Latte Art

Latte art scutoid tulip
The physics of bubbles. What links latte art to the shape of cells as an embryo develops?

An odd one out competition: which of the following is not a type of latte art? Tulip, heart, swan or scutoid? You may well ask, “what on earth is a scutoid?” and so identify this as the odd one out and, to some extent you would be right. Scutoids are not a type of latte art. But I would wager that you can still occasionally see them in your coffee.

Twitter can be a great thing and I was recently alerted there to a New York Times article about Karen Uhlenbeck by @Bob_Mat_Phys. Uhlenbeck is a mathematician at the University of Texas who has just won the Abel Prize in mathematics for her work on the maths of bubbles. The article was fascinating in itself but also mentioned in the article was the fact that there may be, on occasion, a connection between a cup of coffee and the cell structures seen in foetal development. And while I’m very well aware of the extraordinary number of connections that can be made between coffee and the science of the everyday world, I’ll admit, that one surprised me.

Metal jug and transparent glass
More bubbles in your coffee. But what determines their shape? And what shape are they?

By this point you may be unsurprised to hear that the connection is made via the scutoids, but what are they? A new type of shape, they were first described in a Nature Communications article about the development of cells as organisms such as fruit flies grew. Scutoids formed as the embryonic cells grew to form tubes or egg shapes. On one surface of the tube the cell was contacting a different number of cells to that which it contacted on the other surface (so perhaps the cell looked like a pentagon on the top and a hexagon on the bottom). In order for the cell to do this, it formed a further triangular face along one side of the cell and it is this cellular shape that is the scutoid.

Where is the connection with a coffee? Well, the amazing thing is that this shape can be the result of the physics that determines the shape of bubbles, in this case when they are confined between two curved surfaces, such as two cylinders. The shape of a bubble is the result of the minimisation of the surface energy of the bubble. So, in free space, the bubble will be spherical but somehow squash bubbles into a box and you can form a cube shaped bubble in the middle of the box. The shapes that form are the result of the minimum surface energy of the bubble surface. Now, if we return to the curved surfaces and the scutoids. The idea is that if there is a single layer of bubbles between two curved surfaces and that these surfaces are then moved away from each other, the bubbles will first resemble prisms and then, as the surfaces are stretched further, some bubbles will form a prism shape but with a triangular surface at one of the bounding walls: a scutoid.

latte art by Mace, Eiffel Tower and hot air balloon
It is astonishing what you can see in a coffee when you look closely enough.

The paper that showed this (published in Philosophical Transactions but you can read the full version here) combined mathematical modelling of the minimisation of surface energy with experiments involving two cylinders and some soap suds. They then photographed the resultant bubble structures. The results suggest that the minimisation of energy (ie. the physics of the bubble shape) could be a first approximation for explaining the cell structures that form in foetal development. But can you see them in your coffee?

You would need a coffee mug or French press and a smaller cylinder that fits neatly inside it. You would then need to form a foam somehow. Soap suds are obvious, some form of milk texturing would be more interesting. You can then look closely and see, can you in fact see scutoids in your latte art?

Coffee and cream baubles – not just for Christmas

floating, bouncing drops

Drops of water can be stable on the water’s surface for many minutes if you put the water on a loudspeaker, more info on how to create these at home here.

You may have noticed them before: balls of liquid dancing on the surface of your coffee (or tea) that seem to last for ages before being absorbed into the drink? Perhaps you have added milk to your coffee and noticed that it took some time before the milk entered into the brew?

It turns out, there’s some very interesting physics that is happening whenever you add milk to your tea or when you are preparing a pour-over. It can link coffee to wine and to quantum mechanics. It is worth taking a closer look at these drops.

You may remember that you could use a loud speaker to make droplets of coffee bounce on a cup of the same. The vibrations in the cup meant that the air between the droplet and the drink never got squeezed out of the space between them. So, rather than coalesce, the drop jumped up and down on the coffee surface before finally disappearing under. This type of bouncing bauble has been shown to behave in similar ways to quantum particles in wave-particle duality. An analogue of quantum physics in the macroscopic droplets on the surface of your drink.

But that type of bauble required the use of a loud speaker (or some similar way of generating vibrations on the surface of the coffee). What if you could ‘bounce’ a drop of coffee on a cup of coffee without any external props like speakers? Well, it turns out that you can. In November 2017 a group of researchers showed how a temperature difference between a drop falling into a drink and the drink itself could result in the drop appearing to float on the surface of the drink for many seconds. The obvious example was cold milk into a cup of coffee (or tea). But I think that it may also happen in a V60 when you prepare a pour over, more on that below.

science in a V60

Bubbles of liquid dancing on the surface of a brewing coffee.

The idea is quite simple. If there is a temperature difference between the drop and the coffee, when the drop approaches the coffee, there will be thermal gradients across the drop/cup system. Surface tension is temperature dependent: the higher the temperature, the weaker the surface tension. Differences in surface tension across the surface of a liquid result in compensating liquid flows (one of the best places to see this is in a glass of wine, but there’s also a great party-trick experiment you can do to demonstrate it which is here). So, because there is a temperature difference across the surface area of the droplet (owing to the difference between the droplet and the cup), there will be liquid flows set up within the drop. These flows are like circulating vortices which draw the surrounding air into the gap between the drop and the cup and so prevent the existing air between the drop and the cup from escaping. If the air has nowhere to escape to, the drop can’t merge with the drink, in fact it ‘levitates’ for a number of seconds.

The authors suggest that this is a reason that you can often see rain drops staying on the top of puddles or ponds before being subsumed into the water, or why you can see the cream (or milk) stay as globules on the surface of your coffee (or tea). And so I wonder, could this also be the explanation for an odd phenomenon that I sometimes notice while brewing coffee in my V60. Perhaps you have seen this too? After some time, the new drops of filtered coffee impacting on the surface skit along to the edge of the jug. They stay as balls of coffee on the coffee’s surface for quite some time before becoming part of the brew. You can see a photo of some of these droplets above. Initially I thought that this was because the surface of the coffee had started to vibrate with the impacting droplets. But it is also possible that it could be this temperature effect. As the (brewed) coffee in the jug would be cooler than the water dripping into it from the filter, there would be a temperature difference between the droplet and the coffee but the reverse of the milk-coffee situation. The drop would be warmer than the coffee it’s dripping into. The authors of the study suggested that it was the magnitude of the temperature difference that was the key, not the sign of the temperature difference. So that would fit with the V60 observations seen previously. However how would you show which effect (vibration or temperature difference) is responsible for the behaviour?

Enjoy playing with your tea, coffee and V60s. Do let me know the results of your experiments. Is it a vibration thing or does the temperature difference have to be there to begin with? Let me know what you think is going on.

I am also grateful to Amoret Coffee for alerting me to this story in the first place through Twitter. If you come across some interesting coffee-science, please let me know, either here in the comments section (moderated, please be patient), or on Twitter or Facebook.




Good vibrations at Vagabond, Highbury

black coffee, Vagabond, Highbury

A good start to the day. Coffee at Vagabond.

A long black, flat white (with soya milk) and a tea. Yes, you could say we spent a fair while at Vagabond in Highbury the other week. It was a lovely space to catch up with an old friend again. There were plenty of comfortable seats and the staff were definitely friendly, supplying us with coffee and space to chat for a while. The coffee was good (Vagabond are roasters as well as a café) with batch brew and Aeropress/drip on offer together with the usual selection of coffees and other drinks. Tasting notes were on a black board behind the counter while on the wall, also behind the counter, was a drawing of a tongue taste map. While the science of this has been disputed, it does serve as a reminder for us to sit back and properly appreciate – and taste – what we are drinking.

Above the espresso machine was a long rectangular sign that said “coffee in progress”, suspended by four cables, one at each corner. Coffee orders were placed onto this sign allowing the baristas to keep track of who ordered which drink. Given how busy this café occasionally got (and we weren’t even there for lunch), it seems that this is a very handy system. Each time an order was placed on the sign, the whole sign oscillated, rather like a rigid trampoline. Even if you had not seen the note placed on the sign by the barista, you would get a clue, a piece of evidence, that something had just happened by the vibrations long afterwards. Perhaps you may say that the sign was some sort of “order-detector”.

order detector oscillation espresso machine

The “order-detector”: sign at Vagabond in Highbury

Or at least, that is what you may say if you were thinking about the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational waves Observatory) detectors that, back in 2015, detected the gravitational waves produced by two merging black holes between 700 million and 1.6 billion light years away. Not only do these detectors have similarities to the order-detector sign at Vagabond, the beauty of the LIGO detector is that you can start to understand how it works by staring into your coffee. The LIGO experiment consists of two detectors. Each LIGO detector is an L shaped vacuum tube (4km long) with a mirror at each ‘end’. A laser beam is split between the two legs and reflected back by mirrors at the end of each L. When the reflected laser beams return back to the detector at the corner of the ‘L’, how they interact with each other is dependent on the exact distance that each laser beam has travelled between the mirror and the detector. Think about the bubbles on the surface of your coffee. These colourful bubbles appear as different colours depending on the thickness of the bubble ‘skin’. You may remember being taught that, exactly as with oil slicks on water, it was about the constructive and destructive interference of the light waves. As each ‘colour’ has a different wavelength, the colours that destructively interfere change with the thickness of the bubble skin. You can determine the thickness of the bubble by the colour it appears.

LIGO photo

An aerial photo of the LIGO detector at Hanford. The mirrors are at the ends of the tubes going away from the main building. Image courtesy of Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory

In the LIGO experiment, there is only one wavelength because the light is coming from a laser. So whether the detector registers an intense laser beam or the absence of one, depends on whether those two beams coming back from the mirrors interfere constructively, or destructively. (A deeper description of the technique of “interferometry” can be found here). As the gravitational waves emanating from the collision of the black holes encountered the mirrors at the ends of the L’s in LIGO, so each mirror wobbled a little. This small wobble was enough to change the intensity of the laser light received by the detector and so reveal that the mirrors had moved just that little bit. In fact, the detectors are so sensitive that they can detect if the mirrors move by less than the diameter of a single proton. Given that this is a sub-atomic distance, I don’t think I can even start to relate it to the size of an espresso grind, even a Turkish coffee grind is millions (billions) of times larger than the amount that these mirrors moved. Yet this is what was detected a couple of years ago in the now famous announcement that gravitational waves had been detected and that Einstein’s predictions had been shown to be true.

Watching the “coffee in progress” sign oscillate at Vagabond, it is clear how much engineering has gone into isolating the mirrors at LIGO enough that they do not move as people walk by. Yet perhaps it is interesting that, nonetheless, one of the final refinements of isolating the mirrors from the vibrations of the earth involved changing the material for the cables that suspended them, just as with the sign at Vagabond. You can learn more about the engineering behind this incredible feat of detection in the video here, or you can go to Vagabond, enjoy a lovely coffee and think about the physics of detection there.

Vagabond (Highbury) can be found at 105 Holloway Road, N7 8LT

If you would like to hear what the collision sounded like, follow the link here.


Reflections on physics and coffee

BeanThinking started as a way of slowing down and appreciating connections, often between a coffee and the physics of the wider world but also in terms of what can be noticed in any café. Perhaps, for this first post of 2017, it’s worth spending five minutes looking at your coffee while you drink it to see what you notice. Here are a few coffee connections that occurred to me recently:

reflections, surface tension

Reflections on a coffee.

Parallel lines and surface reflection: The parallel lines on the ceiling of a café were reflected in a long black. Surface tension effects on the coffee meant that the reflections were curved and not at all parallel. A piece of dust on the surface of the coffee was revealed in the reflection by the curved reflections of the ceiling. Astronomers can use similar effects (where images of a star appear in a different location to that expected) to infer the presence of dark objects between distant stars and their telescope. This gravitational lensing can be used to detect quasars or clusters of galaxies.




layering of coffee long black

Layers of coffee

Layering of crema as the coffee is consumed: The coffee stain effect and this layering of the crema suggests a connection between a coffee cup and geology. It used to be my habit to take a mug of tea with me when I taught small groups of undergraduates. In the course of one of these tutorials, a student (who had been observing similar layering in my tea mug) said, “You drink your tea faster when it is cooler than when it is hot”. Full marks for observation, but not sure what it said about his attention during my tutorials! Similar observations though can help geologists estimate the age of different fossils.


interference patterns on coffee

Bubbles in coffee

Bubble reflections: An old one but the interference patterns caused by bubbles on the surface of the coffee are full of fascinating physics. The fact that the bubbles are at the side of the cup and seem to be grouped into clusters of bubbles may also be connected with surface tension effects (although there is a piece of weather lore that connects the position of the bubbles to the weather. If anyone ever does any experiments to investigate this particular lore, I’d love to hear about them).



Coffee, Van Gogh

Art in a coffee cup

Van Gogh’s Starry Night: The effects of vortices and turbulence caused the crema of a black coffee to swirl into patterns reminiscent of this famous painting by Van Gogh. As a result of posting this image on Twitter, @imthursty sent me a link to this preprint of a paper submitted to the arxiv: the connections between Van Gogh’s work and turbulence. A great piece of coffee combining with art and science.


So many connections can be made between tea, coffee and science and the wider world, I’d love to see the connections that other people make. So, if you see some interesting physics, science or connections in your coffee cup, why not email me, or contact me via FB or Twitter.


Coffee Damping

vortices in coffee

Vortices behind a tea spoon

How often do you allow yourself to get bored? Or to sit in a cafe and take your time to enjoy your coffee properly, noticing its appearance, the smell ‘landscape’ of the cafe, pausing while you absorb the sounds of the cafe and playing with the feel of the coffee while you create vortices with your tea spoon?

If you regularly drink black coffee, you may have noticed how these vortices form more easily in the coffee once the crema has dispersed. Intuitively this may seem obvious to you, perhaps you wouldn’t even bother trying to form these vortices in a cappuccino, you’d know that they wouldn’t appear. The bubbles of the crema (or the milk in the cappuccino) quickly kill any vortex that forms behind the tea spoon (we’d technically call it ‘damping’ them). But even when we are aware of this, it is still surprising just how quickly the crema stops those vortices. Try forming a couple of vortices in a region of black coffee close to a region of crema. Indeed I thoroughly recommend ordering a good black coffee in a great cafe somewhere and just sitting playing with these vortices all the while noticing how their behaviour changes as the crema disperses.

latte art, flat white art

Latte art at The Corner One. Lovely to look at but not good for the vortices.

The damping caused by bubbles on the surface of a coffee is responsible for another phenomenon that you may have encountered in a cafe but, to be fair, are more likely to have noticed in a pub. Have you ever noticed that you are less likely to spill your cappuccino between the bar and your seat than you are your lovingly prepared filter coffee? Or perhaps, in the pub, you can get your pint of Guinness back to the table more easily than your cup of tea? (At least for the first pint of Guinness)

Back in 2014, a team investigated the damping properties of foam by controlling the size and number of bubbles on top of a liquid as it was vibrated (sloshed) about. They found that just five layers of bubbles on top of the liquid was enough to significantly damp the liquid movement as it vibrated from side to side. That is, five layers of bubbles suppressed the sloshing (try saying that after a couple of pints of Guinness). Much as I dislike emphasising the utility of a piece of science, this work has obvious implications for any application that requires the transportation of liquids such as the transport of oil containers. There is an obvious need to suppress the effect of liquid oil sloshing from side to side as it is transported by boat for example.

The foam on our latte or crema on our long black should indeed give us pause for thought as we sit in a cafe enjoying our coffee.



The hot chocolate effect

hot chocolate effect, Raphas

A ready prepared hot chocolate

This is an effect that reveals how sound travels in liquids. It enables us to understand the milk steaming process involved in making lattes and yet, it can be studied in your kitchen. It has an alternative name, “The instant coffee effect”, but we won’t mention that on this website any further. To study it you will need,

1) a mug (cylindrical is preferable),
2) some hot chocolate powder (no, instant coffee really will not do even if it does work)
3) a teaspoon
4) a wooden chopstick (optional, you can use your knuckle)

Make the hot chocolate as you usually would and stir. Then, remove the spoon and repeatedly tap on the bottom of the mug with the wooden chopstick (you could instead use your knuckle). Over the course of about a minute, you will hear the note made by the chopstick rise (not having a musical ear, I will have to trust that this can be by as much as three octaves).

resonator, mouth organ

The length of the pipes in this mouth organ determine the note heard. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum

What is happening? Well, just like an organ pipe, the hot chocolate mug acts as a resonator. As the bottom surface of the hot chocolate is fixed in the mug and the top surface is open to the air, the lowest frequency of sound wave that the hot chocolate resonator sustains is a quarter wavelength. The note that you hear depends not just on the wavelength, but also on the speed of sound in the hot chocolate, and it is this last bit that is changing. When you put in the water and stir, you introduce air bubbles into the drink. With time (and with tapping the bottom surface), the air bubbles leave the hot chocolate. The speed of sound in a hot chocolate/air bubble mixture is lower than the speed of sound in hot chocolate without air bubbles. Consequently, the frequency of the note you hear is higher in the hot chocolate without bubbles than in the former case.

Let’s use this to make a prediction about what happens when a barista steams milk ready for a latte. At first, the steam wand introduces air and bubbles into the mixture but it is not yet warming the milk considerably. From above, we expect that the speed of sound will decrease as the bubbles are introduced. This will have the effect of making the ‘note’ that you hear on steaming the milk, lower. At the same time the resonator size is increasing (as the new bubbles push the liquid up the sides of the pitcher). This too will act to decrease the note that is heard as you steam (though the froth will also act to damp the vibration, we’ll neglect this effect for the first approximation). At a certain point, the steam wand will start to heat the milk. The speed of sound increases with the temperature of the milk and so the note will get higher as the milk gets warmer.

So this is my prediction, musically inclined baristas can tell me if there is any truth in this:

1) On initially putting the steam wand into the cold milk, the tone of the note heard as the milk is steamed, will decrease.
2) This decrease will continue for some time until the milk starts to get warm when the note increases again.
3) Towards the end of the process, the note heard on steaming the milk will continue to increase until you stop frothing.
4) It should be possible, by listening to the milk being steamed, to know when the milk is ready for your latte just by listening to it (if you are experienced and always use similar amounts of milk per latte drink).

So, let me know if this is right and, if it is wrong, why not let me know what you think is happening instead. I’d be interested to know your insights into the hot chocolate effect in a milk pitcher.