A couple of weeks back, I tried the lovely Bond St. Coffee in Brighton on the recommendation of @paullovestea from Twitter. It was a Saturday with good weather and it turns out that this particular café is (understandably) very popular and so, sadly, to begin with we could only sit outside. That said, it was a lovely spring day (sunny but a bit chilly) and so it was quite pleasant to watch the world go by (or at least Bond St) while savouring a well made pour-over coffee. All around the café, the street decoration hinted at times past. Across the road what was obviously a pub in times gone by has turned into an oddities store. Air vents to a space underneath the window seating area in Bond Street café itself suggested an old storage space. A seat in the window appeared to have been re-cycled from an old bus seat.
But it was the pour-overs at Bond St. Coffee that had been particularly recommended and they certainly lived up to expectations. I had a Kenyan coffee roasted by the Horsham Roasters. The V60 arrived at our bench seat/table in a metal jug together with a drinking glass. The angle of the Sun caught the oils on the surface of the coffee, reminding me of Agnes Pockels and her pioneering experiments on surface tension. Pouring the coffee into the glass I thought about the different thermal conductivities of glass as compared to metal and how I had put both down on the wooden bench. How was heat being transferred through these three materials? And then, as I placed the metal jug back on the bench I noticed the reflections from the side of the jug and thought, just why is it that you can see through the colourless glass but the metal is grey and opaque?
On one level, this question has a simple answer. Light is an electromagnetic wave and a material is opaque if something in the material absorbs or scatters the incoming light. In a metal, the electrons (that carry the electric currents associated with the metal’s high electrical conductivity) can absorb the light and re-emit it leading to highly reflective surfaces. In glass there are no “free” electrons and few absorbing centres ready to absorb the light and so it is transmitted through the glass.
Only this is not a complete answer. For a start we haven’t said what we mean by ‘glass’. The glass in the photo is indeed transparent but some glasses can be more opaque. More fundamentally though, there is a problem with the word ‘opaque’. For us humans, ‘visible’ light is limited to light having wavelengths from about 400nm (blue) to about 780nm (red). ‘Light’ though can have wavelengths well below 400 nm (deep into the UV and through the X-ray) and well above 780 nm (through infra-red and to microwaves and beyond). We can see the spread of wavelengths of light visible to us each time we see a rainbow or sun dog. Other animals see different ranges of ‘visible’ light, for example, bumble-bees can see into the ultra-violet. So, our statement that glass is transparent while metal is opaque is partly a consequence of the fact that we ‘see’ in the part of the spectrum of light for which this is true.
For example if, like the bumble-bee, we could see in the UV, some glass may appear quite different from the way it does to us now. Even though the glass in the photo lacks the free electrons that are in the metallic jug, there are electrons in the atoms that make up the glass that can absorb the incident light if that light has the right energy. There are also different types of bonds between the atoms in the glass that can also absorb light at particular energies. The energy of light is related to its frequency (effectively its colour*). Consequently, if the energy (frequency/ wavelength) of the light happens to be at the absorption energy of an atom or an electron in the glass, the glass will absorb the light and it will start to appear more opaque to light of that colour. Many silicate glasses absorb light in the UV and infra-red regions of the electromagnetic spectrum while remaining highly transparent in the visible region. High purity silica glass starts to absorb light in the UV at wavelengths less than approx 160nm†. Ordinary window glass starts to absorb light in the nearer UV†. In fact, window glass can start to absorb light below wavelengths of up to ~ 300 nm, the edge of what is visible to a bumble bee: The world must appear very different to the bumble bee. At the other end of the scale, chalcogenide based glasses absorb light in (our) visible range but are transparent in the infra-red.
Looking at how materials absorb light, that is, the ‘absorption spectrum’, enables us to investigate what is in a material. It is in many ways similar to a ‘fingerprint’ for the material. From drugs discovery to archaeology, environmental analysis to quality control, measuring how a material absorbs light (over a wider range of frequencies than we can see) can tell us a great deal about what is in that material.
Perhaps you could conclude that whether something is opaque or crystal clear depends partly on how you look at it.
Bond St Cafe is on Bond St, Brighton, BN1 1RD
*I could add a pedantic note here about how the colour that we see is not necessarily directly related to the frequency of the light. However, it would be fair to say that a given frequency of light has a given ‘colour’ so blue light has a certain frequency, red light a different frequency. Whether something that appears red does so because it is reflecting light at the frequency of red light is a different question.
†”Optical properties of Glass”, I Fanderlik, was published by Elsevier in 1983.