2458: Bubble Wrap

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Bubble Wrap
I think of myself as the David Attenborough of factory mailing equipment.
Title text: I think of myself as the David Attenborough of factory mailing equipment.


Bubble wrap is packing material made by melting two sheets of plastic together with little pockets of air (the "bubbles") spread throughout the surface. It is wrapped around fragile items for moving or shipping because the air pockets act as a cushion if the item(s) within are struck or shaken. Many people enjoy popping bubble wrap as a mindless hobby, perhaps due to the tactility and other sensations of each bubble makes as it bursts.

The premise behind this comic is that the air inside each bubble comes from the factory where it was made, and thus as each bubble is popped that air — along with anything in it — is released. If one had a very sensitive sense of smell, one could detect unique odors present in the factory at the time not present where you are popping the bubble wrap. The comic has Cueball smelling WD-40 (a penetrating oil likely to be found where machines are running), diesel fumes (likely found where trucks drop off supplies or pick up product) and what he thinks is sea air, causing him to muse that the factory is by the ocean.

In reality, the air inside most factories is much like the air anywhere else.[citation needed] This is particularly true for modern factories which are much cleaner than the popular conception of a dirty, smelly factory from early in the days of industrialization. One would be unlikely to distinctly smell WD-40 or diesel fumes standing in such a factory unless it was right after or right near they were used. It would be even less likely to smell them when the minuscule amounts of air in the bubbles was then diluted in the larger amount of air surrounding you when they are popped. Furthermore, although the comic suggests popping the bubbles gives one a "tour" of the factory, in fact all of the air added to the bubbles would only come from air near the machine where the wrap is made. It would be even less likely to pick up smells from other parts of the factory such as diesel fumes from the loading docks, since air is not added to bubble wrap there.

Although this scenario is unlikely given human olfactory ability, scientists with very sensitive equipment have done essentially this with ice cores. As ice is laid down in places such as the Greenland or Antarctic ice sheets, it traps small bubbles from the atmosphere at the time within it. As long as the ice remains frozen, those bubbles remain trapped and do not interact with the current atmosphere, preserving a record of the chemical composition of the air in the past. There have been many scientific expeditions to drill ice cores and then melt pieces of them in a laboratory where special equipment can analyze the ancient air as it is released to study the quantity of oxygen and CO2 within in. The deeper the core is drilled, the farther in the past the sample.

The title text references David Attenborough, who is famous for having narrated many influential documentaries for the BBC about life on earth. He is renowned for having brought science into the homes of tens of millions. The title text humorously suggests that Cueball thinks his "narration" about what he smells in the bubble wrap is as important and distinguished as Attenborough's award winning work.


[Cueball is holding a large piece of bubble wrap in both hands, clearly pressing one of the bubbles with his fingers so it pops, indicated with several small lines going away from that spot, and a sound.]
Cueball: Hmm...
Cueball: WD-40, diesel fumes...
Cueball: And is that sea air? I guess they're near the ocean.
Bubble wrap: Pop
[Caption below the panel:]
If your sense of smell is good enough, popping bubble wrap gives you a tour of a bubble wrap factory.

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In another 25 years, unpopped bubble wrap will be the only source of pure air left in the world. RAGBRAIvet (talk) 04:42, 4 May 2021 (UTC)

In 25 thousand years, scientists will use bubble wrap to see what the air what like today, in a similar fashion to how we use ice core samples to look at the atmosphere from thousands of years ago. 04:54, 4 May 2021 (UTC)
mmm, air time capsule. 13:55, 4 May 2021 (UTC)

WD-40 is not a lubricant. 05:16, 4 May 2021 (UTC)

You're right, but in the time it took for you to post the comment, you could have just fixed it. Bischoff (talk) 07:21, 4 May 2021 (UTC)
Are you sure? Its not lube despite its penetrating powers, I'll concede to that. But why wouldn't it be a lubricant? Its an oil based product, I need more context. 07:29, 4 May 2021 (UTC)
You're right, that since it's oil based it can and sometimes is used as a short term lubricant. However it is not advisable to use it (or other penetrating oils) that way. They generally evaporate too quickly to be used long term. You'd have to constantly reapply it to moving parts. Bischoff (talk) 09:27, 4 May 2021 (UTC)
WD-40 actually _removes_ any existing oil. Its major ingredient, which is also responsible for the smell, is Kerosene. That is also the active ingredient in _Liquid Wrench_, which frees up stuck parts. That's probably why many people mistake it for a lubricant. When the Kerosene evaporates, it leaves behind a waxy coating (isoparrafins). Its design purpose is to waterproof. The wax, if over-applied, can also treat squeaky hinges, which is another reason people confuse it with some kind of oil.
So, it contains a *penetrating solvent*, which is oil in the sense of lamp oil, but not the sense of oil for lubrication. 06:47, 5 May 2021 (UTC)

Could the comic be some sort of mocking people who taste all weird stuff from wine? Or basically anyone who has a distinguished taste on [wine, whiskey, tobacco, cheese etc]? Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 08:59, 4 May 2021 (UTC)

I relegated the "sound of popping bubblewrap" out of being the single explicit reason why people like doing it, although obviously different people have different needs (up to and including annoying other people by the noise they create, as perhaps the primary reason to pop the bubbles when given the opportunity), but it's a complex issue. There's various explanations out there, and I know I get more frustrated when I have to try harder to pop 'pop resisting' stuff, even with the same end sound, or can be satisfied with pin-pricking with something sharp to 'doodle' a pop-pattern (and/or flood-fill a methodical 'wasteland' of poppedness) even if it gives nothing more than a faint 'snick'/hiss sound whilst doing it.

...but, no, I've never thought of sniffing it. I suppose I always imagined it was inflated with compressed gasses, like "packaged in a protective atmosphere", for foodstuffs, even though this now sounds ridiculously over-engineered to waste fractionated atmosphere or chemically-evolved gas rather than just blow in (filtered) atmosphere, or even just letting the plastic layers settle down over the original ambient airgap when fusing the 'bubble edges' down between them - however they actually do it.

And then there's the old chestnut about using helium-filled bubble-wrap to reduce/nullify (charged by weight) shipping costs! Note, though, that it's commonly suggested, if you search around, and then commonly refuted by (among other things) the economics of buying enough helium-filled packaging to make any postage-rate change. I suppose you could invest in equipment to split water (powered by solar power) and try infusing it into a standard air-pocket wrapping (could that break even, eventually?), though shipping companies might well consider the Hindenbubblewrap strays outside their standard handling processes so no longer benefits from the sought after lightness-discount. 09:45, 4 May 2021 (UTC)

I think that some times bubble wrap is made with out air and then sent out and inflated where it is needed.

Bubble wrap is usually made of LDPE, polyethylene. This polymer is quite permeable for many chemicals, especially more lipophilic ones. WD-40 "smell" definitely wouldn't stay in a bubble for long and neither would most components of diesel exhaust. I think the comparison between bubble wrap and ice cores is thus too far fetched since bulk ice provides _much_ better isolation than an LDPE foil. But I am not sure if Randall is aware that all three smells rely on a quite esoteric view and wouldn't work even in theory.

Would it be appropriate to add to "one could detect unique odors present in the factory" a reference to the movie "Fly Me to the Saitama" where the hero (Rei Asami) proves his Tokyo-ness by identifying some Tokyo districts from the air contained in glass bottles? Thank you Dhalber (talk) 17:54, 4 May 2021 (UTC)

Uhh, I live in a warehouse district, & I'm not sure what survey of air in industrial zones was the basis for the current description for this comic, but the statement "In reality, the air inside most factories is much like the air anywhere else" definitely needs a big citation next to it; or I'll be happy to call bullshit. Even a brand new ultra-modern factory begins to smell like the things in it, after just a few months of operation.

Also, regarding the smell of WD-40 & diesel fumes: I can easily believe that solvents in WD-40 would penetrate polyethylene plastics... but bubble wrap does often smell like WD-40 & diesel exhaust, for whatever reason. ProphetZarquon (talk) 22:03, 4 May 2021 (UTC)