blue sky

A tense moment for a coffee…

capillary bridge

A bridge formed by water between a cup and a cafetière.

Each and every coffee represents an opportunity to uncover an unusual bit of science. Sometimes the connections between what happens in your cup and the wider world are fairly obvious (e.g. the steam above your coffee and cloud formation), but sometimes the connections seem a little more obscure. On occasion, your observations may lead to philosophical speculations or stories from history. Every coffee is an opportunity to discover something, if you just slow down and ponder enough.

It was with this in mind that I looked at my freshly made French Press coffee a few weeks ago. I had positioned my cup very close to the cafetière such that a small water bridge had formed between the cup and the cafetière (see photo). Such “capillary bridges” have been studied for a couple of centuries and yet there is still more work to do. Caused by the surface tension of the water, understanding the way these bridges form and the shape of the surfaces produced is important for fields such as printing and powder processing. Yet it is only in the last 150 years or so that we have started to understand what surface tension is. Moreover, much of the pioneering work on this subject was done by an amateur scientist who just noticed things (and then designed some very clever experiments to discover more).

Agnes Pockels (1862-1935) is now regarded as a surface science pioneer but in 1891 she was a complete unknown. Although she had wanted to study physics, she was prevented from going to university because she was female. Consequently, all her study of the subject had to be through her brother Friedrich’s books and letters. It is not known what prompted her investigations but from 1880 she had been experimenting with a device to measure the surface tension of water. The device used a sliding weight to measure the force required to pull a 6mm diameter wooden disk off of the surface of a trough of water.¹ The design of this device was so successful that, a few years later, Irvine Langmuir adapted it slightly in order to study the surface of oils. He went on to receive the Nobel Prize for his work in 1932. Yet it is a device that could also be built in your kitchen, exactly as Agnes Pockels did².

reflections, surface tension

The effects of surface tension can be seen in the light reflected from a coffee

Pockels measured the surface tension of water contaminated by oil, alcohol, sugar, wax, soda crystals and salt (amongst other things)¹. She discovered how the surface tension of the water could be affected by pulling the surface or introducing metal objects onto it. She discovered the “compensating flows” that occurred between regions of different surface tension (you can see a similar effect with this soap boat). Yet all of this remained hidden from the wider world because Pockels was unable to publish. Not having access to the contemporary literature about surface tension and moreover unknown, unqualified and female, no journal would look at her work let alone publish it. Nonetheless, she was clearly a brilliant experimentalist and capable physicist.

Things changed when Pockels read a paper by John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh) in about 1890. Rayleigh was quite the opposite of the unknown Pockels. As well as his work on sound, electricity and magnetism and the (co-) discovery of Argon, Rayleigh is known for his work on understanding why the sky is blue. (Which is another phenomenon that you can see while preparing your coffee if you drink your coffee with milk.) In his paper on surface tension, Rayleigh had come to similar conclusions as Pockels’ work but Pockels had gone further. Unable to publish herself, she instead wrote to Rayleigh, in German, detailing her experimental technique and results. Rayleigh responded by forwarding her letter to the scientific journal Nature together with an introductory paragraph:

“I shall be obliged if you can find space for the accompanying translation of an interesting letter which I have received from a German lady, who with very homely appliances has arrived at valuable results respecting the behaviour of contaminated water surfaces. The earlier part of Miss Pockels’ letter covers nearly the same ground as some of my own recent work, and in the main harmonizes with it. The later sections seem to me very suggestive, raising, if they do not fully answer, many important questions. I hope soon to find opportunity for repeating some of Miss Pockels’ experiments.”¹

Coffee Corona

You may have seen white mists form over the surface of your coffee (seen here by the rainbow effect around the light reflection). But what are they and how do they form? This is still not really known.

Rayleigh’s introduction and Agnes Pockels’ letter were published in Nature on 12 March 1891. The paper enabled Pockels to publish further results in both Science and Nature as well as in other journals. In 1932 she received an honorary doctorate in recognition of her work.

It seems that this coffee-science story has two main messages. The first is to emphasise how much we gain by ensuring everyone has access (and encouragement) to study physics (or indeed whatever subject they are motivated by). What would we have lost if Agnes Pockels had not had the books of her brother and made the decision to write to Rayleigh? But the second message is that Agnes Pockels managed all this, at least initially, by merely noticing what was going on in the liquids around her. Being curious she designed and built a piece of equipment that enabled her to measure what she was intrigued by and by taking a systematic series of data she discovered physics that was unknown to the wider community at the time. So the question is, what do you notice when you look at your coffee? How does it work, what can you discover?

Please do share any interesting physics that you see in (or around) your coffee either here in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter. Tea comments would also be welcome, but whatever you do, slow down and notice it.


¹Rayleigh, Nature 1891, 43, 437-439, 12 March 1891 (full text here)

²Reference to the kitchen is here.

An opportunity to become a cafe-scientist

coffee, Timberyard, wooden tray

A great place to sit and do some citizen science: Timberyard, Seven Dials has plenty of seats outside.

There are many things to be gained from putting down your smart phone when you enter a café. Firstly, there is the opportunity to fully experience the coffee. The sounds as it is made, the smell, the taste, even the feel of the coffee. Then there is the opportunity for people watching; their behaviour as they order their coffees or have their meetings or try to alleviate boredom while playing with their smartphones. Of course, there is also the opportunity to look at the history of the café and its surroundings, to think about a café-physics review or just slow down and notice things. There’s always something interesting going on.

If you are lucky enough though to be in Athens, Barcelona, Belgrade, Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Manchester, Milan or Rome there is now even more reason to put down that phone while you savour your coffee. By doing so, you could be helping scientists with a few questions that they have about atmospheric pollutants. If you are not in one of those cities, you miss out this time, but you may want to keep reading because if enough people get involved now, perhaps next time the iSPEX-EU project may come near you.

contrail, sunset

What sort of aerosols and pollutants are floating in the atmosphere above your head at this moment?

The question is, what are the atmospheric pollutants that are in the air near where you are now? Perhaps you are in a café on a main road and the answer seems obvious, it is those cars and buses that keep passing by. But there are in fact many forms of atmospheric aerosols or particles and they range in size from a few nanometers to tens of microns (which, in terms of coffee grind is from much smaller than the smallest Turkish coffee to approximately the size of a small particle in an espresso grind). Is it really so clear that where you are, in the centre of that big city, is that polluted? If on the other hand you are on the coast in Barcelona, just how salty is that salty sea air? The iSPEX-EU project allows you to measure it and find out.

These particles of dust, salt and soot etc. can have  an effect on human and animal health, so clearly we want to know more about their distribution and their prevalence. But there are also, more subtle reasons why we may want to know about them. They may have an effect on global warming and they are certainly needed in order for clouds to form, (though as yet we still do not fully understand this process). We need more data about what aerosols are around and where they are to start to know what questions to ask (let alone answer) about health, the climate and cloud formation. Yes, we have satellite measurements and pollution data at specific locations, but what people are missing is that local information. What are you actually breathing? When you look up at the blue sky, what pollutants (or other type of aerosol) are you looking through? Can we get enough data to know how the air quality varies between the cafés of Hackney and those of Hammersmith?

Skylark Wandsworth

Another ideal cafe for iSPEX-EU measurements, great coffee and a lovely outdoor seating area at Skylark cafe, Wandsworth Common

To get this data the scientists involved in iSPEX-EU need people, many people. People who are willing to spend 5 minutes turning their iPhone (sadly it is an iPhone-only project) into a pollution detector. The more people that they can get measuring, the more data that they will be able to obtain. All you need is an app from the App-store and a (free) device that fits over your iPhone camera which you can pick up from somewhere local to you. Then, you just take a seat outside the café on a lovely blue sky day between now and the 15th October, aim your phone at the sky and take a series of photographs which are shared back with the scientists coordinating the project. If you are curious to know how your air quality compares with that in another participating city, you can check the live map to see how the measurements are going across Europe.

The device works by looking at the colour spectrum as well as the polarisation of the light reaching the camera as a function of angle. This information gives tell-tale clues as to the size of the aerosols as well as their prevalence. There is a lot more information on the website of the iSPEX-EU project and so I would recommend that if you do want to know more, you click their link here. In the meantime, why not sign up with iSPEX-EU, take a seat outside in that café and enjoy a great coffee knowing that, as you do so, you are contributing to our understanding of atmospheric science.

If you do decide to participate, please let me know of any great locations that you find, both for the coffee and the measurements, or share your pollution measurements with me in the comments section. I look forward to seeing some great data on the live map.

To get involved with the iSPEX project, you can follow the link here.


Coffee & Contrails (I)

contrail, sunset

A set of criss-crossing contrails taken in the evening.

If you gaze up at the sky on a clear day, you will often see a few contrails tracing their way across the blue. Formed as a result of water in the atmosphere condensing onto exhaust particles from aeroplanes, contrails are a regular feature of the skies in our modern life. There are at least two ways that I can think of, in which the physics of the contrail is connected to the physics of the coffee cup, so, there will be two Daily Grind articles about them. This first one, about the physics of how we see them, and a second post (scheduled for 10th June) about interesting effects that we can see in them.

Perhaps now would be a good point to go and make a cup of coffee before coming back to this post. Make sure that you notice how the steam clouds form above the kettle spout as the water boils. Do you see the steam at the spout itself, or just a few centimetres above it? With the cup next to you, notice the steam rising above it. Does the steam seem more obvious on some days than others? For example, the coffee always seems to me to steam more on cold damp days in winter than on warm-ish days in late spring. Both of these observations (about where and when we see the steam clouds) are mirrored in the contrails, it’s time to take a closer look at the coffee.

V60 from Leyas

The clouds above a coffee cup are a rough indicator of the relative humidity.

The difference in the day to day visibility of the steam above the coffee cup is an indicator of the relative humidity of the atmosphere. If we prepare our cup of coffee on a day when the relative humidity is already high, adding that extra bit of water vapour from the cup leads to clouds of steam above the mug, as the water condenses into droplets of liquid water and forms clouds. If our coffee was instead prepared on a day with low relative humidity, the water vapour above the coffee cup is less likely to condense into clouds. Contrails are formed high in the atmosphere when the relative humidity is quite high. Exhaust particles from the engines of the plane offer a surface onto which the water in the surrounding (humid) atmosphere can condense to form clouds. We know that it is mostly the atmospheric moisture that is forming the contrails (rather than water from the exhaust itself) because of research done by NASA. In research flights, the amount of water vapour leaving the aeroplane engine was 1.7 grammes per metre of travel while the mass of water in the contrail was estimated to be between 20.7 and 41.2 kilograms per metre. This means that contrails can give a clue as to the weather: on dry days, contrails will not form because the water in the atmosphere is likely to remain a gas and therefore invisible to us, it is only when the air is already quite humid that contrails are likely to form and persist.

glass of milk, sky, Mie scattering

A glass of (diluted) milk can provide clues as to the colours of the clouds in the sky as well as the sky itself

Then there is the question of why we see them at all. Contrails appear as white clouds trailing behind the plane. We see them as white because of an optical effect caused by the size of the condensed droplets of water (actually ice) in the contrail. Objects appear as having different colours either as a result of light absorption by chemicals in the object (leaves are green because of chlorophyll) or as a result of light scattering from the object. A water droplet is colourless and so the colour we see coming from the droplet must be purely a consequence of light scattering rather than a light absorption effect. Clouds appear white because the water droplets within the cloud are as large, or larger than, the wavelength of visible light (0.7 μm). Droplets this size will scatter all wavelengths of visible light and so appear white. If the droplets were much smaller than the wavelength of light they would scatter different wavelengths by different amounts. It is because the atmosphere is full of such tiny particles (and molecules) that blue light is scattered more than red light in the atmosphere and so the sky appears blue to us from our vantage point on the Earth’s surface. Milk is composed of large fat droplets (which will scatter a white light) and smaller molecules which will preferentially scatter blue light, just as the sky. This is why you can mimic the colours of the sky in a glass of milk. It is because the water droplets have formed a few cm above the kettle spout that you can see them scattering the light. For exactly the same reason, the contrails in the sky appear as white clouds.


A hot air balloon in a sky full of contrails

Contrails can persist in the sky for anything from a few minutes to a few days. Just like clouds, contrails affect the way that light (and heat) is reflected from the Sun or back towards the Earth. However, unlike normal clouds they are entirely man-made, another factor that could have an unknown effect on our climate. A few years ago, a volcano eruption in Iceland caused the closure of UK airspace (as well as the airspace of much of Europe). I remember being in the queue to buy a cup of coffee in the physics department and hearing the excited conversation of two atmospheric physicists behind me. For the first time they were able to study some particular atmospheric effects without the influence of any contrails. In effect they could start to understand the influence of contrails by this unique opportunity of taking measurements during their absence. What was a major pain in the neck for so many travellers in 2010 meant a lot of extra (but presumably very interesting) work for them.

Coffee & Contrails (II) is about the structures you can sometimes see within the contrail. If you can think of any other connections between coffee and contrails (or coffee and clouds) why not let us know in the comments section below.