Baptiste Neel: Ode to Bubbles

Baptiste Neel likes bubbles. All kinds of bubbles. He likes the way wine holds bubbles, and how bubbles form under the ocean and make their way to the surface before bursting. He also likes the difference in bubble coalescence from say beer foam to pond foam. “I love the bubbles,” says the postdoctoral research associate, “they are poetic in the minds of people, but also have scientific aspects to it.”

Baptiste studies the bursting of bubbles and how that relates to ocean-atmosphere exchanges.

As a kid he liked bubbles the same as anyone else. His beginnings before his route to his current study at Princeton University, however, took a rather artistic path. 

Growing up in Leon, France, as the oldest of four boys, Baptiste and his brothers were raised in a musical family. The kids all learned to play instruments, and his parents performed in bands in addition to their day jobs. As the kids’ abilities improved, they performed together as a family in the community. “My parents wanted each of us to do one school activity and one artistic activity,” continues Baptiste, “times four boys, I just don’t know how they did it, but I am grateful for their encouragement.” He plays electric, classical, and acoustic guitars and trombone.

While in college in Paris, Baptiste focused on physics and then hydrodynamics which really spoke to him. He found he was able to explain ocean wave movement and bubbles to family and friends and break down complex scientific information so they could understand it. This was also the time he came across the cover band Pompier Poney Club, or Fireman Pony Club. Baptiste told them he liked their sound, which was old French rock, and he got to chatting with the guys and ended up joining the band. 

Not one to sit still, he and some college friends frequently played in the streets for fun (busking) and even performed in clubs and weddings. It is safe to say that music has been a big part of his life, and yet very few people at PU know of his talents…until now.

With his background in research and hydrodynamics, plus a curiosity of explaining complex information to friends and family, his desire to teach at a university level about environmental implications of bubbles seemed natural, and that led him to Princeton University. His current project is called “Collective Bubbling at the Water Surface: Coalescence, Clustering and Spray Generation.”

Keep in mind his study is on the bursting of bubbles which happens in a few thousandths of one second. So, it is fast. Really fast. But what exactly is he trying to prove with his study?

Baptiste says, “When a bubble bursts, it propels in the air a bunch of droplets, which can live for days if you imagine that the atmosphere is turbulent (and the droplets small and light enough). Though the case of a single bubble has been extensively studied for decades, there is little on collective effects: not a single bubble, not quite a foam, I try to understand and characterize the consequences of coalescence, of displacements, of the lifetime of many bubbles standing together at the surface of water, in different conditions of temperature, salinity, and surface contamination.”

Baptiste says his philosophy on life is “keep moving and keep learning.” So, he learned swing dancing in Paris with friends and cousins. “We had an American teacher,” he says, “she gave the class so much confidence that everyone got the dance fever.” Now he dances in Manhattan whenever he gets the chance.

When he goes home to France and sees his family, they still have musical reunions and sometimes play for extended family. His father still plays bass in two bands and his mother sings in both. “They are empty nesters now, so they have plenty of time,” he says with a laugh.

Baptiste is on track for a faculty position somewhere globally when he completes his research in the next 2-3 years. It is so clear that any university snagging this dedicated scholar will be fortunate, but for now we are lucky to have him right here with us.

-Verna Fisher