Coffee cup science

Coffee and science: a problem shared?

coffee and Caffeine at Sharps

What is the future of coffee? Science? Our society? Are these things held together more closely than we imagine?

There is a lot of science in coffee (and a lot of coffee in science). And there are also many scientists who are keen coffee drinkers and vice versa. But is there more in common between these two fields than even this? Could a shared problem be hiding a different (shared) problem?

One issue for coffee drinkers is reliability and reproducibility. How can we ensure that we get a good cup each time we visit a café or brew our own? In a similar way, how do we ensure that our experimental results in science are correct and reproducible? It is a fairly fundamental tenet of science that an experiment should be able to be reproduced in another lab with similar equipment. The suggestion is that this is not always happening, we have a ‘reliability’ problem in science (and sometimes in coffee).

A possible solution, in both fields, is some form of automation. In the world of coffee this is quite obviously just by making coffee via a machine. There have been several attempts to make reproducibly good coffee using an automated pour over machine. In the world of experimental science, it is not quite so clearly an automation process but is described instead as “data sharing”. The results of all experiments, or at least those that are published, should be shared (uploaded with the published paper) so that others can examine the data in more detail and form their own conclusions†.

For both coffee and science, it is suggested that this opening up of our process so that it is more transparent or reliable, will increase the reproducibility of good results and, crucially, mean that we get those results faster. We will get reproducibly good coffee without having to queue so long in the morning; we will make discoveries more quickly and have faster progress in science.

It seems that the problem that we thought we had, reproducibility, is perhaps not the one that we are actually aiming to solve. The problem we seem to be interested in is ensuring faster progress.

coffee under the microscope

We can look at coffee under the microscope (here are two different coffees ground to the same degree). But do we need to look more closely at the process of making good coffee or of doing science?

But an emphasis on faster progress can undermine our initial ideal of a reproducibly good result. For scientific research the emphasis on getting results quickly (at least within the time frame of the science funding cycle) has led to predictable problems. There are cases that I know about where results that were contrary to those that were wanted were suppressed. Not permanently. No, that would be demonstrably scientific fraud. No, suppressed just long enough for the first ‘ground breaking’ paper to be published. Then, after a suitable length of time, the second paper showing the problems with the first can follow up. Those involved get two papers (at least), and rapid progress is shown to be happening in the field. Would data transparency help here? Clearly not, because the initial set of data would still be suppressed until it was wanted those few months later.

What we need is a change in the structure of how science is done. We need to value scientific integrity and so trust that other scientists do too. We know that the current situation whereby promotions, funding etc are determined by the number of papers in ‘good’ journals, can act to undermine scientific integrity. This needs to change if the reliability issue is to be addressed. In the type of case described above, there would be no consequences for the people who kept their names on the paper(s) published. The only consequences would be if anyone refused to have their name on the paper as they knew it was misleading. And even then, the consequences would be to that person/those people in terms of their CV, and publication list, not those who published the paper and of course, shared the data.

coffee at Watch House

A good pour over takes time.
What are we looking for in coffee, in science? Is progress an aim of itself?

For the coffee, there are already discussions about whether the increase in throughput offered by automated coffee brewing techniques really contributes to the coffee experience that the cafés are trying to encourage. Can we really expect someone to slow down, take in the aroma, the mouthfeel, the taste and flavour if we rush the cup through to them on a production line? Isn’t part of the enjoyment of something to have to wait for it (hence lent before Easter; fasting before a feast)?

It is not that automation necessarily is bad. We can get a genuinely all round good coffee in a café that utilises a machine based pour over (perhaps). We can also get genuinely reproducible data in a situation where data is routinely shared. It’s just that data sharing does not solve the reproducibility problem, nor does automation give us continually good coffee. What makes the difference is a café that cares about the product that they are serving; scientists that care about the integrity of the research that they are doing. Automation processes give us faster results, they do not, automatically, give us better science (coffee).

Moreover, our desire for faster progress obscures questions that we should be asking if we slowed down a little. What is a good coffee experience? Who (if anyone) should own the scientific data shared? Is our desire for good coffee, quickly and (relatively) cheaply obtained, an aspect of that consumerism that is damaging for the planet’s ecological health? How much do we need to trust each other (and take responsibility for our own integrity) for our society, including our scientific society, to function? Is faster progress in and of itself, a “good” to aim for?

And perhaps, there is a final, more fundamental question. Have we become so accustomed to seeing ourselves and our work as merely a cog in a machine that we have become inured to the dehumanisation of society which seems to us almost natural and itself progress? Is this what we want for society?

The process of making a good cup of coffee indeed shares many things with the process of doing science. Perhaps this should not be surprising, both are practises embedded in our society. Certainly our view of the society that we live in can be informed by slowing down with our coffee as we enjoy a little science (or should that be the other way round)?

 

†It is not quite an automation process in the sense that the data is taken by a machine and then uploaded. However, it is still a dehumanisation process. At the root of the concept is the idea that the human experimenter can be taken out of the process. I would be happy to expand on this in the comments but for the sake of readability haven’t done so here.

Telling the time with an Aeropress?

Aeropress bloom, coffee in an Aeropress

The first stage of making coffee with an Aeropress is to immerse the coffee grind in the water. Here, the plunger is at the bottom of the coffee.

On occasion, it takes a change in our routine for us to re-see our world in a slightly different way. And so it was that when there was an opportunity to borrow an Aeropress together with a hand grinder, I jumped at it. Each morning presented a meditative time for grinding the beans before the ritual of preparing the coffee by a different brew method. Each day became an opportunity to think about something new.

Perhaps it is not as immediately eye catching as the method of a slow pour of water from a swan necked kettle of a V60, and yet making coffee using the Aeropress offers a tremendously rich set of connections that we could ponder and contemplate if we would but notice them. And it starts with the seal. For those who may not be familiar with the Aeropress, a cylindrical ‘plunger’ with a seal tightly fits into a plastic cylinder (brew guide here). The first stage of making a coffee with the Aeropress is to use the cylinder to brew an ‘immersion’ type coffee, exactly as with the French Press (but here, the plunger is on the floor of the coffee maker). Then, after screwing a filter paper and plastic colander to the top of the cylinder and leaving the coffee to brew for a certain amount of time, the whole system is ‘inverted’ onto a mug where some coffee drips through the filter before the rest is forced out using the plunger to push the liquid through the coffee grind.

clepsydra creative commons license British Museum

A 4th century BC Ptolemaic clepsydra in the British Museum collection. Image © Trustees of the British Museum

Immediately perhaps your mind could jump to water clocks where water was allowed to drip out of two holes at the bottom of a device at a rate that allowed people to time certain intervals. It is even suggested that Galileo used such a “clepsydra” to time falling bodies (though I prefer the idea that he sang in order to time his pendulums). With many holes in the bottom of the device and an uneven coffee grind through which the water (coffee) flows, the Aeropress is perhaps not the best clock available to us now. However there is another connection between the Aeropress and the clepsydra that would take us to a whole new area of physics and speculation.

When the medieval thinker Adelard of Bath was considering the issue of whether nature could sustain a vacuum, he thought about the issue of the clepsydra¹. With two holes at the bottom and holes at the top for air, the clepsydra would drip the water through the clock at an even rate. Unless of course the holes at the top were blocked, in which case the water stopped dripping, (a similar thing can be observed when sealing the top of a straw). What kept the water in the jar when the top hole was blocked? What kept it from following its natural path of flowing downwards? (gravity was not understood at that point either). Adelard argued that it was not ‘magic’ that kept the water in when no air could go through, something else was at work.

What could be the explanation? Adelard argued that the universe was full of the four elements (air, water, fire, earth) which are “so closely bound together by natural affection, that just as none of them would exist without the other, so no place is empty of them. Hence it happens, that as soon as one of them leaves its position, another immediately takes its place… When, therefore, the entrance is closed to that which is to come in, it will be all in vain that you open an exit for the water, unless you give an entrance to the air….”²

inverted Aeropress and coffee stain

The Aeropress inverted onto a coffee cup before the plunger is pushed down. Complete with coffee stain behind the cup where the inversion process went awry.

Now, we would argue that whether the water flows down and out of the Aeropress, or not, depends on the balance of forces pushing the water down and those pushing it up. The forces pushing the water down and out of the clepsydra, or Aeropress, are gravity and the air pressure above the water in the cylinder. Pushing it up, it is only the air pressure from below. Ordinarily, the air pressure above and that below the water in the Aeropress are quite similar, gravity wins the tug of war and the water flows out. In an enclosed system however (if the holes at the top are blocked), were the water to flow out of the bottom, the air pressure above the coffee space would reduce. This makes sense because, if no new air gets in, the same amount of air that we had before now occupies a larger volume as the water has left it, the pressure exerted by that air will have to be less than before. A reduced air pressure means a reduced force on the water pushing it down through the filter and so the force pushing the water down can now be perfectly balanced by the force (from the surrounding air) pushing the water up: the water remains in the Aeropress. The only way we get the coffee out is to change the balance of forces on the water which means pushing down the plunger.

But perhaps it is worth stepping back and imagining what the consequences could be of having the idea that the universe was just full of something that had to be continuous. You may find it quite reasonable for example to consider that vortices would form behind and around the planets as they travelled in their circular orbits through this ‘something’*. Such vortices could explain some of the effects of gravity that we observe and so there would perhaps be no urgency to develop a gravitational theory such as the one we have. There would be other consequences, the world of vacuum physics and consequently of electronics would be significantly set back. In his lecture for the Carl Sagan Prize for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science, The Director of the Vatican Observatory, Br Guy Consolmagno SJ explored previous scientific ideas that were almost right, which “is to say wrong” (You can see his lecture “Discarded Worlds: Astronomical Worlds that were almost correct” here) If it is true that so many scientific theories lasted so long (because they were almost correct) but were in fact wrong, how many of our scientific ideas today are ‘almost correct’ too?

It makes you wonder how our preconceptions of the world affect our ability to investigate it. And for that matter, how our ability to contemplate the world is affected by our practise of doing so. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For that to be true, the beholder has to open their eyes, look, contemplate and be prepared to be shown wrong in their preconceptions.

What connections do you make to your coffee brew each morning? I’d love to know, here in the comments, on Twitter or over on Facebook.

 

* Does a connection between this and stirring your freshly brewed Aeropress coffee with a teaspoon trailing vortices stretch the connectivity a bit too far?

¹ “Much Ado about Nothing: Theories of space and vacuum from the Middle Ages to the Scientific Revolution”, Edward Grant, Cambridge University Press, (1981)

² Quoted from Adelard of Bath’s “Quaestiones Naturales” taken from Much Ado about nothing, page 67.

A shocking coffee connection

There have been some fantastic thunderstorms in London lately. Perhaps nothing to rival thunderstorms in the tropics but for this region of the world they were quite impressive. One lightning storm in particular came very close. Thank goodness for lightning conductors! Perhaps the connection between lightning storms and coffee is not obvious. But maybe this is because you mop up your coffee spillages too quickly.

Reynolds, rain, waves, pond, raining

There are so many coffee-physics connections with rain and weather. It’s worth looking out for more.

The link is in the mess and the maths. It turns out that the maths describing water evaporating out of a drying coffee droplet is the same, in one crucial detail, as the maths describing the electric fields around a lightning conductor. If we want to see why this may be, we need to get a little bit messy and spill some coffee.

The question is how do coffee rings form? We know that to start with the solids in the coffee are distributed fairly evenly throughout the drink. It is the same when you spill it, initially a spilled drop of coffee looks like, well, coffee. But if you wait as this spilled coffee dries, you will find that a ring starts to form around the edge of the drop. How? How does a uniform coffee distribution when the drop is first spilled become a ring of coffee solids around the edge of the dried drop?

coffee ring, ink jet printing, organic electronics

Why does it form a ring?

A number of different aspects of physics feed into this problem but the one that is relevant to the lightning conductors concerns how the water in the drop evaporates. If you think about how a water molecule escapes (evaporates from) the droplet, it is not going to go shooting off like a rocket blasted out from the drop. Instead it will take a step out the drop then encounter a molecule in the air and get deflected to a slightly different path and again, and again, and so on. It follows the same sort of “random walk” that we know that the bits of dust on a coffee surface follow (and the same sort of random walk that provides a link between coffee and the movements of the financial stock exchange but that is a whole other topic).

Now think about the shape of that spilled coffee drop. If a water molecule were to evaporate from the top of the dome of the drop, it has a certain probability of escaping but it also, because its path is random, has a certain probability of re-entering the droplet. A water molecule at the edge of the droplet however will have a lower probability of re-entering the droplet purely on the basis that there isn’t so much of the droplet around it. Over many molecules and many ‘escape attempts’, this lower probability of re-absorption will translate to a higher flux of water molecules evaporating from the droplet at the edges. The water will evaporate ‘more quickly’ from the edge of the droplet than from the top of it.

artemisdraws, evaporating droplet

As the water molecules leave the droplet, they are more likely to escape if they are at the edge than if they are at the top. Image © @artemisworks

When this is written mathematically, the rate of evaporating water is related to the contact angle between the drop and the surface. The shallower the angle, the higher the rate of evaporation or equivalently, the greater the ‘flux’. It is this mathematical expression that is the same as for the lightning conductor if, rather than refer to an evaporating water flux we refer to an electric field. So the more pointy the conductor, the greater the field concentration around it. A shocking example of the idea that everything is connected.

Of course, there is much more to the coffee ring than this with physics that relates coffee rings to bacterial colonies, burning cigarette papers and soap boats. If you are interested, you can read more about how coffee rings form (including why a higher evaporation rate helps lead to a coffee ring effect) here. If on the other hand you want some well justified thinking time, go spill some coffee and watch as the coffee dries.

Drip coffee

The universe is in a cup of coffee. But how many connections to different bits of physics can you find in the time it takes you to prepare a V60? We explore some of those links below while considering brewing a pour-over, what more do you see in your brew?

1. The Coffee Grinder:

coffee at VCR Bangsar

Preparing a V60 pour over coffee. How many connections can you find?

The beans pile on top of each other in the hopper. As the beans are ground, the bean pile shrinks along slipping layers. Immediately reminiscent of avalanches and landslides, understanding how granular materials (rocks & coffee beans) flow over each other is important for geology and safety. Meanwhile, the grinding itself produces a mound of coffee of slightly varying grain size. Shaking it would produce the brazil nut effect, which you can see on you breakfast table but is also important to understand the dynamics of earthquakes.

Staying at the grinding stage, if you weigh your coffee according to a brew guide, it is interesting to note that the kilogram is the one remaining fundamental unit that is measured with reference to a physical object.

2. Rinsing the filter paper:

V60 chromatography chemistry kitchen

A few hours after brewing pour over, a dark rim of dissolved coffee can be seen at the top of the filter paper. Chromatography in action.

While rinsing the filter we see the process of chromatography starting. Now critical for analytical chemistry (such as establishing each of the components of a medicine), this technique started with watching solutes ascend a filter paper in a solvent.

Filtration also has its connections. The recent discovery of a Roman-era stone sarcophagus in the Borough area of London involved filtering the excavated soil found within the sarcophagus to ensure that nothing was lost during excavation. On the other hand, using the filtered product enabled a recent study to concentrate coffee dissolved in chloroform in order to detect small amounts of rogue robusta in coffee products sold as 100% arabica.

3. Bloom:

bloom on a v60

From coffee to the atmosphere. There’s physics in that filter coffee.

A drop falling on a granular bed (rain on sand, water on ground coffee) causes different shaped craters depending on the speed of the drop and the compactness of the granular bed. A lovely piece of physics and of relevance to impact craters and the pharmaceuticals industry. But it is the bloom that we watch for when starting to brew the coffee. That point where the grinds seem to expand and bubble with a fantastic release of aroma. It is thought that the earth’s early atmosphere (and the atmosphere around other worlds) could have been helped to form by similar processes of outgassing from rocks in the interior of the earth. The carbon cycle also involves the outgassing of carbon dioxide from mid-ocean ridges and the volcanoes on the earth.

As the water falls and the aroma rises, we’re reminded too of petrichor, the smell of rain. How we detect smell is a whole other section of physics. Petrichor is composed of aerosols released when the rain droplet hits the ground. Similar aerosols are produced when rain impacts seawater and produces a splash. These aerosols have been linked to cloud formation. Without aerosols we would have significantly fewer clouds.

4. Percolation:

A close up of some milk rings formed when dripping milk into water. Similar vortex rings will be produced every time you make a pour over coffee.

Percolation is (almost) everywhere. From the way that water filters through coffee grounds to make our coffee to the way electricity is conducted and even to how diseases are transmitted. A mathematically very interesting phenomenon with links to areas we’d never first consider such as modelling the movements of the stock exchange and understanding the beauty of a fractal such as a romanesco broccoli.

But then there’s more. The way water filters through coffee is similar to the way that rain flows through the soil or we obtain water through aquifers. Known as Darcy’s law, there are extensive links to geology.

Nor is it just geology and earth based science that is linked to this part of our coffee making. The drips falling into the pot of coffee are forming vortex rings behind them. Much like smoke rings, they can be found all around us, from volcanic eruptions, through to supernovae explosions and even in dolphin play.

5. In the mug:

Rayleigh Benard cells in clouds

Convection cells in the clouds. Found on a somewhat smaller scale in your coffee.
Image shows clouds above the Pacific. Image NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

Yet it is when it gets to the mug that we can really spend time contemplating our coffee. The turbulence produced by the hot coffee in a cool mug prompts the question: why does stirring your coffee cool it down but stirring the solar wind heats it up?

The convection cells in the cooling coffee are seen in the clouds of “mackerel” skies and in the rock structure of other planets. The steam informs us of cloud formation while the condensation on the side of the cup is suggestive of the formation of dew and therefore, through a scientific observation over 200 years ago, to the greenhouse effect. The coffee cools according to the same physics as any other cooling body, including the universe itself. Which is one reason that Lord Kelvin could not believe that the earth was old enough for Darwin’s theory of evolution to have occurred. (Kelvin was working before it was known that the Sun was heated by nuclear fusion. Working on the basis of the physics he knew, he calculated how long the Sun would take to cool down for alternative mechanisms of heating the Sun. Eventually he concluded that the Sun was too young for the millions of years required for Darwin’s theory to be correct. It was the basis of a public spat between these two prominent scientists and a major challenge to Darwin’s theory at the time).

 

Of course there is much more. Many other links that take your coffee to the fundamental physics describing our world and our universe. Which ones have you pondered while you have dwelt on your brew?

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

Coffee Rings: Cultivating a healthy respect for bacteria

coffee ring, ink jet printing, organic electronics

Why does it form a ring?

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.

On rings, knots, myths and coffee

vortices in coffee

Vortices behind a spoon dragged through 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.

chimney, coffeecupscience, everydayphysics, coffee cup science, vortex

In high winds, vortices around chimneys can cause them to collapse. The spiral around the chimney helps to reduce these problem vortices.

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.

 

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.

interior Estate Office Coffee

Clearly science labs have changed since I was at school! The tables in Estate Office Coffee are reclaimed lab benches.

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.

table detail, inside Estate Office Coffee

Evidence of a past life?
Two rings in the varnish on one of the tables at Estate Office 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.

coffee at EOC Streatham

The important thing is how this tastes. What is the influence of cup size, shape, colour on your perception of the taste of coffee?

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

 

 

 

Causing a stir

coronal hole, Sun

Where it all begins. The dark object is a Coronal hole on the Sun. Image credit and copyright NASA/AIA

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.

vortices in coffee

Vortices behind a spoon being dragged through coffee are an example of turbulence.

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.

vortices, turbulence, coffee cup physics, coffee cup science

Vortices created at the walls of a mug when the whole cup of coffee is placed on a rotating object (such as a record player). This is an image of water in a rotating mug with a drop of ink placed next to the mug’s wall.

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.

 

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.

developing photographic film in instant coffee

The developing fluid – the instant coffee granules have nearly dissolved.

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.

washing soda, available in supermarkets

The second ingredient that you need to develop your photographic film in coffee – washing soda.

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!

instant coffee film developing fluid

The washing soda is already dissolved in the water here but the coffee has just been added. You need to dissolve the coffee fully for it to be a good developing fluid.

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.

Cogs, Wimbledon Common, Windmill, Contact S2b, instant coffee and washing soda developer

Cogs on Wimbledon Common, developed with coffee.

Brighton shellfish, mussels, prawns, cockles, whelks, jellied eels, instant coffee

Shellfish trailer, Brighton, developed in coffee.

Merry-go-round and pier developed with coffee

Brighton beach, developed in coffee.

Bench with heads developed in coffee

Chelsea Embankment, developed in coffee.

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.

 

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