Tea Gazing

Milky Way, stars, astrophotography

The Milky Way as viewed from Nebraska. Image © Howard Edin (http://www.howardedin.com)

A recent opinion piece about last week’s announcement of the detection of gravitational waves at LIGO drew my attention to a quote from Einstein:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.

Einstein was not the only scientist to have expressed such sentiments. Many scientists have considered a sense of wonder to be integral to their practice of science. For many this has involved gazing at the heavens on a clear night and contemplating the vastness, and the beauty, of the universe. Contemplating the twinkling stars suggests the universe outside our Solar System. Watching as the stars twinkle gives us clues as to our own planet’s atmosphere. Of course, it is not just scientists who have expressed such thoughts. Immanuel Kant wrote:

“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.“*

light patterns on the bottom of a tea cup

Dancing threads of light at the bottom of the tea cup.

The other evening I prepared a lovely, delicate, loose leaf jasmine tea in a teapot. I then, perhaps carelessly, perhaps fortuitously, poured the hot tea into a cold tea cup. Immediately threads of light danced across the bottom of the cup. The kitchen lights above the tea cup were refracted through hot and not-quite-so-hot regions of the tea before being reflected from the bottom of the cup. The refractive index of water changes as a function of the water’s temperature and so the light gets bent by varying amounts depending on the temperature of the tea that it travels through. Effectively the hotter and cooler regions of the tea act as a collection of many different lenses to the light travelling through the tea. These lenses produce the dancing threads of light at the bottom of the cup. The contact between the hot tea and the cold cup amplified the convection currents in the tea cup and so made these threads of light particularly visible, and particularly active, that evening. It is a very similar effect that causes the twinkling of the stars. Rather than hot tea, the light from the distant stars is refracted by the turbulent atmosphere, travelling through moving pockets of relatively warm air and relative cool air. The star light dances just a little, with the turbulence of the atmosphere, this way and that on its way to our eyes.

Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.Ҡ

Marcus Aurelius of course didn’t have tea. Watch the dancing lights in the tea cup and see yourself sitting with it, resting a while and then watching while dwelling on the beauty in your cup.

*Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason

†Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

One Response to Tea Gazing
  1. Renate Rothwell says:

    Thank you for a beautiful descriptive insight into mystery through the light in a tea-cup .

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