognise the truth if I had the evidence before me.”

“Before you? One so young and so blind? How? Would you like to test it? Yes? Then take a look at the thing.”

Uncle Wendel drew a small apparatus from his pocket. I recognised some fine glass tubes in metal fittings, with adjusting screws and a measuring scale. He held the tubes up to my nose and began to turn the screws. I felt myself inhale a peculiar aromatic substance.

My son called to us: “Ah, see how pretty that one is.”, referring to a new bubble which was slowly drifting down from the window.

“Now, take a look at that bubble,” said Uncle Wendel, turning the screws once more.

It seemed to me that the bubble grew larger. As I drew nearer to it, the window and the boy, the table at which we had been sitting, the trees and the garden, all receded into indistinctness. Only Uncle Wendel remained at my side as he placed the tubes back into his pocket.

Now, what had until recently been our surroundings, disappeared. The sky stood over us in a dull white dome, which lost itself in the horizon. We were standing on the surface on a wide, frozen lake. The ice was smooth and unbroken but it seemed to have a light rolling motion. Vague forms rose here and there over the surface.

“What is this?” I cried out in shock, “Where are we? Will the ice bear our weight?”

“We are on the soap bubble,” said Uncle Wendel, calmly. “What you take to be ice is, in fact, the surface of the tenacious film of water which forms the bubble. Do you know how thick it is, -this layer on which we are standing? In ordinary measurements it is equal to one five-thousandth part of a centimetre. Five hundred such layers laid one above the other would together only amount to one millimetre.”

Instinctively, I lifted up one foot, -as though by doing so I could make myself lighter.

“For heaven’s sake, Uncle!” I cried. “Don’t play foolish games. Are you telling me the truth?”

“Most certainly. But have no fear. For your present size, that film corresponds in strength to a steel plate of some two hundred metres in thickness. We have, in fact — with the help of the microgen — reduced our dimensions in the ratio of one to one hundred million. That makes this bubble, which has, perhaps, a circumference of forty centimetres, appear to us to be the size that the Earth is for humans.”

“And how big are we ourselves?” I asked, doubtfully.

“Our height measures one sixty-thousandth of a millimetre. Even with the most powerful microscope we could not be seen.”

“But why can’t we see the house, the garden, my family; the Earth even?”

“They are below our horizon. But even if the Earth were raised above us, you would see no more than a dull sheen. All our optical capacities are — in consequence of our small size — so altered that, although we can see with perfect clarity in our present surroundings, we are completely separated from our former world, whose physical properties are a hundred million times larger. You must content yourself with seeing those things which are on the soap bubble, -and those there are in plenty.”

“But I just wonder,” I put in, “how we can see anything at all. That, in this altered state, our senses operate just as before. We are now smaller that the wavelength of light. Molecules and atoms must now affect us quite differently.”

“Hmm...” chuckled Uncle Wendel, in his fashion, “What are aether-waves and atoms? Cleverly devised standards calculated by people, for people. Now we have made ourselves small then all our standards have become small along with us.

“But what difference does that make to perception? Perception comes first and foremost. Light, sound and pressure remain unchanged for us because they are qualities. Only the quantities have changed, and if we could apply the physical measurements then we would find that the aether-waves were also one hundred million times smaller.”

Meanwhile, as we wandered further across the surface of the bubble and had arrived at a location where transparent rays rose up all around us, as though from a fountain, a thought struck me which froze my blood in terror. What if the bubble burst! What if I was hurled onto one resulting water droplet and Uncle Wendel — together with his microgen — onto another? What if no-one could find me? What would become of me if I had to remain at the height of one sixty-thousandth of a millimetre for the rest of my days? How would my life be in the world of humans? Certainly it could not be compared with Gulliver’s life amongst the Brobdignags; no-one would see me at all! My wife, my children! Perhaps I would be breathed into their lungs like an invisible bacterium as they bewailed my unexplained disappearance.

“Quickly, Uncle, quickly! Take us back to life-size before the bubble bursts. It’s a wonder that it’s still in one piece. How long have we been here?”

“Don’t worry,” said Uncle Wendel, calmly. “The bubble will last much longer than we shall remain upon it. Our measurement of time has shrunk along with ourselves. What you perceive as a minute is only one hundred-millionth part of that back on Earth. If the bubble lasts for ten Earth seconds as it floats through the air then in our present condition that equates to a lifetime. And the inhabitants of soap bubbles live their own lives a hundred thousand times more rapidly than we are at present.”

“What? Are you telling me that the soap bubble has inhabitants?”

“Of course it has inhabitants, and civilized ones at that. But their time runs ten billion times faster than Man’s. That is to say; they perceive they live ten billion times more quickly. That means that the passage of three Earth seconds is approximately one million years on the soap bubble, even if the inhabitants have no concept of a year in our sense of the term, since their soap-sphere possesses no regular or rapid rotation.

“If you consider that this soap bubble lasts for at least six seconds on Earth, then you must admit that in those two million years quite a pleasant life and corresponding civilisation could develop here. At least, that is my experience on other bubbles, all of which betray in their products a similarity to Mother Earth.”

“But where are these inhabitants? I can certainly see things here which could be taken for plants — and that hemisphere could represent a town — but I can see nothing of any similarity to human beings.”

“Quite naturally. Even if our sensory capabilities have become a hundred million times greater than those of Man, they are still a hundred thousand times slower than those of the ‘Saponiens’, as we shall call the inhabitants of soap bubbles. While we believe a second has passed, they experience twenty-eight hours. In this proportion, all life here is accelerated. Now, observe this plant.”

“You’re right,” I said, “I can see clearly how this tree — I suppose these coral-like formations are trees of sorts — is growing, flowering and producing fruit before our eyes. And there! A house seems to be, as it were, growing out of the ground.”

“The Saponiens are building it. In the minute that we have been observing we see the results of more than two months’ labour. We cannot see the workers themselves because their movement is much too fast for us to perceive. However, we can alter that. By means of the microgen I will refine our time-scale by one hundred thousand times. Our size will remain the same; I have altered only the time ratio.”

Once again, my uncle produced the glass tubes. I breathed deeply and immediately found myself in a street of a bustling town, surrounded by numerous, human-like figures engaged in lively business. They seemed, though, to be somewhat transparent, which stemmed from their origins in soap and glycerine.

We could hear their voices, although, as yet, we were unable to understand their language. The plants had lost their speed of growth and we were now in the same relationship to them as to the Saponiens; the same as we humans have to the other organisms on the Earth. What had previously seemed to us to be a fountain of rays, now revealed itself to be the quickly growing inflorescence of a tall species of grass.

Then the Saponiens noticed our presence and gathered round us with many questions, displaying their obvious desire for knowledge.

Understanding between us was made the more difficult because their limbs, which possessed a certain similarity to the feelers of polyps, moved in such peculiar ways that even gestures were hard to make out.

They accepted us as friends since they took us, as we learned later, to be inhabitants of another portion of their world, which they had never yet visited. The food which they offered us had a strong alkaline after-taste which was not to our liking, but we eventually grew accustomed to it. What was most uncongenial was the fact that there was no proper liquid refreshment, only a kind of thin gruel or soup, as everything on this world was made from the viscous or gelatinous substances which comprised it.

It was wonderful to see how even under these different natural conditions — or much more so through the powers of living things both to adapt to and to shape their world — the most appropriate arrangements had been created. The Saponiens were intelligent beings indeed. Nutrition, respiration, motion and rest — the essential requirements of life — gave us the first points of reference to understand and acquire a little of their language.

Since our needs were so willingly provided for, and Uncle Wendel assured me that our absence from home would not exceed the lapse of time as measured by the time-scale on Earth, I gladly seized the opportunity to become better acquainted with this new world.

There was, it is true, no transition from day to night, but regular periods of rest from work occurred which approximately corresponded to our own divisions of the day. We busied ourselves enthusiastically with the acquisition of the Saponien language and did not neglect to study the physical characteristics of the soap bubble world, as well as the social institutions of the Saponiens. To this last purpose, we travelled to the capital city where their head of state, who bore the title Lord of the Thinkers, resided.

* * *

The Saponiens called themselves The Thinkers, and justly so, for the study of science was held in the highest regard and the whole nation took a keen interest in the scientific disputes of their learned men, although we were later to experience something of this which turned out to be thoroughly unpleasant.

I had kept a journal in which I carefully compiled the results of our observations and had intended, on our return to the Earth, to work this into a history of the soap bubble culture. Unfortunately, through an oversight, I was not be in possession of this record when the sudden necessity for our re-enlargement arose, and the misfortune occurred that it was excluded from the effects of the microgen. Of course, my irreplaceable manuscript was no more to be found; it flew off somewhere as an invisible speck and with it went all the evidence of my sojourn on the soap bubble.

We had lived for perhaps two years among the Saponiens when the tension between the two main schools of thought in their culture reached a particularly dangerous state. The old doctrines about the creation of their world were being energetically challenged by a young and highly regarded natural philosopher, Glalgi by name. This development was warmly applauded by the younger, more progressive movement. Therefore, as is usual in such cases, in the interests of the state and public order, Glalgi was summoned to appear before the Academy of Thinkers in order to determine whether his ideas and discoveries were to be tolerated.

Glalgi’s opponents based their argument, particularly, on the fact that these new ideas were in direct contradiction to the ancient and inviolable fundamental laws of the Thinkers. They demanded, therefore, that Glalgi must either recant or suffer the penalty prescribed by law, a fate which befalls all those who stray into unorthodoxy. In particular, they found the following three points in Glalgi’s teachings to be mistaken and corrupting.

Firstly, the world is hollow within and is covered with a crust only three hundred metres in depth.

This, the traditionalists countered by saying: If the ground on which the Thinkers moved were indeed hollow, it would have broken long ago. It is stated in the book of the ancient worldly wisdom of Emso, (the Saponien Aristotle): The world is solid and will never burst in all eternity.

Secondly, Glalgi maintained that the world consists of only two basic elements, namely: fat and soda. These are the only two substances in existence and they have existed since the beginning of time. The world was formed from these by natural processes and there can be nothing that is not made from a combination of them. The air is an exudation of these elements.

Against this, his opponents claimed that not only fat and soda were elements, but glycerine and water were as well. It was impossible that these could form themselves naturally into the shape of a sphere. It is written in the most ancient scriptures of the Thinkers that the world was blown from the mouth of a giant, named ‘Rudipudi’.

Thirdly, Glalgi taught that this world does not exist alone, but there are countless other worlds comprised of fat and soda, which float freely in the air and upon which live beings who are as rational as the Thinkers themselves.

This doctrine was not merely madness but also a threat to the security of the state. For if there were other worlds of which nothing is known, then they could not be ruled by the Lord of the Thinkers. But it is stated in the Basic Law: “If any person shall say that there are things which do not belong to the Lord of the Thinkers, then that person shall be boiled in glycerine until he has become soft.”

In the Assembly, Glalgi stood to mount his defence. He mentioned in particular that the doctrine of a solid world contained a contradiction. If it were solid, how was it blown from a giant’s mouth, and where was Rudipudi supposed to have come from if there were no other worlds than their own?

Despite all their learning, the Academicians of the old school were in a difficult position and Glalgi would have prevailed in his first two arguments had not the third brought him under such suspicion. But the political offence which it caused was all too obvious and, in the light of this, even Glalgi’s friends dared not support him.

Whoever claimed that there were other worlds was regarded as an enemy of the realm and an anti-nationalist. Since Glalgi would not recant, the Assembly sided against him and, straightaway, his impassioned opponents brought up a cauldron filled with glycerine in order to boil him until soft.

As I listened to these fallacious arguments — both for and against — and was certain that I stood on a soap bubble which my son had blown from the window overlooking my garden just a few seconds earlier, and as I saw that an honest and thoughtful being was in danger of his life; since being boiled until soft is — to say the least — life-threatening for a Saponien, I could hold back no longer but sprang to my feet and begged to be allowed to speak.

Uncle Wendel, pushing towards me, whispered, “Give up this nonsense. You’ll talk yourself into trouble. They don’t understand. Be quiet!”

But I was not to be put off, and began: “Honoured Thinkers. Permit me a few remarks, since I am in the position to impart some knowledge of the origin and composition of your world.”

A general murmuring arose: “What? How? Our world? Does he have another one then? Listen to this! The savage, the barbarian. He says he knows how the world was made!”

“How the world was made...” I continued with rising voice, “no-one can know, — neither you nor I — since the Thinkers are the same as we two; tiny points of the infinite spirit which becomes reality in infinite life-forms. But I can tell you how this little part of the world on which we stand came about.

“Your world is indeed hollow and filled with air, and its crust is no thicker than Glalgi has stated. (Loud cheers from Glalgi’s supporters.) One day it will burst, but millions of your years could pass before then. It is also true that there are many other inhabited worlds, although they are not all colourful hollow spheres, but masses of stone, many million times larger and inhabited by beings such as myself.

“Soda and fat are not the only elements; -in fact they are not elements at all, but complex substances which purely by chance play a role in your soap bubble world.”

“Soap bubble world?” A wave of indignation rose on all sides.

“Yes...” I continued, ignoring Uncle Wendel’s pushing and pulling, “yes, your world is no more than a soap bubble which my little son blew from his mouth with the aid of a drinking straw, and one which a child’s finger could destroy in an instant. And truly, compared to this world, my child is a giant.”

“Outrage! Blasphemy! Madness!” echoed all around, and inkwells flew at my head. “He’s mad! The world a soap bubble? His son made it? He pretends to be the father of the creator of the world! Boil him! Boil him!”

“Honour lies in truth!” I cried, “Both parties are wrong. My son did not create the world; he just blew this bubble as part of the world to whose laws we are all subject. He knows nothing of you, just as you can know nothing of our world. I am Human, a hundred million times larger and ten billion times older than you! Let Glalgi go! Why do you argue over things that you cannot determine?”

“Down with Glalgi! Down with Humans! We’ll see if you can squash the world with your little finger! Call for your son!”

So the tumult raged around me while Glalgi and I were dragged towards the glycerine-filled tub.

A searing heat came towards me and, in vain, I tried to defend myself. “Throw him in!” cried the crowd, “Now we’ll see who bursts.”

I was engulfed in hot steam and a burning pain shot through me, and — I was sitting next to Uncle Wendel at the garden table. The soap bubble still floated in the same spot.

“What happened?” I asked, in surprise and shock.

“One hundred-thousandth of a second. Nothing has changed on the Earth. If I had not moved the adjusting screw at the opportune moment, you would have been boiled in glycerine. Hmm... Should I still make public my discovery of the microgen? Well? Do you think, still, that they would believe you? Then just explain it to them.”

Uncle Wendel laughed, the bubble burst — and my little son blew another.


Copyright © 1887 by Kurd Lasswitz
translation © 2011 by Noel Middleton

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