Aeropress

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.

Waiting for a green light at Alchemy, St Pauls

8 Ludgate Broadway, St Pauls

Alchemy Coffee

Alchemy, “a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation or combination”, is certainly a cafe that lives up to the dictionary definition of its name. The branch, on Ludgate Broadway near St Pauls, is the outlet that ‘showcases’ the coffee of Alchemy Roasters. On walking into this cafe, I was presented with a menu of two types of beans for espresso based drinks or two different beans for filter/aeropress. Both sets of coffees came with tasting notes. After a brief chat with the friendly barista I went for the San Sebastian with aeropress. Notes about the origins of the coffee are dotted around this superbly sited cafe (its location is ideal for people watching). The coffee is directly traded (where possible) and, if lattes or cappuccinos are your thing, there are also details about the farm that produces the milk.

Although there were cakes on the counter, I had just had lunch and so had to pass on what looked to be a good selection of edibles. The coffee though was certainly very good and definitely an experience to be savoured. As, perhaps I should have expected, when the coffee arrived it came in a beaker reminiscent of chemistry laboratories. From my chair in the corner, I could watch the preparation of the coffee behind the counter, the people coming into the shop to order their coffee and the crowds passing by outside.

E=mc2 Einstein relativity in a cafe

Scales at Alchemy. Weights on one side, chocolate on the other, it can only mean one thing: energy-mass equivalence

Close to where I was sitting was an old style set of measuring scales. This see-saw balance had weights on one side and chocolate on the other. Perhaps this connection seems tenuous, but for me weights on one side of the scales and an energy bar (chocolate) on the other side could only mean one thing:

E=mc²

The equation relating energy and mass for a particle at rest derived, and made famous by Einstein. The equation comes from Einstein’s theory of special relativity which states that nothing can be accelerated to faster than the speed of light (in a vacuum). First set down in 1905, the theory has some very odd predictions, among which the best known is probably the twin paradox (details here). The idea is that a moving clock will be observed to run slowly by a stationary observer, a prediction that has been confirmed several times by experiments using atomic clocks (here).

San Sebastian via Aeropress

Coffee is served at Alchemy

Moreover, the equation states that mass and energy are equivalent and that a small amount of mass can produce an awful lot of energy, (details here). A detail which will bring this story of a cafe-physics review nicely back to the Alchemy cafe, to London and to the importance of slowing down. The connection is through a set of traffic lights in Bloomsbury. Back in 1933, Leo Szilard was waiting to cross the road at the traffic lights at the intersection of Russell Square with Southampton Row. Szilard had recently escaped from Nazi Germany and was spending his time as a refugee in London pondering different aspects of physics†. That September day, Szilard was thinking about a newspaper article featuring Ernest Rutherford that he had read earlier. In 1901  Ernest Rutherford, together with Frederick Soddy, had discovered that radioactive thorium decayed into radium. The changing of one element into another could be considered a type of modern day alchemy. However Rutherford did not believe that there could ever be a way of harnessing this nuclear energy. In the article read by Szilard in The Times, Rutherford had dismissed any such ideas as “moonshine”. Szilard was forced to pause his walk as he waited for the traffic lights to change. Those few moments of pause must have helped clear Szilard’s mind because as the light went green and Szilard was able to cross the road, a thought hit him: If every neutron hitting an element released two neutrons (as one element was transmuted into another), a chain reaction could be started. As part of the mass of the decaying atom was released as energy, it would mean that, feasibly, we could harness vast amounts of energy; E=mc².

This idea, a consequence of spending five minutes waiting for a traffic light rather than checking Twitter (not yet invented in 1933), proved to underpin both the nuclear fission which we use in electricity generation and the nuclear fission that we’ve used to develop weaponry. It makes me wonder what alchemy we could conjure in our minds if we stopped to enjoy the transformations of the coffee beans at Alchemy.

 

Alchemy (cafe) is at 8 Ludgate Broadway, EC4V 6DU

† A book that some may find entertaining is:

“Hitler’s Scientists”, John Cornwell, Penguin Group publishers, 2003. The book contains this anecdote about Szilard: As Szilard was of Hungarian-Jewish descent, he fled Germany to Britain via Austria on a train a few days after the Reichstag fire of 1933. On the day he left, the train was empty. One day later, the same train was overcrowded and the people leaving Germany were stopped at the border and interrogated.  An event that prompted him, a few years later, to reflect “This just goes to show that if you want to succeed in this world you don’t have to be much cleverer than other people, you just have to be one day earlier than most people.” Something to reflect on in today’s refugee crisis perhaps.

Sugar castles at Iris and June, Victoria

Iris and June, Victoria, coffee in Victoria

The exterior of Iris and June

This post has been a long time coming. Over the past few months I’ve been popping into Iris&June to get take away coffee now and then and have got quite fond of the friendly service and good coffee. What I have not really had the opportunity to do (until recently) was sit and enjoy a coffee inside. Fortunately that’s now changed and I can add Iris&June to the Daily Grind.

So, how is I+J? Well, it is a 5 minute walk from Victoria train station and a welcome break for good coffee. They serve Ozone based espresso, with a brew bar which features guest roasts (also from Ozone) made with the V60 or Aeropress. There are a good looking selection of cakes on offer, though sadly, on the day that I could sit inside with my drink, they all had nuts in them. Hopefully another time.

Sugar jar, I&J, I+J

A jar of sugar at Iris and June

I took a seat on the cushioned bench near the wall and started to look at what was going on. It is the sort of place that is very good for people watching. My eye though was drawn to what was on my table: a jar of sugar. It is not that I take sugar in my coffee, it is that I was reminded of a tutorial I once had as a student. I cannot remember the exact conversation but it concerned piles of sand. My tutor (a theoretical physicist) had said something along the lines “Ah yes, well, of course, everyone knew the maximum angle that a pile of sand could make before it became unstable and then how it started to collapse…. Until of course someone measured it.” [laughed] “We’d got it entirely wrong.”

This ability to laugh at what we do not know, (or what we assume we do know and then measure it and find out that in fact we do not)  is one of the pleasures of physics. We are trying to understand the world we live in, we have not yet got there. Sometimes it is the smallest things that are not yet understood, such as how and why (dry) sand forms avalanches as it is piled up. Yet these small things can turn out to have big consequences (as was also the case for the understanding of coffee stains). In this case, the experiment had tested the way that a pile of sand collapsed in response to different shaped grains of ‘sand’. It had relevance then (and continues to have relevance now) not only in terms of granular dynamics: how do we predict landslides/avalanches? But also in terms of crucial theoretical models about how these processes behave. Theoretical models that are applied to systems as diverse as knowing how electrical devices (resistors) work to understanding the noise on the luminosity of stars. Realising that we were wrong enabled us to probe the question more deeply and thereby to understand it more.

There are similarities between sugar and sand, but also key differences. Although it was tempting to start building sugar castles in the sugar jars on the tables at Iris and June, I was aware of the impression that I may have made to those who go to I+J to people watch (see above). I will therefore leave it as a home experiment. How steep a sugar castle do you think you can make? And how steep can you in fact make it, what is the role of water in building sand castles?

Please leave any reports of experimental results for how steep you can make a pile of sugar in the comments section below and feel free to send me your sugar-castle pictures.

Iris and June is at No 1 Howick Place, SW1P 1WG