If you are a teacher then please also visit my new site: intermathematics.com for over 2000+ pdf pages of resources for teaching IB maths!

Soap Bubbles and Catenoids

Soap bubbles form such that they create a shape with the minimum surface area for the given constraints.  For a fixed volume the minimum surface area is a sphere, which is why soap bubbles will form spheres where possible.  We can also investigate what happens when a soap film is formed between 2 parallel circular lines like in the picture below: [Credit Wikimedia Commons, Blinking spirit]

In this case the shape formed is a catenoid – which provides the minimum surface area (for a fixed volume) for a 3D shape connecting the two circles.  The catenoid can be defined in terms of parametric equations:

Where cosh() is the hyperbolic cosine function which can be defined as:

For our parametric equation, t and u are parameters which we vary, and c is a constant that we can change to create different catenoids.  We can use Geogebra to plot different catenoids.  Below is the code which will plot parametric curves when c =2 and t varies between -20pi and 20 pi.


We then need to create a slider for u, and turn on the trace button – and for every given value of u (between 0 and 2 pi) it will plot a curve.  When we trace through all the values of u it will create a 3D shape – our catenoid.

Individual curve (catenary)

Catenoid when c = 0.1

Catenoid when c = 0.5

Catenoid when c = 1

Catenoid when c = 2


For those of you who know your science fiction, the catenoids above may look similar to a wormhole.  That’s because the catenoid is a solution to the hypothesized mathematics of wormholes.  These can be thought of as a “bridge” either through curved space-time to another part of the universe (potentially therefore allowing for faster than light travel) or a bridge connecting 2 distinct universes.

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Above is the Morris-Thorne bridge wormhole [Credit The Image of a Wormhole].

Further exploration:

This is a topic with lots of interesting areas to explore – the individual curves (catenary) look similar to, but are distinct from parabola.  These curves appear in bridge building and in many other objects with free hanging cables.  Proving that catenoids form shapes with minimum surface areas requires some quite complicated undergraduate maths (variational calculus), but it would be interesting to explore some other features of catenoids or indeed to explore why the sphere is a minimum surface area for a given volume.

If you want to explore further you can generate your own Catenoids with the Geogebra animation I’ve made here.

Essential Resources for IB Teachers

1) Intermathematics.com

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If you are a teacher then please also visit my new site.  This has been designed specifically for teachers of mathematics at international schools.  The content now includes over 2000 pages of pdf content for the entire SL and HL Analysis syllabus and also the SL Applications syllabus.  Some of the content includes:

  1. Original pdf worksheets (with full worked solutions) designed to cover all the syllabus topics.  These make great homework sheets or in class worksheets – and are each designed to last between 40 minutes and 1 hour.
  2. Original Paper 3 investigations (with full worked solutions) to develop investigative techniques and support both the exploration and the Paper 3 examination.
  3. Over 150 pages of Coursework Guides to introduce students to the essentials behind getting an excellent mark on their exploration coursework.
  4. A large number of enrichment activities such as treasure hunts, quizzes, investigations, Desmos explorations, Python coding and more – to engage IB learners in the course.

There is also a lot more.  I think this could save teachers 200+ hours of preparation time in delivering an IB maths course – so it should be well worth exploring!

Essential Resources for both IB teachers and IB students

1) Exploration Guides and Paper 3 Resources

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I’ve put together a 168 page Super Exploration Guide to talk students and teachers through all aspects of producing an excellent coursework submission.  Students always make the same mistakes when doing their coursework – get the inside track from an IB moderator!  I have also made Paper 3 packs for HL Analysis and also Applications students to help prepare for their Paper 3 exams.  The Exploration Guides can be downloaded here and the Paper 3 Questions can be downloaded here.