Losing/having the bubble

(I originally intended this posting to go to the American Dialect Society mailing list, but the Stanford mailer rejected it repeatedly. So I’m posting it here and will post a note to ADS-L about it. Sigh. This is a somewhat edited version of that posting.)

Ann Burlingham caught this on NPR’s All Things Considered, 4/23/09. Robert Siegel was interviewing Air Force Colonel Steven Kleinman, who objected to harsh interrogation techniques in Iraq.  At one point Kleinman said:

And so, people were reaching out to other methods, not understanding the subtle yet profound difference — using a method that was proven successful in obtaining propaganda, while on the surface it seems very effective, underneath it all it is very ineffective and counterproductive. … Any individual can force any other individual to admit to practically anything, but that’s not the purpose of interrogation. I could see these people had lost the bubble on that.

What attracted her attention was “lost the bubble” [roughly] ‘got off-course’.

Burlingham then found an account of the expression’s origin, from a livejournal [logrusboy] commenter:

Lost the bubble: one of those nifty aviation instruments uses an air bubble to keep track of which direction is up. During spinny or turbulent maneuvers, the bubble can become difficult to find and unreliable, leading to mistakes about that whole concept of where to find the ground. This often ends badly. (link)

But others see a naval origin:

Lose the bubble: Originally, to assume such an extreme up- or down-angle in a submarine that the bubble of the inclinometer is no longer visible. In common usage, to lose SITUATIONAL AWARENESS. (link)

BUBBLEHEAD: slang for a submariner, from the necessary preoccupation with the BOAT’s trim gauge; may be spelled “bubble-head”, and also known as BOOMER, DOLPHIN, DIPPER. Compare SKIMMER, AIRDALE, SHELLBACK; see GUPPY, SUBMARINE. [(in original) nb: to “lose the bubble” is to be disoriented, or so far out of control that the SUBMARINE is in jeopardy; see PITCH, YAW, ROLL, ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT] (link)

(I’m not a lexicographer, so I hoped — and still hope — that some keen ADS-Ler would do the tracking back of sources.)

And then, from a book chapter on “expert operators and critical  tasks”, with an extended sense:

Those who man the combat operations centers of U.S. Navy ships use the term “having the bubble” to indicate that they have been able to construct and maintain the cognitive map that allows them to integrate such diverse inputs as combat status, information flows from sensors and remote observation, and the real-time status and performance of the various weapons and systems into a single picture of the ship’s overall situation and operational status.

For the casual visitor to the operations center, the multitude of charts and radar displays, the continuous flow of information from console operators and remote sources of surveillance and intelligence, the various displays that indicate weapons systems status, what aircraft are aloft, and who is in them, the inputs from ship and senior staff, are overwhelming. What surprised us at first was that even experienced officers did not attempt to make overall status assessments on the basis of a casual visit. Only when you have the bubble do these pieces begin to fall into place as parts of a large, coherent picture.

Given the large amount of information, and the critical nature of the task, creating and maintaining the required state of representational mapping, situational awareness, and cognitive and task integration is a considerable strain. On many ships, operations officer shifts are held to no more than two hours. “Losing the bubble” is a serious and ever-present threat… (link)

Then there are uses outside military contexts, with a somewhat different extended sense:

[business context] To forget about or neglect. “I’ve lost the bubble on the Henderson account. Where do we stand?”  Submitted by Christine C. (link)

… we will never get this country back in the hands of the citizens unless we get the attention of those we send to congress. I believe that most are voted in with a desire to work for their state or district, then start going to cocktail parties, hanging out in fern bars and wanting their peers to “like” them. They lose the bubble at that point and forget who sent them there. [but from the commenter “SeaDog”, so there might be a military connection] (link)

So we have a family of uses of bubble, apparently radiating out from aviation and nautical uses. (These uses of bubble are not in the OED.)

11 Responses to “Losing/having the bubble”

  1. jlundell Says:

    The aviation reference is simply wrong. The closest such instrument, a turn-and-bank indicator, uses a solid ball, not a bubble, and does not indicate which way is up, but rather slip. In a properly executed (ie coordinated) turn, loop or roll, the slip indicator does not move. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turn_and_bank_indicator for a photo.

    The submarine reference seems more plausible, though you can see the effect with any bubble (spirit) level.

  2. trawnapanda Says:

    I’m sure I’ve seen “lose the bubble” before, in a submarine context. I’m strongly suspicious it was in a book by John Winton, who wrote humorous novels set in the Royal Navy. This one was set in a submarine, and the captain tells whoever is at the help, “XXX, lose the bubble”, meaning dive, hard, don’t worry about the trim on the submarine. (and, presumably, in hard-dive position, the bubble would disappear to the top end of the spirit-levels that were used to indicate trim).

    Google having holpen me, it’s the book called *Down the Hatch”, published in 1961.

  3. B LAGATREE Says:

    It seems to me that to “lose the bubble” does imply that the turn/bank indicator (a coordination instrument in the panel which indicates an “uncoordinated condition” when the bubble slides right or left).

    So, the term means to me that “we are out of coordination” when we are “off the bubble”. Further, from flight school, we are taught to “step on the buble” to resume coordination in a turn. Bet that would drum up more idioms.

    Ho hum, another talking head signing off. Over and out.

  4. Mike Chalifoux Says:

    I would like to add another possibility – Air Force Navigator related.
    The sextant that was used in the B-52 has a bubble in it – you shoot the sun or stars, throught the bubble. This ensures a level platform. The size of the bubble is adjustable with a knob on the sextant. If you turn it too small, you can lose the bubble, therefore you cannot make an accurate shot.

  5. Fred Terwilliger Says:

    I have to agree with Mike Chalifoux. Losing the bubble, in the Air Force context, has to come from the navigator’s sextant (don’t expect a fighter pilot to ever corroborate that). The submarine context is plausible, but the “air bubble” instrument reference is incorrect, implausible, and impossible.

  6. David Wilson Says:

    My dad just recently emailed me with the subject line “I think I lost the bubble on this one”, and I was baffled.

    At first, I assumed it meant the “thought bubble” (as often seen in cartoons). If you lost that bubble you would have lost your ‘train of thought.’ But the aviation example sounds more likely, given that my dad works for the military.

  7. Ed Kuhsins Says:

    Haivng served on a nuclear submarine and qualified to receive the Dolphins, I can confirm that “losing the bubble” refers to assume such an extreme up- or down-angle in a submarine that the bubble of the inclinometer is no longer visible. The inclinometer is a semi-circle filled with liquid, afixed to the fore/aft bulkhead (wall) of the submarine. It has a small amount of air in it, (the “bubble”) indicating the angle as the boat assumes up or down angles. Knowledge of that angle is essential to maneuvering. Inside the boat without the inclinometer you really can’t tell what that angle is. But the inclinometer has two little “loops”, one at each end, with air in them, and if the boat assumes a steep enough angle, the bubble gets “lost” in the loop, and until the inclinometer is physcially removed and reset, it is no longer able to indicate the angle.
    Hence, “losing the bubble” means “I don’t know where I’m headed” and is used to indicate “I’ve lost situational awareness”.

  8. Lou Says:

    I first heard the term back in the 1980s when I attended navigator training in the USAF at Mather AFB in Sacramento. Back then we were taught celestial navigation and the sextants we used had a small air bubble for sighting on the stars. To get an accurate reading, you have to simultaneously put the star in the center of bubble and the bubble in the center the of the reticule’s cross-hairs. If you “lost the bubble” you got an inaccurate reading and would subsequently get off course

  9. Commander Bob, USNR (ret) Says:

    I’ve always heard the origin was from the submarines. I was a Surface Warfare Officer, but we adopted it to mean to lose situational awareness/cognizance, or to be disoriented.

  10. Thorsten Says:

    From “Ingenuity Gap” by Thomas Homer Dixon
    ” His exploration of the U.S. air control system provides a sample of his lucid storytelling and reveals a paradoxical aspect of large, complex systems. For years the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has attempted without success to automate the system. However, it maintains a remarkable safety record because the system continues to depend upon the ingenuity of experienced front-line controllers who construct intricate mental maps of aircraft flight paths, a cognitive feat known as “having the bubble.” If the airlines and the passengers continue to overload the system, however, even the most experienced controller may not be able to cope, to stay in the bubble. “

  11. Yentrof Says:

    The Combat Information Center (CIC) description is the one I heard frequently on the destroyer I was on in the mid 70s.

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