As a website based on the physics inside a coffee cup, it was only a matter of time before I visited Esters in Stoke Newington. The name has significance to anyone interested in the physics (or chemistry) of coffee and the signboard outside the shop confirmed it. Under the name, there is a zig zag underline that represents part of a molecular structure. The end of each straight line signifies a carbon atom which is bonded to its neighbouring carbon atom by either a single (one line) or a double (two lines) bond. Inside you can enjoy (as I did) single estate coffees that can be prepared (if there are 2 or 3 of you) in a Chemex, appropriately enough. As I left Esters, I wandered through a local park where, near the entrance to the park, were two helium balloons caught in a tree. One had deflated, the other floated, dejectedly, just beneath the branches. Such a timely observation! The story of the discovery of helium connects the signboard at Esters, a cup of coffee and helium itself, how could that be? You’ll just have to keep reading to find out.
Helium is the second most plentiful element in the universe but on earth it is relatively rare. It was therefore not discovered on earth but, instead, by looking at the Sun. Its ‘discovery’ in the Sun was due to the way in which atoms interact with light. The atoms in each element emit (or absorb) light at specific frequencies. These frequencies correspond to different colours. It is this property of atoms that creates colours such as the distinctive hue of neon lights. In 1868 two astronomers were observing the same solar eclipse. Independently of each other, they noticed a distinct emission of light from the Sun at a wavelength of 587.49 nanometres (yellow-ish). This emission line corresponded to no element that had been found on earth and so one of them, Norman Lockyer suggested naming this new element helium, after ‘Helios’ the Greek god of the Sun. Helium was not found on earth for another 27 years when William Ramsay isolated it from a uranium based compound. The gas that Ramsay extracted, absorbed and emitted light at the same frequency as the two astronomers had observed for the element in the Sun. Helium had been found on earth.
Atoms absorb (and emit) light because of the way that the electrons in the atoms are arranged around the atomic nucleus. The electrons exist in discrete energy states that we can imagine as rungs on a ladder. Electrons move between the states by absorbing, or emitting, light at specific energies (corresponding to a step up, or a step down on the ladder). As the energy of light depends on its frequency, the colour of an element depends on the spacing of the rungs of this atomic ladder, which is different for different elements. The energy ladder of helium atoms means that helium emits light at 587.49 nanometres. In organic molecules (ie. all the molecules that make up you and I and coffee), it is often the double carbon bonds that provide the energy ‘step’ in the visible range of light. Depending on the number of carbon atoms that are double bonded and the number in the molecule that are not, the energy step is tweaked slightly so that it will absorb in the red region in some materials and in the blue in others. We have our link between the sign at Esters and the observations of the astronomers.
However the explanation above depends on knowing some properties of electrons in atoms and some details of quantum mechanics. Neither electrons (discovered in 1897) nor quantum mechanics were known to the discoverers of helium. How did the astronomers recognise that their observation of a particular colour of light meant that they had identified a new element? Part of the answer must be based on experience. Experimentalists had already found out that different materials absorbed (and emitted) light at different but specific, frequencies. The other part of the answer brings us to our link with coffee.
In the video Coffee Smoke rings, we can make rings of milk travel through coffee or water. These rings are vortices which are closed up on themselves to form a doughnut shape. Mathematically, the vortex ring is a completely stable structure, it never decays. You could argue that the reason that it decays in the video is because we live in a non-ideal world with non-ideal liquids (milk and water). Returning to the mathematical world, each vortex ring will vibrate at specific, (resonance) frequencies dependent on its diameter, just like a bell rings with a note dependent on the size of the bell. So, even without knowing about electrons or quantum mechanics, it becomes conceivable that the atoms that go to make up a substance have specific resonance frequencies. If you imagine that atoms are in fact extremely small vortex rings (of the kind you find in a coffee cup), the model even has a predictive power. In 1867 William Thomson proposed such a “vortex atom” model and suggested that the distinct vibrations of the rings led to energy levels, like the ladders of later quantum mechanics and exactly of the sort that were observed by the astronomers. By considering that a sodium atom was made out of two inter-locked vortex rings, the light emission of sodium could even be accounted for. It was therefore entirely conceivable that elements would have distinct fingerprints as the astronomers had observed for this new element, helium.
We have therefore found the connection between the signboard at Esters, milk rings in a coffee cup and the discovery of helium. You would be forgiven for thinking that part of the connection is purely historical, after all, our current models of the atom do not rely on vortex rings at all. However, there is a relatively new theory called “string theory”. More fundamental than atoms, string theory proposes that there exist ‘strings’ that may be closed on themselves and that have specific vibrations that depend on their size and geometry. Sound familiar? Perhaps the connection with the milk rings lives on.