Abstract Capillary ripples are small amplitude, small wavelength waves at the interface between two fluids. They carry information on interfacial properties such as surface tension and on bulk properties such as viscosity. In this paper a first-order perturbation analysis is presented for ripples at a liquid-air interface, which are generated by a chopping laser light shined upon the interface (pump laser) and detected via the specular reflection of another laser beam (probe laser) much smaller in diameter than the generating beam. Such a scheme is compact, sensitive, and mechanically noninvasive. An appropriate solution is found to the simultaneous momentum and heat transfer equations. The effects of a thermocapillary coefficient, i.e., changes in surface tension due to the variations in temperature, and a chopping frequency on the surface ripples are demonstrated for a model system. Preliminary experimental results on the surface between ethanol and air show excellent agreement with the literature values of surface tension and bulk viscosity.