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A coffee balancing act

Coffee Corona

Sometimes you can infer the existence of a thin (white) mist over your coffee by the corona pattern around reflected light fittings.

Clouds of steam hover just above your brew, dancing on the surface in sharp, almost violent, sudden movements. You can see it almost every time you drink a long black, cup of tea or even a glass of hot water. But what on earth is going on?

Back in 2015, a paper by Umeki and others showed that these dancing white mists were levitating water droplets, a common manifestation of something that had been noticed in lab experiments a few years earlier. Hundreds of water droplets, each about 10 μm diameter (the size of the smallest grains in an espresso grind) somehow just hover above the coffee surface. You can read more about that study here. Yet there remain questions. How do the water droplets levitate? What causes those violent movements in the cloud? Can contemplating your coffee help to understand these questions?

To explore what is happening with the white mists, we need to view them in an environment that we can control so as to change one or other of the parameters in the ‘coffee’ and see what happens to the mists. And this is what Alexander Fedorets and co-workers have been doing for a few years now (even before the work of Umeki). What Fedorets has noticed is that when you heat a small area (about 1mm²) of a thin layer of liquid, it is not just possible to create these white mists, you can see the droplets levitating and they form hexagonal patterns of droplets. This is quite astonishing because whereas we are used to solids forming crystals (think of water and snowflakes for example), a formation of liquid droplets in a “self-organised” pattern is an unusual phenomenon.

floating, bouncing drops

You can stabilise much larger droplets of water (up to a couple of mm diameter) by vibrating the water surface. This is a very different phenomenon but is also an interesting effect you can create in your coffee.

Then we can ask, what is it that causes these droplets of water to levitate above the surface? According to a recent paper of Fedorets, the answer is indeed as simple (in the first approximation) as the fact that these droplets are in a delicate balance between being pulled into the coffee by gravity and pushed upwards by a stream of evaporating water molecules. This balance suggests that we can do a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation to estimate the size of the droplets and also to understand what happens when the coffee cools down. We start by thinking about the gravitational pull on the droplet, the force on that is just F↓ = mg (where g is the gravitational acceleration and m is the mass of the droplet) so, if we write this in terms of the density of water, ρ, and the radius, r, of the droplet:

F↓ = ρ (4/3)πr³.g

Similarly, we know how to calculate the upwards force on a particle created by a flow of liquid (steam). It is the same expression as Jean Perrin used to understand the layering of water colour paint in a droplet of water (which is the same as the layering of coffee in a Turkish coffee) and so proved experimentally Einstein and Langevin’s theories of Brownian Motion (which you can read about here). If the steam has a velocity U and the dynamic viscosity of the steam is given by μ, the upwards force given by the steam is:

F↑ = 6πμUr

For the droplet to ‘balance’ (or levitate) above the surface, F↓ = F↑ so with a bit of re-arrangement we get the radius of the droplet as given by:

r = √[9μU/(2ρg)]

Plugging in sensible numbers for μ (2×10^-5 kg/ms) and U (0.1 m/s), and using the density of water (10³ kg/m³) and g = 9.8 m/s² gives a radius for the droplet of 17 μm which fits very well with what is observed.

Rayleigh Benard cells in clouds

The white mists often seem to vanish as if they were sustained by Rayleigh Benard cells in the coffee. Rayleigh Benard cells can also be found in the clouds in the sky, in fact, anywhere where there is convection.
Image shows clouds above the Pacific. Image NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

But does the expression tell us anything else? Well, the radius is proportional to U; the velocity of the steam. So if you increase the temperature, you should increase the radius of the levitating droplets. This is exactly what is seen. Also, as the temperature of your coffee drops and there is less steam coming off the surface, it will become harder to stabilise these white mists; the mists will disappear as the coffee cools. This is something you can test for yourself: what is the optimum temperature at which to see the white mists (and drink your coffee)?

But the study by Fedorets showed something else. Something quite intriguing and perhaps relevant to your experience. Fedorets had stabilised the droplets on the surface by using an infra red laser and held them into a fixed area by only heating a small region of the liquid. In that sense the study is quite far from our physical experience with a coffee. But what Fedorets noticed was that these stabilised droplets grew with time. As the droplets grew, the bottom of the droplet got closer and closer to the liquid surface until, suddenly, the droplet collapsed into the liquid. This collapse caused a capillary wave on the water surface which is a small wave regulated by the surface tension of the water. And this wave then caused the surrounding droplets to collapse into the liquid interior. Because this happened very quickly (the wave travels at about 1m/s which is equivalent to a slow stroll at 3.6km/h), to us, looking at our coffee, it would appear that a violent storm has momentarily erupted over the surface of the white mists.

As the wavelength of a capillary wave is determined by the surface tension of the liquid, this suggests that if you change the surface tension of the coffee you may change the speed or perhaps the appearance of the collapse of these white mists. You can change the surface tension of your coffee by adding either soap or alcohol to your long black. Umeki did add a surfactant (to reduce the surface tension) and didn’t notice a significant difference to the speed of the wave but maybe other factors (such as temperature) were dominant in that experiment. It certainly seems a good excuse to investigate. Let me know if you experiment with your coffee and if the white mists move faster or slower in your Irish coffee compared with a morning V60, you may want to film the results if you intend to drink the coffee afterwards.

The work of Fedorets and of Umeki were both published under ‘open-access’ meaning that anyone can read them (without paying). You can read Umeki’s study here and Fedoret’s study here.

Creating movement at Kahaila, Brick Lane

coffee Brick Lane, against trafficking, women's project, charity

Kahaila on Brick Lane. A small shop front concealing a large interior.

It’s always great to find an independent café selling good coffee (and cake) while giving something back to the community. It’s a reason to seek out small businesses rather than chains. Kahaila café on Brick Lane absolutely falls into this category. Although I had visited Kahaila previously, on that occasion the beigels (almost) next door were ‘calling’ and I did not give this space the time it deserved. This time however, the beigel shop had come first allowing us plenty of time to sit and ponder in this spacious café.

I had an espresso (toffee notes) together with a raspberry topped vegan chocolate cake (confidently nut free). There were a large variety of alternative cakes on offer at the counter along with cold drinks should you want them in summer. The espresso was a very enjoyable accompaniment to the cake (or should the cake be an accompaniment to the coffee?). The large room at the back of the café offered plenty of seating and was well lit by sunlight streaming through a window built into the roof.

coffee cake, Kahaila, Brick Lane

Raspberry vegan chocolate cake with espresso. The blue cup can affect the way the coffee is experienced.

One thing that immediately makes this café different from many others, is the fact that there is a donation box on the wall. Information cards on the table tops explain that Kahaila works as a charity providing education and support to women prisoners, helping women who have experienced abuse or are vulnerable in other ways to learn skills in a bakery and also offering a safe house for women who have been victim to exploitation and trafficking. All in all a café in which it would be good to spend more time (if only it were closer!). And assuming that the cakes are from the bakery, it forms a giving-circle with some great bakes on offer.

The vegan chocolate cake was a case in point. Beautifully presented, balanced in taste, in a perfectly sized portion to enjoy with a coffee. Ordinarily cakes require butter and eggs, how did the bakers manage it? Of course, a recipe was not given at the counter, nor would it necessarily have been particularly helpful to answer the question. Because the answer, if one exists, is a mix of their experimentation with flavours and textures together with an advancing knowledge of what each cake ingredient does.

sugar in a jar, Kahaila

The way these sugar cubes stacked in the jar and the sugar granules at the bottom reminded me of something. I was not able to put my finger on what it was…

Consider the egg yolk. In addition to adding mouth feel and texture to the cake or biscuit, the yolk contains emulsifying agents, such as lecithin, which act to stabilise suspensions of oil in water¹. With a hydrophobic section at one end of the molecule and a hydrophilic section elsewhere, the presence of lecithin molecules in the mixture prevents droplets of oil from grouping together and coalescing so as to separate into oil/water layers. By experimenting with non-egg based lecithin, a baker can combine different flavours and textures to produce a vegan cake.

A few years ago, a somewhat similar problem was vexing materials scientists: how to remove toxic lead from piezoelectric devices. Piezoelectric devices expand or contract when they are subjected to an electric field. This makes them useful for moving mechanisms such as watches and even as a way to open/close hot water valves in coffee machines. The problem was that one of the best piezoelectric materials we had was lead zirconate titanate (or PZT for short). In order to make the PZT material, the lead had to be sourced in quite large quantities and yet, being toxic and environmentally damaging, it was considered advantageous (even necessary) to remove the lead.

doorway in Kahaila

A painted doorway inside Kahaila in combination with flowers in front suggests a thought train about the way bees see.

However, just like the egg yolk in cookie recipes, you cannot just remove it and produce the same sort of effect in the finished product. You need to understand what role the lead was playing in order to be able to substitute it properly and even then, the effect may not be as good as the original ingredient (without some tweaking elsewhere in the recipe also). Consequently a lot of research has been undertaken in order to find new piezoelectric materials and to understand them so as to optimise the piezoelectric effect. Partly this involves adding the new ingredients slowly to understand their role. Partly it involves changing the growth conditions (somewhat equivalent to the baking temperature) in the crystals that are made. Always it involves experimenting and understanding the role that different ingredients play in our final devices.

Research is still ongoing to find a good substitute for lead in piezoelectric devices. But it goes to show that there are many connections between diverse areas of our experience. Unlike research into piezoelectric materials though, the advantage in experimenting with cakes is that the test of the result is in the eating. Now to experiment with some biscuit recipes…

Kahaila is at 135 Brick Lane, E1 6SB

¹On Food and Cooking, the science and lore of the kitchen, Harold McGee




New findings in arabica…

coffee and Caffeine at Sharps

Things are not always as they seem. Speciality coffee helped scientists to develop a method for detecting fraud in coffee sold as 100% arabica. But how?

…or why adding chloroform to coffee can be a good idea.

Perhaps you remember a story from a few weeks ago that up to one in ten bags of “100% arabica ground coffee” on sale contained “substantial” amounts of robusta coffee?

The story suggested that, perhaps unsurprisingly, fraud is quite common in the coffee industry with cheaper robusta being substituted for the more coveted arabica in a substantial number of packs of pre-ground coffee. But how did the authors of the paper measure this and why did speciality coffee play an important role in the study?

The study used ¹H NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectroscopy to measure the concentration of a particular “finger print” chemical known as 16-O-methylcafestol or 16OMC for short. This aspect of the study was not new. The compound 16OMC was known to be found in robusta (Coffea canephora) while it had not been previously found in arabica (Coffea arabica) beans. It had therefore been considered an excellent marker chemical as to whether a sample of arabica beans had been contaminated with a cheaper robusta.

Previous studies had also used NMR to check for 16OMC but in those studies, they had used a conventional NMR machine and the data collection and analysis had taken a long time. It was also expensive, which meant that it had shortcomings as a technique for quickly investigating fraud within the industry.

The difference in this new report was that firstly, the scientific team investigating the coffees used an NMR machine that fits on a lab table-top: portable, commercially available, and so a possible tool to quickly detect fraud. But secondly, the authors ‘double brewed’ the coffee using chloroform. They first dissolved the ground coffee in chloroform which was filtered using filter paper and then dried and re-dissolved in fresh chloroform to produce a super-concentrated coffee-chloroform brew. This super-concentrated chloroform coffee enabled the authors to obtain a much better signal to noise ratio on the data and so improve the reliability of the detection of any rogue robusta.

neon sign, light emission

NMR uses the light emitted/absorbed from energy levels in atomic nuclei. An analogous effect causes light to be emitted/absorbed by energy levels in electrons. An effect you will have seen on many a high street in these neon signs.

But why could this group use a portable NMR machine whereas previous studies required far more expensive and bulky pieces of kit? NMR works because, just like electrons, atomic nuclei (protons, neutrons) have a property called spin. This spin gives rise to a magnetic moment which means that when you apply an external magnetic field to the sample, some nuclear magnetic moments are parallel, some perpendicular and some antiparallel to the applied field. Consequently, the different moments have different energies which, being on the atomic scale, are quantised meaning that they form discrete levels. This difference in discrete energy levels means that the nuclei will emit/absorb energy (i.e. light) at specific frequencies, which we can calculate. Moreover, the frequency is directly proportional to the applied magnetic field (because the larger the field, the bigger the energy difference between the levels): increase the field applied and you increase the resonance frequency of the nuclei.

But there is one more detail. The nuclei do not exist in isolation, they are affected by the chemical environment that they are in. So a proton in 16OMC will respond slightly differently to an applied magnetic field than a proton in say, water. Rather than be at the resonance frequency we have calculated, the frequency will shift as a consequence of the chemical environment surrounding the proton. As you may expect, this shift is small, but it is significant. It is partly because of this effect that NMR is such a fantastic tool for chemical analysis¹. Typically, the shift is of the order of parts-per-million from the non-shifted resonance frequency. So, in the coffee study discussed here, the interesting “fingerprint” peak is at 3.16ppm. Given that the machine was operating at 60MHz, this means that the scientists were looking at shifts of 189.6 Hz to the non-shifted resonance signal.

It seems sensible that the bigger the shift, the easier it would be to resolve these chemical fingerprints. To get the larger shift requires using a higher operating frequency which is exactly what more traditional NMR spectrometers used. However, given what we know about nuclear energy levels (above), a large energy level split (i.e. high operating frequency) requires a large magnetic field, and large magnetic fields require expensive and bulky pieces of kit. To put this all in perspective, the magnetic field of the Earth at its surface is (variable but around) 0.00005T. A fridge magnet has a field about 0.01T. Commercially available, small rare earth magnets can have fields about 0.3T. A 60 MHz NMR spectrometer looking at ¹H nuclei would need 1.5 T, higher frequency NMR spectroscopy would require still higher fields. The sort of magnetic fields that would be needed for the more traditional NMR technique therefore require large superconducting magnets which are bulky and require expensive cooling. Being able to use a lower frequency for such sensitive measurements is a significant engineering, as well as scientific, achievement.

Look carefully next time you add milk to your coffee. The ‘milk rings’ that can form offer an historical connection to understanding energy transitions in atoms as you can read about here.

So where does the speciality coffee come in? Well, it turns out that by measuring speciality coffee the team uncovered a surprising result: 16OMC was present in arabica beans too.

In order to calibrate the technique, the study had obtained traceable coffees known to be purely arabica or purely robusta. Some of these coffees were sourced from Ethiopia and were grown far away from any possible robusta hybridisation. They were speciality coffee. When the team measured these samples with their concentrated coffee extraction technique, they found that these too contained a small peak at 3.16ppm. Previous studies had missed this because it is such a small quantity. So, as well as determining a technique to quickly establish whether a given coffee on sale is fraudulently being marketed as 100% arabica, this new technique enabled the scientific community to learn something new about arabica. The coffee is more chemically rich than was realised.

If you would like to read more about the study, the authors have summarised it here as well as publishing the paper as open access (so you can download it for free) here. A summary of the results by the company that made the spectrometer can be found here. You can learn more about NMR spectroscopy online, or by obtaining a book from the library such as:

¹ Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy, Robin K Harris, Longman, (1983,1986)

Paradigm shifts at The Observatory, Marchmont St

lines on a table, parallax

An espresso using coffee from Redemption Roasters and a chocolate brownie. What more could you ask?

Many years ago, there was an aquatics shop on the site of what is now The Observatory, a combined photography gallery and coffee shop. Although there is plenty to see through this glass fronted café, you do not feel that you are in a goldfish bowl so much as that this is a space created for you to slow down and contemplate your surroundings. The large rooms and comfortably spaced tables do, of course, give the opportunity for people watching: when we visited, there were people working with their laptops on some tables while others were having business meetings. Then there are the photographs, currently (though only for a few more days), an exhibition of photographs from the 60s and 70s by John Bulmer.

The coffee is supplied by Redemption Roasters and I enjoyed a dark, toffee like espresso with a very good slice of a chocolate brownie (confidently nut free). Several types of milk are on offer for milk based coffee drinks as well as a selection of cold drinks, together with a wide variety of cakes. It is definitely a place to return to when in the area.

coffee the Observatory, TLR

Cakes on the counter at The Observatory. Note the twin lens reflex “camera” on the shelf behind the counter.

While waiting for my coffee, I noticed the grain of the wood in the table. Dark, almost parallel lines on a lighter wood. You can see it in the photograph. Looking around the café, such parallel lines were everywhere. Planks of wood lined the walls, vertical, parallel lines stretching up to the ceiling. In the room towards the back of the café, the ceiling also had parallel lines on it which, given I was viewing them from a distance, appeared to converge with the effect of perspective. It is difficult to know whether these effects were deliberate in a gallery/café so dedicated to an exploration of the visual but I like to think that the small twin lens reflex camera on a shelf (which sadly turned out to be a pencil sharpener on sale) was a nod to this idea shifting lines of sight and perspective.

By definition, two parallel lines are lines that will never meet, no matter how far the lines are extended. If they were to meet at any point, they would not be parallel. This offers a way of measuring the distance to stars as well as providing food for thought on our way of seeing our place in the universe. The idea is that of parallax. If you were to measure the relative position of a star against the background of stars at midnight in June, and then go back to measure the same star relative to the same background at midnight six months later in December, you may find that the star seemed to have moved. The amount it moves, its parallax, is determined by how close the star is to the earth (have a look at the diagram).

parallax and coffee

As the point of view moves around the Sun (represented here by a V60), the closest coffee bean appears to shift relative to the background coffee beans.
The lower two diagrams are an attempt to see things from the perspective of the Lego person separated by “6 months” distance.

Take as an example the star Sirius. Located relatively close to us at a mere 8.6 light year distance, Sirius has a parallax of 0.38 arc seconds or, equivalently, about 0.0002 of the angular diameter of the moon viewed from Earth¹. Stars that are further away are going to have an even smaller parallax until the parallax becomes so small as to be difficult to measure. Even for nearby stars such as Sirius, the small size of the effect meant that it wasn’t until 1838 that it was first measured. Which may be part of the reason that the theory of Aristarchus (310-230BCE) never caught on when it was proposed.

Aristarchus was an early proponent of the idea that the Earth went around the Sun (and not the other way around). The Greek’s realised that if Aristarchus was correct, there should be a parallax effect for the stars viewed at different times of the year (every 3 months)¹. Unfortunately, the Greeks also considered that the stars belonged to a thin shell, so effectively all the stars were at the same distance from the Earth. Consequently, the parallax effect that they looked for (if Aristarchus was correct) was for two stars on that shell to move first towards then away from each other as the Earth circled the Sun¹. They never observed this effect and so considered the heliocentric theory “inconsistent with observations”¹. Although we would now say that the fact that they didn’t observe any such shift is consistent with the huge distances to the stars (and therefore small shifts) involved, for the ancient Greeks it was a problem. As Archimedes commented, if Aristarchus’ theory had been true, it would mean that the universe was much bigger than they at that time thought.

Guardini has written about the effect on the human psyche of this changing idea of the universe and our own place in it (from the Greek’s idea of finite and limited, to finite with a God outside, to infinite and back towards finite but incredibly large). Do our ideas, our models, about the universe affect not only how we interpret the experimental evidence we see, but also our way of being, our behaviour towards our fellow humans and our planet?

Viewing things from a different angle, seeing the effect of a change of line of sight, it brings us right back to the photography in the gallery and the twin lens camera on the shelf. There are certainly many things to contemplate while enjoying a coffee at The Observatory. Which means a second espresso should definitely be a possibility.

You can view some street photography, including some photographed with a twin lens Microcord TLR camera on Artemisworks gallery here.

The Observatory is at 64 Marchmont St, WC1N 1AB

¹Astronomy, the evolving universe (6th edition), Michael Zeilik, John Wiley & Sons, 1991


Why politicians should drink loose leaf tea

Coffee Corona

Notice the rainbow pattern around the reflected light spot?
The universe is in a cup of coffee but to understand rising sea levels, it’s helpful to look at tea.

The universe is in a glass of wine. So said Richard Feynman. It has been the focus of this website to concentrate instead on the universe in a cup of coffee, partly because it is much easier to contemplate a coffee over breakfast. However there are times when contemplating a cup of tea may be far more illuminating. Such was the case last week: if only a politician had paused for a cup of tea before commenting on rising sea levels.

There are many reasons to drink loose leaf tea rather than tea made with a bag. Some would argue that the taste is significantly improved. Others, that many tea bags contain plastic and so, if you are trying to reduce your reliance on single-use plastic, loose leaf tea is preferable. Until last week though, it had not occurred to me that brewing a cup of tea with a mesh ball tea infuser (or a similar strainer) was a great way to understand the magnitude of our problem with rising sea levels. If a stone were to enter a pond, the pond-level would rise; if a spherical tea strainer (full of loose leaf tea) were to be placed in a cup, the soon-to-be-tea level would rise.

Clearly, because we know our physics, we would not place a strainer of tea into an existing cup of hot water as we know the brewing process relies on diffusion and turbulence, not just diffusion alone. So what we more commonly observe in the cup is actually a tea-level fall as we remove the straining ball. Fortunately, we can calculate the tea level decrease, h:

A schematic of the tea brewing process

My cylindrical tea mug has a radius (d) of 3.5cm. The radius (r) of the mesh ball is 2cm. We’ll assume that the tea leaves completely expand filling the mesh ball so that the ball becomes a non-porous sphere. Clearly this bit is not completely valid and would anyway create a poor cup of tea, but it represents a worst-case scenario and so is good as a first approximation.

Volume of water displaced = volume of mesh ball

πd²h = (4/3)πr³

A bit of re-arrangement means that the height of the tea displaced is given by

h = 4r³/(3d²)

h = 0.87 cm

This answer seems quite high but we have to remember that the mesh ball is not completely filled with tea and so the volume that it occupies is not quite that of the sphere. Moreover, when I check this answer experimentally by making a cup of tea, the value is not unreasonable. Removing the mesh-ball tea strainer does indeed lead to a significant (several mm) reduction in tea level.

Earth from space, South America, coffee

Assuming we are truly interested in discovering more about our common home, we can gain a lot through contemplating our tea.
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

What does this have to do with politicians? Last week a congressman from Alabama suggested that the observed rising sea levels could be connected with the deposition of silt onto the sea bed from rivers and the erosion of cliffs such as the White Cliffs of Dover. If only he had first contemplated his tea. Using a “back of the envelope” calculation similar to that above, it is possible to check whether this assertion is reasonable. As the surface area of the oceans is known and you can estimate a worst-case value for the volume of the White Cliffs falling into the sea, you can calculate the approximate effect on sea levels (as a clue, in order to have a significant effect, you have to assume that the volume of the White Cliffs is roughly equal to the entire island of Great Britain).

Mr Brooks comments however do have another, slightly more tenuous, connection with coffee. His initial suggestion was that it was the silt from rivers that was responsible for the deposition of material onto the sea bed that was in turn causing the sea level to rise. About 450 years ago, a somewhat similar question was being asked about the water cycle. Could the amount of water in the rivers and springs etc, be accounted for by the amount of rain that fell on the ground? And, a related question, could the amount of rain be explained by the amount of evaporation from the sea?

The initial idea that the answer to both of those questions was “yes” and that together they formed the concept of the “water cycle” was in part due to Bernard Palissy. Palissy is now known for his pottery rather than his science but he is the author of a quote that is very appropriate for this case:

“I have had no other book than the heavens and the earth, which are known to all men, and given to all men to be known and read.”

Reflections on a cup of tea.

Attempts to quantify the problem and see if the idea of the water cycle was ‘reasonable’ were made by Pierre Perrault (1608-80) in Paris and Edmond Halley (1656-1742) in the UK. Perrault conducted a detailed experiment where he measured the rain fall over several years in order to show that the amount of rain could account for the volume of water in the Seine. Halley on the other hand, measured the amount of evaporation from a pan of heated water and used this value to estimate the evaporation rate from the Mediterranean Sea. He then estimated the volume of water flowing into that sea from a comparison to the flow of the water in the Thames at Kingston. Together (but separately) Perrault and Halley established that there was enough water that evaporated to form rain and that this rain then re-supplied the rivers. Both sets of calculations required, in the first place, back of the envelope type calculations, as we did above for the tea-levels, to establish if the hypotheses were reasonable.

If you missed the coffee connection, and it was perhaps quite easy to do so, the question that Halley studied concerned the rate of evaporation as a function of the water’s temperature. This is something that is well known to coffee drinkers. Secondly however, one of Halley’s experiments about the evaporating water was actually performed at a meeting of the Royal Society. It is known that after such meetings, the gathered scientists would frequently adjourn to a coffee house (which may have been the Grecian or, possibly more likely, Garraways). As they enjoyed their coffee would they have discussed Halley’s latest results and contemplated their brew as they did so?

What this shows is that sometimes it is productive to contemplate your coffee or think about your tea. Notice what you observe, see if you can calculate the size of the effect, consider if your ideas about the world are consistent with your observations of it. But in all of it, do pause to slow down and enjoy your tea (or coffee).

Bright Lights at Bloomsbury Coffee House

Bloomsbury coffee house sign

A wooden sign advertising a coffee house. What makes a modern coffee house?

The coffee houses of the eighteenth century were places where ideas were debated, new innovations created and, of course, coffee consumed. What would a modern day equivalent look like?

Bloomsbury Coffee House is in a basement on Tavistock Place. It is ideally located close to a few universities and was busy but not crowded when we arrived one afternoon during the week. There are two large rooms forming the café with several tables and artwork dotted around the room. In the warmer months, there are also a couple of tables outside in the little terraced area by the steps leading down to the basement. Many people inside that day were on laptops (there is free wifi), some were involved in conversation either with each other or through the laptop. Presentations were being discussed, new ideas bounced around. It is possible that sometimes, when thinking about past coffee houses we can be tempted to focus on what has been lost (in terms of conversation and debate) rather than what has been retained in a modern manifestation (such as idea creation and discussion via Skype, from within the coffee house). At the Bloomsbury Coffee House that day I had an espresso (Allpress) and a cinnamon bun while there were also a variety of milks on offer for other espresso based drinks. These were all a significant improvement on the coffee that was served in the establishments of the past.

lattice structures ceiling bloomsbury coffee house

A 2D square lattice pattern on the ceiling. But what is the smallest repeating pattern that you can see? Is it centred on the large squares or the small squares?

Each table was individual, some reminding me of old school desks, while the ceiling was plastered with a 2D square lattice pattern. Staring at the ceiling, prompted the question, was it the large squares or the small squares that formed the repeating unit of the structure? Quickly this made me think about Polonium. When thinking about how atoms form 3D crystal structures, we sometimes naively draw a cube with an atom at each corner. In fact, this arrangement (the simple cubic structure) is quite unstable (try stacking oranges on top of each other so they form a cube) and, for elements that do form into cubic crystal structures, a more common form of base unit is a so-called face centred or body centred cubic. One element that does form a simple cubic structure though is polonium, an element that is probably more famous for being the poison used in the Litvinenko case a few years ago.

However, an alternative train of thought was suggested by the blackboard on one of the walls of the room. A colourful message announced that the Bloomsbury Coffee House had won a Time Out Love London award. The writing, in red and blue, was a little tricky to read from the back of the room. With the lighting, the red appeared slightly brighter and more visible than the blue. Perhaps coincidentally, this is the correct way round (in terms of order of brightness) for an odd optical effect that happens as the light fades towards evening (and, in a connected manner, why it is hard to find a matching pair of socks in the dark).

writing on the wall

The blackboard at Bloomsbury Coffee House

In order to ‘see’, the eye uses a series of cells called rods and cones. The rods are the more light sensitive and more plentiful (there are more than 100 million in a human eye) but they do not have any mechanism to detect colour. Instead, they show a good response over the entire visible range with a peak response rate at ~507 nm¹ which corresponds to a blue wavelength. The cones by contrast give us the ability to discern colour. We have blue, green and red sensitive cones which show responses that peak in the blue, green and red parts of the visible spectrum respectively. The problem with the cones is that they do not respond very well in low level lighting conditions. Hence, during the day, in normal lighting conditions, the cones are active and our eyes (usually) show a peak response to yellow-green light at 555 nm. As the light falls and twilight and darkness comes in, the cones cease to work leaving only the rods so our eye’s peak response shifts to light with a blue wavelength. Subsequently, a bright red rose seen during the day may appear dimmer than the green leaves in the evening. A sea of blue and red flowers may shift from appearing bright red to bright blue as night falls.

Unfortunately, Bloomsbury Coffee House closes at 6pm which, during summer, is too early for us to see whether we can see this effect ourselves. But if you are lucky enough to have access to a garden or park where there are red flowers and are able to sit and watch them as night falls, do observe and see if you can see this shift in apparent brightness for yourself.

Bloomsbury Coffee House is at 20 Tavistock Place, WC1H 9RE

¹The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol I

Strumming along on a coffee

coffee at Watch House

What links a coffee to a guitar amplifier?

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.

thermometer in a nun mug

Hot coffee evaporates more. Something that Halley had noticed in his experiments at the Royal Society

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

Getting to the point at Sharps

coffee and Caffeine at Sharps

Coffee at Sharps Coffee Bar.

There will be plenty to notice at any café that shares space with a barber’s shop. And so it was the case at Sharps Coffee Bar on Windmill Street. The café is at the front of the barber’s shop which is separated from the tables by a glass wall: people watching in a type of human goldfish bowl. The counter was on the left of the shop as we walked in and it was great to see that in addition to the usual espresso based drinks there was an aeropress coffee available (as well as batch brew). Given the chemistry of pre-brewed coffee, I tend to pass on batch brews though I am aware that there are many people who enjoy speciality coffee who will disagree with me. However, given that the barista on the day was “still perfecting” his aeropress recipe, I enjoyed instead a long black prepared with The Barn roasted beans.

The sign in the window suggested that “maintenance matters” which is something that I am sure that we can all agree on, whether it is on haircuts, coffee equipment or even equipment in a science lab. A stitch in time saves nine so they say. On the board listing the prices, it was good to see that Sharps coffee bar mentioned the use of almond milk. Although personally I generally drink black coffees, cross contamination can be an issue for allergy sufferers and so it is always helpful to be alert to the use of nut-based milks when they are used (you can read more here). Edibles were supplied by Kaffeine. Behind the bar there were a couple of trough-like sinks while the contrast in the wood and the tiling on either side of the bar provided another avenue of thought.

cacti in a row

Sign, window and cacti at Sharps Coffee Bar

In the window, a row of cacti caught my attention. Cacti seem known for two things. One is that they are (generally) prickly and the other that they are extremely water efficient.  But these two facts can also apparently be linked. Some cacti use their spikes or hairs to change the local atmosphere around them so that air is trapped in the hair or that air flow is reduced. Both of these measures would help to prevent water loss from the main body of the plant. It is an example of the structure of something affecting the environment around it. Similar effects can be seen on the hairs on a spiders legs which trap air allowing the spiders to survive if they are submerged as well as to waterproof the legs in more general times. Some plants similarly use hairs (and therefore the air trapped in them) to waterproof their leaves. The benefit of this for the plant is that waterproof leaves mean that drops of water roll off of them causing the leaves to be self-cleaning. This is an effect that people are trying to mimic in order to make self-cleaning surfaces for human use.

View of St Paul's Cathedral London

There is a whispering gallery in the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. An interplay between sound waves and the shape/size of the dome.

Structures can also be used to trap sound waves either deliberately with meta-materials or, almost accidentally such as the whispering galleries of cathedral domes. Moreover the hairs themselves can act as part of a sound detection system. Human ears for example have tiny hairs in the cochlea. As a sound comes in and these hairs vibrate, the movement of these hairs gets converted to a nerve impulse that we can eventually ‘hear’. Perhaps this could take us into a consideration of what hearing is, what sound is and, in a Berkeley-type way whether we actually experience anything outside of ourselves at all. However, more directly it takes us back to the barber’s shop and how evolution has resulted in a wide variety of structural adaptations that allow different life forms to live optimally in their environment.

And with that, it would probably be time to sit back and enjoy another coffee.

Sharps coffee bar is at 9 Windmill Street, W1T 2JF

Tales from the worm bin

the cup before the worm bin

How it all began.
“Completely compostable”
But how compostable is it?

It is hard to believe but it was one year ago this week that the composting experiment that became #willitcompost started. The idea was to test just how “compostable” a coffee cup described as “completely compostable” really was. The problem is that “compostable” has a legal definition but it is not one that you or I may immediately recognise. Legally for a take-away coffee cup to be described as compostable it has to completely disappear within 6 months in an industrial composting facility. Industrial composting is quite different from home composting. In the former, the temperature is kept at (58±2)ºC while in my composting worm bin, it can get very cold indeed.

As has been written about elsewhere, in the absence of better industrial composting facilities, there is very little virtue involved by swapping a disposable cup for a compostable one, to combat the problem of waste it would be far better to remember your re-usable. However, what if you had a composting bin at home? How long would it take the cup to compost? And even, would it compost?

So every week for the past 52 weeks, I have posted a photo of the cup, composting away, in the worm bin. It seems clear that although it will eventually compost, more than 52 weeks is a long time to wait and not practical if you are drinking multiple take-away coffees.


51 weeks later, the lining and part of the rim of the cup are still in the worm bin. Clearly the worms have better things to eat.

In the meanwhile, other questions have been raised. What about other coffee packaging such as the bags for roasted coffee beans? What about the compostable “glasses”? Can anything be done to speed up the composting of the cup?

Last month, the opportunity came to start a new experiment testing these questions. A compostable coffee roasting bag from Amoret Coffee (which was reviewed on Bean Thinking here) was placed in the second shelf of the worm bin together with a cup, a compostable “glass” and a section of food packaging. The cup and the ‘glass’ were cut in half before being placed in the worm bin. One half of each was left as it was but the other half was soaked in (initially boiling) water for 12 hours. The idea of this was that part of the problem that has slowed the composting of the original cup was the lining that is designed to hold hot liquids without leaking. If we could somehow weaken that lining before placing it in the worm bin, perhaps the composting process would be accelerated?


A roasted coffee bag, a cup (split in two, see main text), a compostable glass and some food packaging, but will they compost?

Starting in late March provides the best chance of a quick composting process due to a particular aspect of worm behaviour. Although the composting worms will continue to eat the waste put into the composting bin throughout the winter, they do slow down quite a lot. If you have a worm bin, you may notice that the amount of waste that you can put into the bin decreases during the winter months. On the other hand, as the weather improves, the worms seem to eat everything very quickly so, to provide the best conditions for composting, the weather has to be reliably warm (or at least, not freezing).

Rather than once a week, updates will be approximately once per month both on social media and in the Bean Thinking newsletter. So keep your eyes on #talesfromthewormbin on twitter or subscribe to the newsletter. Do we really take our environmental responsibility seriously by using compostable packaging or, ultimately, is a more radical approach to waste, single use packaging and consumerism necessary?

Pushing it at Lever and Bloom, Bloomsbury

Lever Bloom coffee

Lever and Bloom under a blue sky.

Does a take-away need to be rushed? A coffee so quick that there is ‘not enough time to prepare a flat white’? Are we always so preoccupied with the distractions of our day that we consume our coffee merely for the pleasant caffeine kick that it provides?

Lever and Bloom in Bloomsbury is a great example of why this does not have to be, indeed should not be the case. Since 2015, Lever and Bloom have been operating out of a cart on Byng Place close to UCL and a number of other research institutes. The character of the surroundings really does affect the space and both times I have been to Lever and Bloom I have either met interesting people in the queue or overheard snippets of intriguing conversation about history I know nothing about.

Coffee Bloomsbury reusable coffee cup

Long black in a keep-cup and telephone box in Byng Place.

It is easy to spot the coffee cart in the corner. Firstly, it is bright red and quite eye catching but secondly because of the queue forming in front of it. Don’t be put off though, the queue moves very quickly so you won’t wait long even if you are in a rush. Queueing however does give you an opportunity to peer into the cart. Space is used extremely efficiently. with each piece of equipment  apparently having its own perfect home. It reminded me of a childhood game of trying to fit in as many objects as possible into a matchbox. A cabinet on the table in front of the cart displays cakes including cinnamon rolls (sadly sold out by the time I arrived in the afternoon). It was also nice to see the number of people ahead of me in the queue who were using re-usable cups.

The lever of the name refers to the (Izzo Pompei) lever espresso machine that is used on the cart. It was fascinating to watch the ground beans being carefully tamped and the lever being pulled to prepare the espresso. Although there is some debate as to the optimum water pressure needed for preparing an espresso, the standard pressure is 9 Bar; water is pushed through the tamped grinds at nine times the atmospheric pressure at sea level. Watching these espressos being prepared reminded me of preparing ceramic samples of an interesting magnetic material a few years ago. We were interested in the electrical properties of a class of materials called manganites. To prepare the materials for measurement we first had to grind the pre-cursor powders (but with a pestle and mortar, no burr grinders) and then, after a couple of further preparatory steps, press them into a pellet ready for firing in the oven. The machine used for pressing the pellets had a lever, not dissimilar to that on the espresso machines and yet, the pressure that we used for the pellets was roughly 1000 Bar. This high pressure was needed so that dense pellets of manganite material would be formed when we heated it in the oven (typically at 1200 ºC). Just as a good espresso depends on the pressure and then the temperature and time of extraction, so the properties of the pellet would be affected by the pressure and then temperature and time of firing in the oven.

Portland Stone fossils

Fossils in Portland Stone. It is astonishing what is revealed when you slow down and notice the buildings around you.

Similar effects affect the rocks of the earth, something that is particularly visible in the area around Lever and Bloom. A geological walking tour around Byng Place, Tottenham Court Road and towards the British Museum illustrates this particularly well. Behind Lever and Bloom, the church of Christ the King is built from Bath Stone. An oolitic limestone, this type of rock is formed of compressed sand and bits of shell. Much as the manganite samples of my study before they were fired in the oven but of a more interesting colour. Heading towards Gower St and the impressive UCL building is made of Portland Stone. Another limestone, this building material is a goldmine for urban fossil explorers. Continuing the walk, on Tottenham Court Road, the Mortimer Arms pub is fronted by quartzite while Swedish Green Marble adorns 90 Tottenham Court Road. Quartzite and Marble are both types of metamorphic rock, formed by pressing together different precursor materials at high pressure and temperature. Other types of marble can be seen on the tour, suggesting the influence of pressure and temperature of formation on the rock structure as well as the type of precursor rock.

It would seem that such a walking tour is perfectly timed for a longer style of coffee, perhaps a latte (in a re-usable cup of course) from such a centrally located place as Lever and Bloom. And of course, assuming you are using a re-usable, there is even more to ponder. The pressure and temperature during the manufacture of the re-usable cup would have affected the properties of the cup (or in my case, glass).

Let me know if you spot any interesting rocks or fossils during your time at Lever and Bloom but whatever you do, I hope that you can enjoy your coffee and then slow down to enjoy it a bit more.

Lever and Bloom is at Byng Place, WC1E 7JJ