Clouds, condensation and coffee

Clouds in my coffee. There is, perhaps unsurprisingly, plenty of atmospheric physics you can encounter in your cup.

As we approach the end of the year, it is a good time to notice the changes in the weather. If you are in the northern hemisphere, the nights grow longer as the days grow colder. If you are in the southern hemisphere it is the opposite. And yet around the world, we have things in common. There may be days when it is more cloudy and days when there is a heavy dew (or even in some places a frost) on the grass. But what has this to do with coffee?

It’s to do with some experiments that you can do at home or on your way to work. And, in particular, with two effects you can see in your coffee cup.

To start with the dew, perhaps you’ve noticed the condensation around the rim of the cup or the coffee pot when you brew the coffee and the hot steam condenses onto the cold mug around it. Condensation happens because the temperature of the mug is lower than the ‘dew point’ of water at that humidity and pressure. Below the temperature of the dew point, the water vapour will condense into the liquid droplets that we then see dotted around the mug.

coffee bowl pour over
You can see the condensation on the V60 brewer here. Looking at the dew formed in the mornings, what does it tell you about the temperature of space?

It is a similar effect on the grass: the temperature there is lower than the point at which the water vapour in the air starts to condense out of the air and so you get dew. William Charles Wells published his “Essay on Dew” in 1814. The result of more than two years of careful observation, Wells found that dew formed only under certain weather conditions and only on certain space (sky) facing surfaces. Wells’ results can be used to show that the space around the earth is much colder than the surface of our planet. His results (together with some back of the envelope calculations) can therefore also be used to show that the Earth is in a delicate balance and has a natural greenhouse effect. As the weather changes this year and you notice the dew, can you see how Well’s could come to this conclusion?

The second coffee experiment we could do at this time of year is to see whether pollution affects our steaming take-away coffee. While generally it’s always a better idea to sit in a cafe and take the time to enjoy your coffee, there are occasions when a take-away is necessary. Just as with the dew, clouds start to form when the air temperature drops below the dew point. However, water droplets in the air are unstable to evaporation and so as soon as a pure water droplet is formed, it will evaporate unless it has a diameter larger than about 0.1 µmª. This may seem small and yet to spontaneously form a droplet with this diameter would take the accumulation of several million water molecules (I will leave it to you to do the estimate!). This represents a very improbable occurrence and yet we can see that clouds are everywhere, how can this be?

contrail, sunset
Contrails are caused by condensing water droplets behind aeroplanes. But why are they white and what does that tell you about the water droplets within them?

The answer comes from the dust. Fortunately we are a dusty planet and these bits of dust in the atmosphere act as ‘nucleation’ points for water to condense onto. This makes the condensation of water into droplets much more likely and so clouds – which are an accumulation of droplets – can form.

Which brings us back to the coffee. If clouds require dust in order to form droplets, and the steam above your coffee is a grouping of water droplets, does it not make sense that your coffee should be steamier next to a polluted road than in the middle of a park (for the same temperature coffee)?

It’s an idea that I’ve never been able to test but the shift to colder weather here offers a(nother) perfect opportunity.

Does your coffee steam more when you take it away from a city cafe?

I look forward to hearing about the results of your experiments, in the comments here, on Twitter or on Facebook.

ª Introduction to Atmospheric Physics, Andrews, Cambridge University Press, 2008

An easy way to get a halo

The other day I was talking to a primary school child about condensation, what it was, where to see it etc. So I asked,

“Do you drink coffee?”


“Do you drink tea?”


(I started to worry about the future generations). Nonetheless, I pulled out my cup of steaming coffee and pointed to the water droplets around the edge of the mug (which are very common if you haven’t warmed your cup before pouring your hot coffee into it) and noticed a sudden expression of recognition cross the child’s face.

“Like when you breathe on a mirror?”

Kettle drum at Amoret

Condensation on around the top of the jug on this V60

Yes, exactly so (and probably a much better example for a kid anyway, the problem of being an adult with a one track mind!). As the child had realised, the science in your coffee cup is connected to phenomena that occur elsewhere in the world. In the case of condensation, it occurs when the temperature of the surface onto which condensation happens is below what is called the “dew point”. Determined by the relative humidity in the environment, the dew point is the temperature below which water vapour in the air will condense into liquid water.

Of course the dew point gets its name from the dew that can form after a chilly night. Which brings us to another property of those water droplets that form around the rim of your coffee mug. Although it is not easy to see on the mug, each droplet is acting as a lens, focussing the light that falls onto it. As the surface of the mug is fairly flat, rather than form spherical droplets, the drops that form on the side of the mug are squashed hemispheres. This is not the case when dew forms on grass. Tiny hairs on the surface of the grass protrude from the leaf meaning that the water droplets form into spheres (which is, incidentally very similar to the reason that a duck is so waterproof). When the sun comes up, each sphere of water focusses the sunlight onto the grass behind it which reflects it back, right in the direction it came from.

heiligenschein, self portrait

Self-portrait with weak heiligenschein. Share your photos with me on FB or Twitter.

This means that if you stand with your back to the sun and look at your shadow on dew covered grass, you will very probably see a region of bright light surrounding your head, your heiligenschein. German for “Holy light”, heiligenschein is the effect of all of those spherical dew lenses reflecting the sunlight back towards you. You can only see the effect around your ‘anti-solar’ point (a position defined as being 180º from the Sun from the viewpoint of the observer, see here for what this means visually). This means that while you will see heilgenschein around your head, or around the shadow of the camera that you use to photograph it, you will never see the halo around someone else’s head even while they themselves can clearly see it.

I’m sure there’s some sort of metaphor there, perhaps one to contemplate next time you’re drinking a hot, steaming coffee.


In the Greenhouse at CoffeeGeek

Coffee Geek and Friends, Coffee Victoria

Coffee Geek and Friends

Earlier this year, a new café opened up in Victoria. Coffee Geek and Friends is located at the far end of Cardinal Place as you enter from Victoria Street. Cardinal Place is an odd sort of shopping centre, a small collection of shops with a glass roof. The building site near Coffee Geek as well as the constant stream of people rushing to and fro make Coffee Geek an ideal place to spend some time watching the world go by. Coffee is by Allpress espresso and is served in very individual mugs. Apparently there is a range of geek-ery in the cafe including a ‘centre piece’ water filter but I admit I missed that as I was too focussed on my coffee. Coffee Geek and Friends is definitely a cafe to keep in mind (along with Irish & June’s) if you need a good place to meet near Victoria Station.

It was a very humid day when I enjoyed my coffee at Coffee Geek and, because the mug had not been pre-warmed before my Americano/long black (my notes don’t specify which) was poured into it, condensation quickly formed around the rim of the mug. The condensation forms for the same reason that dew forms after a cool night: the vapour pressure of the water above the coffee (or the ground) has reached the dew point at the temperature of the mug. The lower the temperature, the lower the vapour pressure has to be for the water in the atmosphere to start condensing into liquid droplets. Hence you will often find that your coffee is more ‘steamy’ on a winter’s, rather than a summer’s day.

Condensation on mug in CGaF

Look carefully at the rim of the mug. Do you see the condensation?

Just over two hundred years ago, William Charles Wells made a study of dew. He observed the weather conditions under which dew formed. He observed on which surfaces dew collected. He noted whether the dew formed on space facing surfaces or ground facing surfaces. After several years of careful study he published his “Essay on Dew” in 1814. His work, showed that the earth radiated heat at night (when it was not being kept warm by the Sun) and therefore that space was cold. Cloud cover reduced the amount by which the ground cooled which implied that cloud cover was acting as a type of blanket for the Earth, keeping the heat trapped inside. Later calculations of the balance between the heat radiated by the Earth and the heat received by the Sun confirmed that, without some heat getting trapped by clouds and ‘greenhouse’ gases in the atmosphere, the earth would be a good 30 C cooler than it is observed to be. Although these calculations are just rough, “back of the envelope” figures, detailed calculations confirm that the Earth is in a delicate balance, heated by the Sun, cooled by radiation and kept warm (and live-able) by a layer of natural greenhouse gases. This “natural greenhouse effect” has been necessary for our development, the problem is that now we are adding yet more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere which threatens to tip the established delicate balance by a few degrees.

Cardinal Place roof, greenhouse

The roof of Cardinal Place shopping centre. A very appropriate place for a meditation on the greenhouse effect

What we now call the greenhouse effect are these extra gases, which are more efficient at trapping heat within our atmosphere. If you can imagine what has been happening over the past three hundred years or so as we have been pumping yet more of these gases into the atmosphere at an accelerated rate, we are in danger of tipping this delicate balance towards further heating of the earth. The 2015 Paris Climate Conference is being held with the aim of requiring all nations to agree to a legally binding commitment to reduce the amount of extra greenhouse gases that we emit to a level that will only result in a temperature increase of 2C. To achieve this requires all of us to work together to reduce our own ‘carbon footprint’. Each of us will have to find our own, individual ways to reduce our emissions but perhaps when we look at the condensation on the rim of our coffee cup, we could remember William Charles Wells and his essay on dew and just think, what can I do, at this moment, to reduce my carbon footprint? Maybe it could be something as simple as turning off that phone (to conserve the battery) and watching what is going on in a café instead. A small gesture but one that would be good for us as well as the earth.

Coffee Geek and Friends is at the northern end of Cardinal Place shopping centre (opposite Westminster Cathedral).

As a Coffee Geek note, I would like to just comment that my notes on Coffee Geek and Friends were written using a “linux-sure” ball point pen. Not particularly environmentally friendly but definitely quite geeky.

Brunswick House

Brunswick House, coffee, cortado

Coffee at the Brunswick House cafe

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to try the coffee at Brunswick House. The old building which houses this cafe/restaurant sits on the corner of a major junction two minutes walk from Vauxhall tube station and feels somewhat out of place with the buildings around it. Inside, the incongruity continues with quirky decor and bookcases stacked with all manner of titles. Coffee beans are supplied by the roasters Coleman Coffee. As it was a lunchtime, I had a very enjoyable cortado (an espresso “cut” with steamed milk in a ratio of 1:1 – 1:2) which was full of flavour but not too bitter. With friendly staff and a spacious interior, this is definitely a place to return to whenever I am next in the Vauxhall area.

However, The Daily Grind is not so much interested purely in the coffee as in the connections between what we can observe in the coffee cup and the physics of the wider world. At Brunswick House, this came in the form of the link between one way in which we know that space is cold and a seemingly mundane observation, the condensation of water onto cold surfaces. Lifting my glass to appreciate the cortado, I noticed a number of water droplets on the (cold) saucer underneath the (hot) cup. As I kept the cup on the saucer, the saucer became warmer and the water droplets evaporated. By the time I finished my coffee, the saucer was dry. We can observe a similar phenomenon on the inside rim of a cup of steaming hot coffee. As we watch, water droplets form around the cold rim of the cup before starting to evaporate off again as the cup gets warmer. How is this related to the coldness of space? For that, we have to digress to an essay written two hundred years ago about dew.

cortado, Brunswick House, everyday physics, coffee cup science

The cortado on the saucer. 

William Charles Wells published his “Essay on Dew” in 1814 after two years of patient observation of the circumstances under which dew formed in the mornings. By carefully noting the weather conditions of the night preceding the dew fall and the surfaces onto which the dew formed, Wells came to some important conclusions. Firstly, the surfaces onto which dew formed suggested that the earth must be radiating heat into space; space must be cold. Secondly, the earth lost more heat on some nights than on others, it appeared that certain clouds kept the surface of the earth warm. If Wells was right it suggests that there is a natural greenhouse effect which is helpful for life on earth. This in turn suggests that the surface temperature of the earth is the result of a delicate balance between heat transfer to and away from our planet. Upsetting this balance (by introducing more greenhouse gases for example), could have serious consequences. Was Wells right? Perhaps we should start noticing when and where dew forms. So, over the next few weeks, make a note of dew laden mornings. Where did the dew form and under what circumstances? Do you agree with Wells? Let me know in the comments section (below). In a few weeks we will revisit Wells and his essay, in the meanwhile, enjoy your coffee!

Dappled with Dew

Part of my morning routine can involve a walk through a local park. Each day reveals how the seasons are affecting the plants, bird life etc. This morning on walking through the park, I was treated to the spectacle of a thick layer of dew, shimmering and spectacular, glinting in the sunlight.

dew, surface tension, everyday physics, slow morvement

The dew this morning

Taking out my phone, I tried to take a picture of the scene for later and yet, what came out in the image was not the brilliant scene before me but instead some blurry grass. The ‘immediacy’ of the sight struck home. As with so many of the gifts that nature provides, attempting to take a photograph of it somehow just doesn’t quite capture the beauty of the moment. There are some great photographs of sunsets or sunrises, but part of the attraction of the image is not the photograph itself but our memory of those brilliant sunsets that we have experienced. The photograph is suggestive of the beauty that the photographer saw but somehow, the fullness of that beauty has not translated into the photograph.

As we stop to enjoy the moment, rather than photograph it and rush off to our morning appointment, we can start to notice what it is about it that captivates us. From my viewpoint, the majority of the dew this morning formed a silver blanket on the grass. It was this that caught my eye initially. Yet as I observed the dew, individual droplets came into focus and, because of the angle at which I was viewing them, they appeared as blue, as a slightly different blue and then other different colours. The physics of the rainbow was being revealed before me, one metre away on the grass. If I moved, the clues to these mysteries would disappear.

It was a reminder to slow down and notice things, who knows what we’ll see.  Perhaps you will disagree and say that it is just my poor photography skills that are the problem.  Please disagree in the comments section below!  Alternatively, if you agree and want to share a moment of beauty and everyday physics, please also share that in the comments section below.  I’ll finish this post however with an excerpt from the thoughts of someone who obviously did stop, slow down and observe his world.  The excerpt is from “Inversnaid” by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Dew, surface tension, everyday physicsDegged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft,
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.