Categories

## Strumming along on a coffee

What links a coffee to music by the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix?

As we sit back and enjoy the aroma from our coffee, we may rue the fact that our precious brew is evaporating away. We know from experience that hot coffee evaporates faster than cold coffee and we may dimly remember the physics that explains why this is. But have you ever stopped to consider that it is this bit of your coffee that forms a link between your drink and those famous guitarists?

The link concerns the mechanism behind the evaporation. To evaporate out of the coffee, a water molecule needs to overcome a certain energy barrier, let’s call it W, in order to escape. Given that W is constant, the more energy a water molecule has, the greater its likelihood of escape. So we could say that the probability of a water molecule escaping the coffee goes as exp{-W/kT} which means, the higher the temperature, T, the smaller the ratio W/kT and hence the greater the probability (because the exponential is raised to a negative power and hence is a dividing factor). The k is a constant known as the Boltzmann constant.

Now think about how the amplifiers used by many musicians work. It seems that many guitarists favour valve amplifiers owing to the type of sound they produce. Certainly Clapton and Hendrix were well known for their use of valve amps. A valve amp works by a process of thermionic emission in which electrons are ‘evaporated’ from a hot metal wire before being accelerated to a positively charged plate. This bit is the ‘valve’. In order to escape the metal wire, the electrons have to overcome a certain energy barrier, let’s call it Ω. Just as with W and the coffee, this barrier is a property of the metal that the electron evaporates from. The more energy an electron has (the higher its temperature), the greater the likelihood of it escaping the metal filament and fulfilling its role in the valve amplifier. Hence the mathematics describing thermionic emission is the same as the mathematics describing the evaporation in your coffee cup¹ and the probability of thermionic emission goes as exp{-Ω/kT}.

Now the size of the barrier is of course different in the two cases (Ω is much larger than W) which is why you have to plug in your amplifier to the electricity supply rather than just let it sit on the table top. But this is a difference of size rather than of kind. It is another of those connections between your coffee cup and the world that can be stranger than you may at first think.

If you think of a connection between your coffee and an interesting bit of physics, why not share it in the comments section below.

¹This discussion originally appeared in (and was adapted from) the Feynmann Lectures on Physics, Vol. 1

Categories

## Coffee Rings: Cultivating a healthy respect for bacteria

It is twenty years since Sidney Nagel and colleagues at the University of Chicago started to work on the “Coffee Ring” problem. When spilled coffee dries, it forms rings rather than blobs of dried coffee. Why does it do that? Why doesn’t it just form into a homogeneous mass of brown dried coffee? Surely someone knew the answer to these questions?

Well, it turns out that until 1997 no one had asked these questions. Did we all assume that someone somewhere knew? A bit like those ubiquitous white mists that form on hot drinks, surely someone knew what they were? (They didn’t, the paper looking at those only came out two years ago and is here). Unlike the white mists though, coffee rings are of enormous technological importance. Many of our electronic devices are now printed with electrically conducting ink. As anyone who still writes with a fountain pen may be aware, it is not just coffee that forms ‘coffee rings’. Ink too can form rings as it dries. This is true whether the ink is from a pen or a specially made electrically conducting ink. We need to know how coffee rings form so that we can know how to stop them forming when we print our latest gadgets. This probably helps to explain why Nagel’s paper suggesting a mechanism for coffee ring formation has been cited thousands (>2000) of times since it was published.

More information on the formation of coffee rings (and some experiments that you can do with them on your work top) can be found here. Instead, for today’s Daily Grind, I’d like to focus on how to avoid the coffee ring effect and the fact that bacteria beat us to it. By many years.

There is a bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa (P. aeruginosa for short) that has been subverting the coffee ring effect in order to survive. Although P. aeruginosa is fairly harmless for healthy individuals, it can affect people with compromised immune systems (such as some patients in hospitals). Often water borne, if P. aeruginosa had not found a way around the coffee ring effect, as the water hosting it dried, it would, like the coffee, be forced into a ring on the edge of the drop. Instead, drying water droplets that contain P. aeruginosa deposit the bacteria uniformly across the drop’s footprint, maximising the bacteria’s survival and, unfortunately for us, infection potential.

The bacteria can do this because they produce a surfactant that they inject into the water surrounding them. A surfactant is any substance that reduces the surface tension of a liquid. Soap is a surfactant and can be used to illustrate what the bacteria are doing (but with coffee). At the core of the bacteria’s survival mechanism is something called the Marangoni effect. This is the liquid flow that is caused by a gradient in surface tension; there is a flow of water from a region of lower surface tension to a region of higher surface tension. If we float a coffee bean on a dish of water and then drop some soap behind it, the bean accelerates away from the dripped drop (see video). The soap lowers the surface tension in the area around it causing a flow of water (that carries the bean) away from the soap drop.

If now you can imagine thousands of bacteria in a liquid drop ejecting tiny amounts of surfactant into the drop, you can hopefully see in your mind’s eye that the water flow in the drying droplet is going to get quite turbulent. Lots of little eddies will form as the water flows from areas of high surface tension to areas of low surface tension. These eddies will carry the bacteria with them counteracting the more linear flow from the top of the droplet to the edges (caused by the evaporation of the droplet) that drives the normal coffee ring formation. Consequently, rather than get carried to the edge of the drop, the bacteria are constantly moved around it and so when the drop finally dries, they will be more uniformly spread over the circle of the drop’s footprint.

Incidentally, the addition of a surfactant is one way that electronics can now be printed so as to avoid coffee ring staining effects. However, it is amusing and somewhat thought provoking to consider that the experimentalist bacteria had discovered this long before us.

Categories

## On rings, knots, myths and coffee

Dragging a spoon through coffee (or tea) has got to remain one of the easiest ways to see, and play with, vortices. Changing the way that you pull the spoon through the coffee, you can make the vortices travel at different speeds and watch as they bounce off the sides of the cup. This type of vortex can be seen whenever one object (such as the spoon) pulls through a fluid (such as the coffee). Examples could be the whirlwinds behind buses (and trains), the whirlpools around the pillars of bridges in rivers and the high winds around chimneys that has led some chimneys to collapse.

Yet there is another type of vortex that you can make, and play with, in coffee. A type of vortex that has been associated with the legends of sailors, supernovae and atomic theory. If you add milk to your coffee, you may have been making these vortices each time you prepare your brew and yet, perhaps you’ve never noticed them. They are the vortex rings. Unlike the vortices behind a spoon, to see these vortex rings we do not pull one object through another one. Instead we push one fluid (such as milk) through another fluid (the coffee).

It is said that there used to be a sailor’s legend: If it was slightly choppy out at sea, the waves could be calmed by a rain shower. One person who heard this legend and decided to investigate whether there was any substance to it was Osborne Reynolds (1842-1912). Loading a tank with water and then floating a layer of dyed water on top of that, he dripped water into the tank and watched as the coloured fluid curled up in on itself forming doughnut shapes that then sank through the tank. The dripping water was creating vortex rings as it entered the tank. You can replicate his experiment in your cup of coffee, though it is easier to see it in a glass of water, (see the video below for a how-to).

Reynolds reasoned that the vortices took energy out of the waves on the surface of the water and so in that way calmed the choppy waves. As with Benjamin Franklin’s oil on water experiment, it’s another instance where a sailor’s myth led to an experimental discovery.

Another physicist was interested in these vortex rings for an entirely different reason. William Thomson, better known as Lord Kelvin, proposed an early model of atoms that explained certain aspects of the developing field of atomic spectroscopy. Different elements were known to absorb (or emit) light at different frequencies (or equivalently energies). These energies acted as a ‘fingerprint’ that could be used to identify the elements. Indeed, helium, which was until that point unknown on Earth, was discovered by measuring the light emission from the Sun (Helios) and noting an unusual set of emission frequencies. Kelvin proposed that the elements behaved this way as each element was formed of atoms which were actually vortex rings in the ether. Different elements were made by different arrangements of vortex ring, perhaps two tied together or even three interlocking rings. The simplest atom may be merely a ring, a different element may have atoms made of figure of eights or of linked vortex rings. For more about Kelvin’s vortex atom theory click here.

Kelvin’s atomic theory fell by the way side but not before it contributed to ideas on the mathematics (and physics) of knots. And lest it be thought that this is just an interesting bit of physics history, the idea has had a bit of a resurgence recently. It has been proposed that peculiar magnetic structures that can be found in some materials (and which show potential as data storage devices), may work through being knotted in the same sort of vortex rings that Kelvin proposed and that Reynolds saw.

And that you can find in a cup of coffee, if you just add milk.

Categories

## Coffee chemistry at Estate Office Coffee

Could it really be true that the tables were reclaimed school science desks? I had read a review of Estate Office Coffee by Beanthere.at on London’s Best Coffee that had made this surprising claim (together with favourable comments about the coffee and cakes). Like a red flag to a bull, a visit was inevitable. Would there be any clues left on the tables as reminders of the past history? In the absence of many photos of the interior of the café, my mind wandered to images of long wooden benches like the physics labs in my old school. I imagined enjoying a coffee at such a bench, seated on a wooden stool, my feet not able to reach the ground. So when I arrived outside the cute little building, I was a bit puzzled as to how a whole lab could fit inside! Going in, my images of rows of coffee-table-lab-benches were metaphorically thrown out the window. Instead, a set of modern looking (small) tables were arranged so that several groups of 2-4 people could sit and enjoy their coffee together or individually. A lovely, friendly, space for conversation with friends but not quite the lab I had imagined. The counter, which was on the right as we entered, had a great array of muffins and cakes arranged on it which proved irresistible (and they knew which allergens were in which cake, so a definite tick in the ‘allergy friendly’ café box). The coffee (from Allpress espresso) was also very good and we ‘retired’ to a table to enjoy coffee and cake together.

Although warm that day, sitting near the window was a very pleasant way of slowing down and noticing things. Moreover, the local history that is framed on the wall near the door, provided an interesting diversion for understanding how this quirky building came to be (and to survive in its present form). Copies of Caffeine magazine were also lying around adding to the large number of things that you could think about rather than revert to checking your phone. Finally though, curiosity got the better of me and I asked, were the tables really old school science lab benches? The helpful barista wasn’t absolutely sure and so texted the owner to enquire. Fairly quickly an answer came back: yes indeed, the wood had been reclaimed and used to be laboratory benches. Either school science labs have changed a bit since I attended or the tables have undergone a refurbishment as well as a reclaim, but nonetheless what a feature! Together we looked underneath the tables and noticed the parallel grooves running along the underside of the wood. What were they used for? Pens? Drainage channels for spilt chemicals? The mind boggled. But then returning to our table, we noticed that despite the lovely varnish and careful refurbishment, our table showed evidence of previous science lab use. Two circular stains as if the wood varnish had been etched by a strong acid. Immediately this took me back to experiments-gone-wrong with a home chemistry set but then it set off a whole different thought train through a slightly lateral connection to acidity and coffee.

The issues and science associated with acidity in coffee have been discussed many times elsewhere and so if you would like to follow that train of thought you can do so here or here. Instead, I was reminded that the Arrhenius definition of acidity was that of a substance that, when in solution, increased the concentration of H+ ions in the water. For reasons that will become clear, this reminded me of stories I had heard of expert coffee-tasters who always use the same spoon when cupping coffee. Were there actually very good reasons that these coffee tasters always insist on using their own, same spoon, in every cupping session?

The connection between acidity and the spoons used for cupping comes via the ability of substances to gain or lose electrons to become ions. In the case of acids, the ion is H+ but different elements form their ionic counterparts more or less easily. This means that it is easier to take two electrons from the element copper (Cu) to form Cu2+ than it is to remove one electron from gold (Au) to form Au+. The ‘ability’ of a substance to gain (or lose) electrons is measured by the standard electrode potential. A few years ago, a group at the Institute of Making investigated whether different teaspoons made from different metals tasted different. In a blind taste test involving 32 participants, not only did they find that the spoons tasted different (as measured by bitter, metallic, strong etc), those metals that were more likely to form ionic species in solution (as indicated by the standard electrode potential) consistently tasted more bitter and more metallic than the rest: copper and zinc teaspoons tasted metallic, chrome and stainless steel tasted the least.

What was more interesting though was that the investigators then turned to the question: does the type of spoon used influence the taste of a substance? Although they investigated ice cream rather than coffee, the tastes they were looking at (bitter, sweet, salty, sour) are very relevant to coffee tasting. Again, the authors did a study involving a series of blind taste tests, this time involving 30 participants. Again, the teaspoons used were identical to each other apart from the fact that each had been electroplated with a different metal (gold, copper, zinc or stainless steel). Again there appeared to be a dependence between the taste of the substance (ice cream) and the standard electrode potential of the metal used for the spoon. When the ice cream (which had been separately flavoured to be more salty, bitter, sweet, sour or left plain) was blind-tasted with zinc or copper spoons, the ice cream was consistently rated more bitter than when tasted with stainless steel spoons. But there was more, it seemed that the sweetness of sweet ice cream was enhanced by the copper and zinc spoons. Indeed, copper and zinc spoons seemed generally to enhance the dominant taste of the ice cream (sweet became more sweet, salty more salty etc). Although spoons made of these two metals were also rated as tasting metallic, the most pleasant blind-tested ice cream-spoon combination was the sweet ice cream tasted with the copper or zinc spoons.

So it would appear that the material that the spoon is made from could influence our perception of the taste of the food or drink we consume with it. The taste of coffee could be influenced by the type of metal spoon that is used to taste it with. Other studies have emphasised the psychological importance to taste of the appearance or weight of the spoon. For consistent cupping therefore, it may very well be a good idea to stick to your favourite spoon.

However, this seems an area in which anyone can do a bit of kitchen-top coffee science experimentation. Have you blind taste tested several coffees? What about different coffees with different spoons? For those who cup coffee regularly it would be fascinating to hear your thoughts on the influence of the spoon on the taste of coffee. For those of you new to coffee cupping, you can find a how-to at the bottom of this post and then please do share your experiences. In the meanwhile, you may be pleased to return in our imaginative journey to Estate Office Coffee where a great tasting coffee can be enjoyed in a non-metallic cup and where you may additionally pause to ponder the influence of your surrounding environment on the pleasure you derive from your coffee.

Estate Office Coffee can be found at 1 Drewstead Road, Streatham, SW16 1LY

Categories

## Causing a stir

What’s the difference between your cup of coffee and the solar wind (the fast stream of charged particles emanating from the Sun)? Perhaps this seems a strange question, we ought first to ask what connects your coffee with the solar wind. But, when we look at what connects them, you may be surprised to find the reason that they are different.

The solar wind is a flow of charged particles that streams past the Earth at roughly 400 km/s. To put this figure into some perspective, 400 km/s is 24, 000 km/min which means that the wind travels from the Earth to the Moon in 16 minutes. In comparison it took  Apollo 11 over 3 days between leaving Earth’s orbit and entering the Moon’s (over 4 days between launch and landing). The particles in the solar wind originate in the Sun’s Corona where temperatures get so hot that the gases have enough energy to escape the gravitational pull of the Sun itself. As these particles reach the Earth, they encounter the Earth’s magnetic field and, being rapidly slowed down by the Earth being in the way, a shock wave forms which is known as the Earth’s Bow Shock.

We must all have dragged a spoon through coffee and watched as the vortices form behind the spoon. It is a low-speed example of turbulent behaviour in the coffee. So it is perhaps not surprising that when the very hot and very fast solar wind hits the magnetic field region of the Earth, we find turbulence there too.

Now when we stir our coffee, we will see that there is one big rotation of fluid in the direction of the spoon but we may also notice smaller eddies in the drink. Some of these form from the fact that the coffee is rotating but the mug’s walls are staying motionless, friction forces the fast moving coffee to slow down at the walls. You can actually see this effect if, rather than stirring your coffee, you put it on a record player (or other rotating platform) as has been featured on Bean Thinking previously. Similarly, when you have a large vortex in the form of a smoke ring, it can decay into many smaller vortex “smoke rings” in what is known as a vortex cascade. This too is an effect that you can see in coffee (but rather than smoke rings you can make milk rings with a straw). Very often these milk rings will decay into many smaller rings in the same sort of vortex cascade as you get with the smoke, you can see a video of the effect here or at the bottom of this post. Big vortices decay into smaller vortices until they (to our eyes) disappear entirely.

The important thing is that this type of vortex cascade has also been observed in the solar wind. Rather than a giant spoon though, the solar wind stirs itself as the fast wind encounters the (relatively) slow Earth. We are used to stirring our coffee as a way of cooling it down, perhaps we blow on it gently to speed up the cooling process. But this is the difference between your coffee and the solar wind. When the solar wind is stirred up, it gets hotter. To examine how this occurs, scientists have been examining data from the Cluster set of satellites. Launched by the European Space Agency to study the magnetosphere of the Earth, Cluster has provided clues as to how the solar wind differs from a cup of coffee. Back in 2009, scientists analysed the data from Cluster looking at precisely how the turbulence produced as the solar wind meets the magnetosphere cascades into different sorts of eddies, different levels of turbulence. Comparing the data to theoretical models, they showed how the turbulence started off on large length scales (of the order 100 000 km), and decayed into smaller and smaller length scales until it reached 3km. At this point, all that energy, all that motion was dissipated as heat. Stirring the solar wind heated it up.

Why does stirring the solar wind heat it up whereas stirring your coffee cool it down? It’s to do with the environment of the coffee and the wind. On the Earth, the coffee will be surrounded by a cooler atmosphere. Stirring the coffee brings the hot liquid into contact with the cooler air and so the heat from the coffee can escape more efficiently into the atmosphere. They say in space, no one can hear you scream, which is another way of saying that there is no atmosphere through which sound waves can travel¹. No atmosphere means that there is no way of the heat generated by all that turbulence getting dissipated into a cooler air around it. So, as heat is energy, all that energy involved in stirring up the solar wind gets dissipated as heat in the wind which then has a higher temperature to that which we would naively expect.

So, next time you are waiting for your coffee to cool and stir it to hasten the process, take a moment to think about what is happening approximately 90 000 km above your head where the solar wind is being effectively stirred, and heated, by our planet’s magnetic field.

Seeing a vortex cascade in coffee:

¹The origin of the phrase however suggests that this was not quite the meaning that was intended, it was a promotional phrase used for the film Alien.

Categories

## Developing, a new way to slow down with coffee

Instant gratification takes too long.

Carrie Fisher

What do you think of instant coffee? Does it, as Carrie Fisher may have suggested, take too long? Or perhaps you think that instant coffee is a bad idea, coffee ought instead to be prepared well and slowly to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Many readers of this website are probably of the latter school of thought and yet I would like to offer a slightly different perspective. There is indeed a way that instant coffee can be used to really slow down and to re-evaluate our view of the world: Instant coffee makes a good, or at least adequate, photographic film developer.

The caffeine in the coffee acts as a reducing agent for the film (so tea should also work). Instant was suggested over filter coffee in online recipes owing to the greater control over the amount of caffeine in the brew (it would be far easier to get reproducible results mixing 5 teaspoons of instant into the developer than 300ml of whichever coffee is your brew of the day). So, as a first try, it is worth keeping to previously tried-and-tested recipes, in this case from photo-utopia.

5 heaped teaspoons of instant coffee

2 level teaspoons of washing soda

300 ml of water at around 25C.

The washing soda (sodium carbonate, Na2CO3) can be purchased in many supermarkets where it is known as a more environmentally friendly laundry agent (it is not the cooking ingredient sodium bicarbonate, that apparently does not work). It is used to ‘activate’ the reducing agent. I admit to being a bit hazy on what that actually means. Where you get your instant coffee from is up to you.

The photos show the washing soda and then coffee being added to the water. Do try to rid yourself of any ideas about developing film amidst the lovely fragrance of coffee coming out of the developing tank. Something in the reaction between the washing soda and the coffee stinks. It was not as bad as I was anticipating (as I had read the warnings of the smell elsewhere) but rest assured, it is not pleasant!

For detailed instructions about developing with the solution, please see photo-utopia but briefly, developing the film took 30 minutes with one inversion every 30 seconds. If you have ever tried sitting, developing film for 30 minutes doing nothing but inverting the developing tank every 30 seconds you will know that this is quite an exercise in slowing down. Are those images that you have been taking on your camera going to come out? Will they be under-developed, over-developed? Does coffee really work as a film developing fluid?

After 30 minutes the film was put into a water stop bath and then fixed with Ilford Rapid Fixer (although it is possible to use salt-water as a fixer, I thought it best to start by experimenting with the developing fluid alone first). A further bit of washing and the film was hung out to dry. This meant more patience, although we could see the images on the film, it was not possible to scan them until the film had thoroughly dried (we left it overnight).

What about the results? Well, the four images below are from the roll of Fuji Neopan 400 film that was developed with the coffee. We had to adjust the scanning a bit as the film was somewhat lightly developed (a higher concentration of caffeine or a longer developing time was needed), but you can see that the images have not come out too badly. It is truly possible to slow down and see things in a different way with instant coffee, but maybe not by drinking it.

Next time I plan to swap the instant coffee for a brewed batch and see how that comes out. More photos will be uploaded from time to time, probably to a special “coffee pictures” page on the website (yet to be created). And if you have tried developing photographic film in coffee, please do share any images that you have developed (with coffee or tea, instant or otherwise).

I am incredibly grateful to ArtemisWorks Photography for helping with all aspects of this project and for fantastic patience when confronted with some daft questions. You may also be interested to see ArtemisWorks’ own café work, photographing London’s older style “caffs” many of which have now disappeared, the café galleries can be found here.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Categories

## Aroma and batch brew

Isn’t it great to find a lovely, freshly brewed, hot cup of aromatic coffee in a quirky little café? Which bit do you enjoy most? That special aroma as you inhale the steam above your cup before sipping the coffee to compare the taste with the smell?

As you may imagine, a fair bit of research has gone into working out which chemicals are responsible for that just brewed aroma (for a review see here). More than 800 volatile chemicals have been identified as key to the aroma of coffee of which the most important for that freshly roasted and brewed coffee smell seems to be 2-furfurylthiol. Although it has a complicated name, it’s got a fairly simple chemical representation (shown right). Responsible for the “roast-y, sulphur-y” smell in freshly brewed coffee the problem for us, and for 2-furfurylthiol, is that it is not very stable. In fact, in experiments in which a freshly brewed coffee was stored in a thermos flask to keep it warm, the concentration of 2-furfurylthiol in the space just above the coffee decreased by more than 50% within 20 minutes of storage. After an hour, the concentration of 2-furfurylthiol had decreased to less than a quarter of its original amount and shortly after that, it was gone completely (study can be found here). (Other volatile aromatics decreased similarly (here)).

So if you were to brew a coffee, put it in a flask to keep it warm and then drink it within 20 minutes, you will have lost more than half of the lovely coffee smell. And if, heaven forbid, you were to take it from its thermos 1hr after brewing, almost all those wonderful aromatics would have decayed away.

Why is this important? Well, it’s about batch brew. You may have noticed that batch brew is increasingly popular in many cafés. Offered as a way of getting a filter coffee ‘freshly’ prepared for you without the hassle of actually having to have the filter made there and then. Different establishments try to get around the inevitable aromatic loss by changing the batch every 30 minutes or storing it in a ‘low oxygen’ environment, but is this enough? Do we need some blind taste-tests on batch brew?

A problem is that the decay of 2-furfurylthiol is not just due to oxidisation. Sadly for us, its decay seems to be intimately tied to other qualities that we appreciate in the coffee, the melanoidins (that make the coffee brown) and other chemicals formed during the roasting process (the phenols and the quinones). So even in a low oxygen environment, that aromatic 2-furfurylthiol is going to react with the other chemicals that make coffee great to make batch brew less great.

That’s the theory. Clearly many cafés have taste-tested the batch brew and found that it doesn’t make enough difference to be concerned about. And in practice there are many other factors that may make a batch brew better than a fresh drip coffee you can make at home (though it would be great if someone could point some of these out for me!), what we need is a citizen science type taste test. A blind test of the same bean, prepared as a fresh filter and a cup at the end of the storage life of the batch. They will most likely have different temperatures so this would need to be considered, either by pouring very little of each (so the fresh-filter cools quickly), or waiting for 5 minutes for your cup of fresh-filter to cool to the batch temperature. Do they taste the same? Do they smell the same?

So this is a call for some science experiments “in the field” (and seemingly for everyone to drink more coffee). If you enjoy a cup of “batch” and are a regular at a café, please do drop me a note to share your blind taste-test experiences. If you are a café, any tips you have as to how to store warm coffee for longer than 20 minutes without compromising the aroma would be very interesting to hear (though if you find a café storing batch for longer than approx. 30 minutes, I would seriously consider going somewhere else!). And if you just drink coffee at home, why not get involved too, prepare a filter coffee that you store in a thermos and another a bit later ‘fresh’, get someone to help you so that you taste them ‘blind’ and let me know what you think. The comments section below is always available, otherwise I can be found on Twitter and Facebook and will happily debate there.

Enjoy your coffee!

Categories

## The idea of a coffee at A Wanted Man

We cannot do without a view, and we put up with an illusion, when we cannot get at a truth“.

A Wanted Man on Chelsea’s Kings Road is unusual in many respects. Firstly, never before have I been to an espresso ‘canteen’, but then, neither have I had a coffee in a café that is part coffee-shop part waxing salon. While both wax based hair removal and coffee rely on bees, this is surely not the connection between these two enterprises. Nonetheless, once your coffee-loyalty card is full, you can choose: free brow shape, bikini wax or coffee. The coffee comes from Common Man Coffee Roasters in Singapore so it would be interesting to know how it was transported to Chelsea in order to retain its freshness, surely each batch is not flown in? On our first visit, we had a rich and smooth long black, a lovely aromatic banana bread and a good hot chocolate (with soy milk). There is plenty of seating in the front of the café and some more towards the back near the bar which was all fairly empty on our first visit but far more crowded (with singly-occupied tables) on my second visit (see below).

As I drank my coffee, hidden wording became visible at the bottom of the cup. “A wanted man” appeared beneath the coffee when the coffee was sufficiently thin. By tilting the cup, this “critical” thickness could be estimated, as you can see in the photos. Ah-ha I thought, the physics bit of this cafe-physics-review will be easy! The absorption of light (which we could measure by the visibility of the writing at the bottom of the cup) is directly proportional to the thickness of the absorbing liquid, the coffee. This is the Beer-Lambert law which describes how light is absorbed through substances such as coffee in which there are molecules and bits of sediment that absorb light (which is ultimately why coffee appears brown). Could I experimentally verify this bit of the Beer-Lambert law by somehow quantifying the visibility of the wording as a function of cup-tilt angle?

Before I had thought that far, I had finished the coffee, however the second part of the Beer-Lambert law could be tested by having another coffee on a separate occasion. The other part of the Beer-Lambert law states that the absorption (that’s the (in)visibility of the wording on the cup in this case) is also directly proportional to the concentration of the absorbing molecules/sediment. This makes sense, weak coffee is far more transparent than overly extracted coffee. On my second visit, the coffee tasted slightly stronger, a bit different from my memories of the first occasion. Did the “A wanted man” become visible at a different tilt angle? I would guess – or perhaps that should read ‘hypothes-ise’ – that the angle on the second occasion would have to be lower (that the coffee would have to be thinner generally).

However, while sipping my coffee (before getting to the tilt-angle-test) and looking around the second time I noticed that all along the wall where previously there had been plenty of empty tables, each one was now singly occupied by somebody using a laptop, a phone/tablet or in one case, both of these items together. This second time, my mind started wandering into more social issues, while looking at our screens and immersed in social media, are we able to see more or less, than our less absorbed fellow citizens? Does social media clarify the detail or cloud important aspects of our understanding?

After considering these two points, it became clear that in some ways they are connected. Admittedly a loose connection, and not one that is strictly scientific but perhaps it’s worth ‘running with it’ for a bit and seeing if it leads anywhere. Just as with the Beer-Lambert law with coffee, the more ‘interacting sites’ (or absorption sites) we encounter on social media, the harder it is to see through to the bottom. Twitter, Facebook etc. can be enormously helpful for widening our networks and learning about new things. But, as has been frequently pointed out elsewhere, they can also become quite unhelpful when we are in an “echo chamber” or when we think that points can be made in mere soundbites. Is it possible that the more absorbing and reflecting sites that we encounter, the harder it is to see anything to any greater depth? What we need is time-out, for self-reflection and for considering points made by others, on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere.

Perhaps the best way to end such a post is with a long quote by somebody else. In fact, the same person (and in the same book) as was quoted at the beginning of this article. Perhaps it would be something to consider while we drink our coffees and hover over the ‘retweet’ or ‘share’ button. Are we helping to probe the depths of our cup by the links we share, or are we merely adding to absorption sites in soundbites in our networks?

It requires a great deal of reading, or a wide range of information, to warrant us in putting forth our opinions on any serious subject; and without such learning the most original mind may be able indeed to dazzle, to amuse, to refute, to perplex, but not to come to any useful result or any trustworthy conclusion. There are indeed persons who profess a different view of the matter, and even act upon it. Every now and then you will find a person of vigorous or fertile mind, who relies upon his own resources, despises all former authors, and gives the world, with the utmost fearlessness, his views upon religion, or history, or any other popular subject. And his works may sell for a while; he may get a name in  his day; but this will be all. His readers are sure to find on the long run that his doctrines are mere theories, and not the expression of facts, that they are chaff instead of bread, and then his popularity drops as suddenly as it rose.

John Henry Newman, The idea of a university.

A Wanted Man can be found at 330 Kings Road, London

Categories

## Reading tea leaves with Einstein and my great-grandmother

Ask anyone what Albert Einstein is famous for and you’ll probably (hopefully) hear that he came up with the theory of relativity (special and general). Perhaps you may also be told that he came up with a little theory explaining the photoelectric effect for which he won the Nobel prize in 1921. Maybe, if you have read this website before, you will know that he contributed to our understanding of Brownian motion, which is a phenomenon that is frequently found in a coffee cup. But it turns out that Einstein wrote another paper, far more important than any of these others, which was about tea. Or at least, I suspect my great-grandmother would have found it more important than any of these others as it coincided with a special hobby of hers, reading tea leaves.

It seems that my great-grandmother used to enjoy reading tea-leaves. Whether it was something she had learned as a child or merely used as an interesting trick to perform at family functions, stories of her examining the patterns formed by swirling tea leaves in a cup have come down to us in younger generations. Einstein too had noticed the patterns formed by the tea leaves in the cup and had observed a problem. The problem is this: If you drink a cup of (inadequately filtered) loose leaf tea and stir it, the tea leaves collect in a circle in the middle of the base of the cup. At first this may appear counterintuitive. When we stir things, don’t things fly outwards towards the edge of the cup rather than inwards to the centre of the circle? Why is it that the leaves collect in the middle?

For Einstein, this tea leaf problem was connected to another phenomenon, the erosion of rivers. But it turns out that the problem is also linked to issues found in beer brewing and blood tests, and it seems, in how to poach an egg. To see the solution and therefore the connections, we need to think a bit more about how water flows. One of the brilliant lines in Einstein’s paper starts “I begin with a little experiment which anybody can easily repeat.” This experiment is to obtain a flat bottomed cup of tea with some tea leaves at the bottom of it. Now stir the tea and watch how the leaves settle, Einstein continues “the leaves will soon collect in the centre of the bottom of the cup“.

The explanation is connected with the fact that at the walls of the cup, the liquid (tea) is being slowed down by the friction between the walls and the tea. Secondly, as the tea is stirred, the surface of the tea becomes concave with a distinct dip in the centre of the swirling tea. The result of all this is that a secondary rotation is set-up where the tea flows down the sides of the cup, along the bottom and then back up in the centre and once more to the sides (have a look at the diagram, some things are easier with pictures). As they are carried along with the water, the tea leaves move towards the centre of the cup but then, being too heavy to rise again with the tea up to the centre of the cup, they stay on the bottom forming a circular patch of tea leaves.

When you think about how water flows as it goes around a bend in a river, you could perhaps imagine a similar secondary flow being set up but this time from the inner edge of the bend to the outer edge and back down (so, like half a tea cup). As the water is going to be moving fastest at the outer edge, just before it plunges down towards the bottom of the river in this secondary cycle, any river erosion is going to be most noticeable on the outer edge of the bend.

It seems the effect is also used in beer brewing in order to introduce a greater concentration of hops into the brew, and to separate different types of blood cell in blood tests. So this just leaves the poached eggs. How do you poach eggs? If you have a proper poacher perhaps you get neat eggs each time but for those of us without them, poached eggs tend to be a messy cooking project. But worry no longer! Just as tea leaves collect in the centre of a tea cup, so will the egg if you ensure that your pan of boiling water is swirling around the central axis before you put your egg in. Cooking helped by physics, perfect.

For reasons of full disclosure, I should emphasise that I have only recently found this suggestion for cooking eggs ‘theoretically’ and not yet tested it. So, if you were looking for reasons to drink loose tea, or wanted to poach an egg without a poacher, perhaps you could try Einstein’s little experiment and let me know how you got on, I’d love to hear your tea leaf readings and see your poached egg results.

Categories

## Coffee innovations at MacIntyre, Angel

One motivation behind Bean Thinking is to explore those connections that can be found when we stop to really look around us. Whether your interest is in history, philosophy or science, something in a café will prompt a train of reflections that can lead to interesting and surprising thought journeys. This is surely true for anybody in any café, if we just take the time to slow down. But, I admit a prejudice: while I had heard great things about the coffee in MacIntyre, when I had glanced in from the bus window, I saw the scaffolding seating arrangements and wooden surfaces that can be a type of design found in many new cafés. So I worried. Was it going to be hard to ‘see the connections’ in MacIntyre? Would I end up with a great coffee but a challenge to my assumptions about the ubiquity of connectivity?

Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. The two lovely coffees that I have enjoyed at MacIntyre gave me plenty of time to really savour both the coffee and my surroundings and I was wrong in my assumptions from the bus window, connections really are everywhere. The café itself was a delightful find. Watching other customers while drinking my long black, it seemed that everyone was greeted by a cheery “hello”. Many people were clearly regulars, which is perhaps unsurprising for a friendly café with good coffee in a busy area. The scaffolding and wooden seating also works in the space at MacIntyre, giving a strangely relaxing feel to the café. The café itself is rather narrow, with the seating on one side and pastries/ordering queue on the other. Tap water was delivered with the coffee, without my needing to have asked for it.

MacIntyre may also be a great spot if you are into people watching. Amidst the general busy-ness, I could eavesdrop on conversations about the latest coffee news and the rise of artificial intelligence (these were two separate conversations!). Perhaps the conversations were particularly noticeable owing to the acoustics of the wooden walls and the narrow, small space of the café. At various points around the café, plants hung from the scaffolding. Some of the plants were spot-lit, which caused me to wonder whether the light that the plants were receiving was optimal for photosynthesis. The menu was projected onto the rear wall of the café, which was also decorated with hexagons, an immediate connection to graphene.

But then, in my coffee cup, the significant crema on the coffee showed evidence of amazing thermal convective motion together with turbulence. The coffee itself was very sweet with nutty overtones but the movements of the crema reminded me of cloud formation in thunderstorms. Although thunderstorms didn’t make it to the thought train of MacIntyre, another form of surface motion suggested a connection to another, unusual, feature of this café. You see, MacIntyre is a cashless business, no cash is accepted even if you’re only buying a long black. Most customers on my visit paid with their contactless cards.

The idea of a cashless society is one that has obvious advantages for both the business and the government/economy (whether it has such obvious advantages for the consumer I will leave as a point to be debated). While some countries are attempting to move to a more cashless economy, for a business to be entirely cashless is somewhat innovative. Even though MacIntyre is not the only café to go cashless (Browns of Brockley is similarly cash free), it has to be one of the first cafés to do so.

What is the connection between this and the surface movement on my coffee? Well, it is not just at MacIntyre that a café has supported an innovation that has (or may) change our economy. Just over three hundred years ago, Jonathan’s Coffee House in Exchange Alley was a place of similar innovation, though there it was a customer rather than the coffee house itself that gave the change.

It was at Jonathan’s in 1698 that John Castaing published a paper twice a week detailing the latest stock prices titled “The course of the exchange and other things”. Recognised now as the origin of the London Stock Exchange, how stocks are priced and how their prices vary with time are subject to intense mathematical modelling. Although now, these models can be extraordinarily complex, the base of many of them share a mathematical model with the movements on the surface of your coffee cup, Brownian Motion.

Brownian motion is the phenomenon in which small particles of dust, or coffee grains on the surface of your coffee move in a random way as a result of collisions between the particles and the molecules in the liquid. First described in detail by a botanist, Robert Brown in 1827, the experimental evidence in favour of the molecular-collision explanation of Brownian motion came in 1910 with Jean Perrin’s careful experiments (that have featured in The Daily Grind previously). The maths behind the explanation relies on the idea of the ‘random walk‘ in which each dust particle is ‘kicked’ in a random direction by the molecules in the coffee, the consequent motion being frequently described with reference to a drunkard attempting to get home after leaving the pub. However, as this concept of the ‘random walk’ was being developed for molecules in a liquid, it was simultaneously being developed to model the movements of stock prices by the mathematician Louis Bachelier. Bachelier’s model of stock prices turned out to be the same as the model of Brownian motion, but both developed independently.

As yet, it is unclear (to me at least) whether there is a link between cashless payments and some of the maths in your coffee cup but, MacIntyre would be a great place to contemplate this as you sip your brew. Never succumb to prejudices, on which note please do let me know what you think of cashless payments, a great convenience or an invasion of privacy?

MacIntyre can be found at 428 St John St, EC1V 4NJ.