atmosphere

Hear no evil… at the Inverness Coffee Roasters, Inverness

Coffee in Inverness

Inverness Coffee Roasting Company.

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil, so the saying goes and so the monkey, that was sitting on the sofa at the Inverness Coffee Roasting company (and café) indicated. And while I would not like anything evil to be said on this website generally, today it will be taken to an extreme as this cafe-physics review will not say much at all. Not because the coffee was not good, my Americano was a lovely complex dark and very enjoyable brew. Nor because there weren’t things to write about, several avenues suggested themselves for a ‘cafe-physics’ type review. There were also plenty of things to enjoy nibbling on while sitting down in this warm and comfy environment taking in the surroundings. Chocolate from The Chocolate Place was clearly labelled (and so I could enjoy it confident that it was nut-free) with a good variety of interestingly flavoured chocolates. The chocolate/coffee combination always goes well and the salted dark chocolate indeed complemented the coffee. A variety of freshly roasted coffees were in jars ready for selling to the home-brewing crowd and I heard both people behind the counter discussing coffee tastes with different customers to ensure that they could properly recommend a coffee for each of them.

So why, if the coffee was good, the service friendly and the environment interesting am I not going to write much about Inverness Coffee Roasting Company? Well, largely because I had been on holiday and so the preoccupations of the days before would necessarily influence what I noticed about this little café. Although I could happily write about neolithic monuments and considerations about inter-generational solidarity in relation to the re-use of refuse heaps at Skara Brae (as building material) and our own use (or misuse) of refuse in our environmental behaviour today. And it could even fit into a cafe-physics review of this venue as a sign on the wall above the door invited everyone to join the Plastic Free Scotland movement. However, it is not really what a Bean Thinking cafe-physics review is about. The idea behind the cafe-physics reviews is that things are often connected in surprising and beautiful ways and we can generally only see the connections if we slow down and look for them.

hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil

Monkey on a sofa, but there was much more to notice at the Inverness Coffee Roasting Company if you looked around you.

Therefore, while you may (or may not) prefer to read about my holiday considerations of all things thousands of years old, what I thought I’d do with this café review is suggest a few things that I noticed in the café, things that offered a variety of potential thought-trains and then see what you think, what you notice, what you see (or don’t see). Perhaps you will observe something in one of the photos that clicks into a thought train for you, perhaps you can look around you, wherever you are right now – and think about the connections you could make to things you sense there instead? But whichever you do, it is a great time to sit back with a coffee (or perhaps a tea), breathe in and take in your surroundings.

Back in Inverness, the first thing of course was the monkey. Eyes shielded with an arm, suggestive of those who would prefer not to see what is in front of them. Nancy MacLean in “Democracy in Chains” notes that a training in the humanities perhaps opens students to question their society more than other, more utilitarian, subjects may do. Is it hurt pride that makes me rebel against this idea? Can’t physicists question too?

Perhaps it is connected but a sign by the door, and an identical one by the sofa, was written on the glass front of a box of coffee beans: “in emergency break glass”. This suggested so many avenues for exploration to me, I wonder which occur to others?

Behind our seats, a lizard was painted on/engraved into a stone, suggestive of fossils, geology and how we collect evidence. But a second lizard suggested a different direction. An ornamental lizard was positioned as if climbing up the counter. How do lizards climb? What is it about their feat? What connects lizards to a coffee company? Above our heads and above the door, stereotypical of Scotland perhaps, loomed a deer head complete with antlers. But this one was different: it was made of coffee beans and string. How a bean based diet could replace a meat one? The nature of units and how it would not necessarily be sensible to measure the mass of a deer in units of coffee beans? The mind jumped. Jumping beans?

Deer head in beans

Bean there done that?
Gruesome ornament or vegan friendly?

Finally, the logo of the cafe which was featured on signs around the interior and exterior of the space: a flaming coffee bean. The Maillard process and the changes in coffee as it is roasted? The nature of heat/temperature and the manner in which we measure it? What we hear as fire burns, lightning bangs or on “the first crack” of roasting and what this tells us about our atmosphere, our planet and our coffee is made of?

Whatever you notice, please get in touch, either by Facebook, Twitter, leave a comment or send me an email. But one last thing on coffee thought trains that links to real trains and is perhaps reflective back onto what it means to pause and watch. We left Inverness the day after our visit to Inverness Coffee Roasting by train. Inverness station has a relatively steep (1:60) gradient for 20 miles on leaving the station. It is Scotland in autumn, it had been raining and leaves had been falling on the line. Five or ten minutes out of the station, our train to Kings Cross juddered and came to a halt. A signal failure apparently. As the driver re-started the train, it slipped backwards, and again. We weren’t able to get up the hill. And so we had to return into Inverness station. Once back at Inverness station, the guard came across the tannoy and suggested that the signallers had given us the go-ahead to ‘have another run’ at the hill to see if we could get up it this time. So we tried again, juddering and shaking to a stop a few hundred metres beyond where we had stopped before. Back to Inverness station it was. The ever hopeful guard came across the tannoy again: “Third time lucky, fingers crossed”. This time the train left the station faster, building up speed, moving along more quickly and powering out of the station. The carriage was silent, were we going to make it? Past the first point we stopped at, past the second, a bit further, the family behind clapped, the train continued then slowed down and shook, juddered and then sped up again. We were over the hill and on our way back to London.

A last consideration on the conservation of energy and its relation to coffee and thought trains? Or a metaphor for how we may not find those connections in that cafe come to us quickly but if we persist and keep noticing, we can go on a fascinating journey?

Do let me know your thoughts.

The Inverness Coffee Roasting Company can be found at 15 Chapel Street Inverness, IV1 1NA

Back of the envelope calculations with coffee

coffee at Watch House

Coffee is generally a great help for reading, but to properly see the clouds in your coffee, it may help if you prepared yourself a brew now.

To read this post it will help if you have a cup of lovely, hot, freshly prepared coffee or tea with you.

Got it? Ok, let’s begin.

A few weeks ago, there was a talk given by Prof. Paul Williams of the University of Reading about the Mathematics of turbulence and climate change. An entertaining talk about the importance of, and the effort of comprehension required to, use mathematics in order to understand climate change. There were several thought provoking comments through the talk that demanded further reflection. But one, almost throw-away comment has been bugging me since. Although I’ve forgotten the exact words, they went along the lines of

Of course mostly we think about the impact of climate change on the weather, after all, we live in the bottom few metres of the atmosphere and so that is what mostly affects us. What I would like to talk about is the effect of climate change on airplane turbulence…

The bottom few metres of the atmosphere? It’s true. The bit we’re most experienced with is just a tiny portion of it. It’s about perspective. To us, it seems the atmosphere is very big, we pump all sorts of exhaust fumes into it and they disappear. We have expressions such as “the sky is the limit” that suggests that the atmosphere is a huge volume of gas. We all know it is not really limitless, but day to day, on our human scale, it seems enormous.

Now the mathematics that Prof Williams uses to calculate the effect of changing temperature and carbon dioxide levels on the jet stream (and consequently the turbulence felt by planes) is way beyond the sort of back of the envelope calculation that we can do with a cup of tea (or coffee). Understandably, to even start to comprehend these mathematical models requires years of training in maths and physics. However, assuming that we are not ourselves atmospheric physicists, there are things that we can do to help us to see our atmosphere in a more realistic way. And this is where your coffee comes in.

Earth from space, South America, coffee

Clouds swirling above our common home. But if the atmosphere is represented by the white mists on the surface of a cup of coffee, what size coffee are we drinking?
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

Take a close look at that coffee. Assuming it is not cold brew, hopefully your coffee or tea is still fairly warm. Watch the surface of the coffee. You may start to see movement such as convection in the mug, perhaps you can see a film of oil on the surface. But do you see something else? In very hot tea or coffee, you should be able to see what appear as white mists hovering over the surface of the cup*. It is easy to miss them, but as you watch, cracks suddenly appear in the mists and then there is a re-organisation of them which allows you to start to see them dancing over the surface of your drink*.

These mists are the result of the levitation of many thousands of droplets of water just above the surface of the coffee. I have written about them elsewhere. No one knows quite how they levitate above the surface, but what is known is that they are at a distance of up to 100 μm (0.1mm) from the surface of the coffee.

Let’s construct a scale model of our coffee as the Earth and its atmosphere. These mists can then do a fairly good job of representing the atmosphere with its drifting clouds. So, assuming that the mists are the atmosphere and the coffee is the Earth (on the same scale), what size of coffee would you have to have? Would you be drinking:

a) an espresso

b) a long black

c) a venti

d) a ristretto

Think you know the answer? Let’s work it out with a “back of the envelope” calculation. The easy bit is deciding the radius of the Earth, it’s just under 6400 km, our first problem comes with the estimate of the thickness of the atmosphere. There are several layers in the atmosphere. The one that we are most familiar with, the one closest to us is the troposphere. This extends for the first 16 km above the surface of the Earth (though this varies with latitude, it is only 8 km at the poles). Most of our weather happens in this region and it is also the layer of the atmosphere that planes fly in. Above the troposphere is the stratosphere which extends until about 50 km. Beyond that, things get very rarified indeed though the boundary between our atmosphere and “space” does not happen for several hundred km (indeed, the orbit of the International Space Station is in this bit of our extended atmosphere).

Coffee Corona

Look carefully around the central (reflected) white light. Can you see a rainbow like spreading of the colours? Another manifestation of the white mists on the coffee surface.

As we are mostly concerned with the weather (and airplane flight etc) though, it seems sensible to define the atmosphere height to be the top of the troposphere. After all, most of us will tend to think that the Space Station is in, well, space. This definition is further justified by the fact that about 75% of the mass of the atmosphere is found within this region (the atmosphere gets thinner as you go higher).

What size coffee would we be drinking if the white mists (0.1 mm above the coffee surface) represent the 16 km of the Earth’s atmosphere? We’ll call the coffee height, hc. Our first step is quite easy, we can just use the ratios of the heights to calculate the coffee size:

(height of troposphere)/(radius of Earth) = (white mist height)/(height of coffee)

A bit of rearrangement:

height of coffee = (white mist height)*(radius of Earth)/(height of troposphere)

hc = (0.1) * (6400)/16

hc = 40 mm (4cm)

So for the mists to represent the atmosphere in your coffee, you would need to be drinking a 4cm tall coffee which is probably a smallish long black. I would leave it to you to calculate the coffee size for the atmosphere defined as outer space (beyond the orbit of the International Space Station). But perhaps this perspective gives us another way of looking at our atmosphere. Vast indeed, but fragile too.

*As I was writing this, I had a warm, very drinkable, cup of coffee but it wasn’t steaming and so showed no white mists over the surface. The mists are best seen in freshly made, very hot drinks.

Dynamical similarity

Science involves designing experiments to test theories. I do not want to get distracted here by how a theory is defined or the precise ways in which a theory is tested by experiment. The point of this week’s Daily Grind is to look at the role of experiments in physics, where they can be used, where it is more difficult to use experiments to test hypotheses and, how this can be connected with coffee. Some physics can be relatively easily tested by observation or experiment: we can for example take photographs of distant no-longer-planets to test theories about the evolution of the solar system or measure the viscosity of a liquid as we add something to it. Yet there are some areas of physics where it is not immediately obvious how you would test any theory that you develop. One such area is atmospheric physics where the limitations of living on one planet with one atmosphere where many different things all happen at once, could potentially be a bit of a problem for doing experiments on the theories of atmospheric physics.

Fortunately, there is a way in which atmospheric physicists can test their theories with experiment and, perhaps unsurprisingly for the Daily Grind, that way involves a cup of coffee (or tea). The route out is called “dynamical similarity” and it is a consequence of the fact that the same mathematics describes much of that which happens in a cup of tea as it does the atmosphere. It is true that a tea cup is a lot smaller than the atmosphere but a vortex in a tea cup is the same as a vortex in the atmosphere even if one is only a centimetre across while the other has a core size of many kilometres. The mathematics will be the same. This allows people to test hypotheses formed about the atmosphere in an environment that they can control and repeat.

A vortex in the atmosphere

… is a vortex.
(Typhoon Nangka, Image Credit: NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC. Caption by Kathryn Hansen)

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article in Physics World about the connections between coffee and physics. Shortly after it came out, I got an email from Paul Williams alerting me to an article that he had written in the journal Weather called “Storm in a tea cup“. It turns out that the subject of his research had been to study the impact on the weather of the interaction of two types of atmospheric waves: Rossby Waves and Inertia-gravity waves. The method that he had used to test this was, if not quite a tea cup, a bucket which he could rotate. Rossby waves and inertia-gravity waves are both present in the atmosphere and can be induced, albeit on a smaller scale, in a bucket. He was using the concept of dynamical similarity to explore what happens in our atmosphere. And the experiment was important. Before his experiments, it had been thought that the effect of the interaction of these two sorts of waves was minimal. His experiments revealed that this may not be the case, the inertia-gravity waves can significantly affect the Rossby waves. Given that Rossby waves are responsible for cold/warm fronts and weather phenomena in mid-latitude regions of the world (such as the UK) his results, and his cup of tea, were potentially very important.

I’m always very happy to hear about what others are doing with science in a tea cup or a coffee mug. Please share any thoughts in the comments section below.

Paul Williams “Storm in a tea cup” can be found in Weather, 59, (4), p.96 (2004) 

With apologies to Gertrude Stein.