diffraction grating

Corona gazing in cafes

interference patterns on coffee

There are many ways in which rainbows of colour are produced as light interacts with our coffee or in a cafe. Looking around yourself now, how many do you see? What physics underlies each?

As the nights grow longer and the days colder, we notice that windows steam up as the water vapour in the café condenses onto the cooler glass. Perhaps we see a similar thing on our glasses while we are drinking tea or on the windows of a bus. Initially we perhaps become frustrated at our inability to see what is going on outside but then we notice the colourful patterns around the lights of passing cars and of street lights. Haloes of coloured light around a central bright spot. What does this tell us and where else can we see it, either in a café or in life generally?

On a window pane, a large number of small droplets of water have condensed into what appears to us as a fog on the glass. As the light shines through from the car headlights, each droplet acts as an obstacle to the light and so bends it. You could see a similar effect with the waves on the sea going around stones or perhaps if you brew a large cup of coffee with the surface waves going around a spoon (let me know if you manage to see this bending in a coffee cup). The amount that the light bends is dependent on the wavelength of the light (look carefully at the waves going around obstacles in ponds to see this) and so different wavelengths (different colours) get bent by different amounts and interfere with each other at different points – a spectrum is produced. It is a phenomenon known as diffraction.

Not all beans are equal! How could you quickly distinguish between arabica and robusta beans?

This phenomenon means that we have a way of separating the frequencies (or wavelengths) of light. And so this means that we have a way of measuring the chemical composition of some substances as different chemicals absorb different frequencies and so have ‘fingerprints’ in the light they scatter. By passing the light scattered from a substance (such as arabica coffee beans compared to robusta) through a diffraction grating (which is an obstacle with a pattern of fixed size), we can separate the frequencies being scattered and see if any of them are ‘missing’ (ie. they have been absorbed by the material we’re studying). It would be  a bit like looking at that rainbow pattern in the café window and not seeing blue, its absence tells you something. This is one of the ways that robusta beans can be quickly found if they have been substituted for arabica beans in coffee trading.

Coffee Corona

Look carefully: Sometimes you can infer the existence of a thin (white) mist over your coffee by the corona pattern around reflected light fittings.

But it is not just its technological aspect that has interest for us surely? When gazing at the moon on a misty evening, the halo around the moon suggests the clouds between us and it. It is something that poets have remarked upon to evoke atmosphere, it is something that we can gaze at as we imagine the giant café window of our atmosphere. But the size, and distinctness of the lunar corona actually give us clues about the droplets making up the cloud. And then we look closer to home and to our own coffee and we see the same diffraction pattern again looking back at us from our coffee’s surface. Occasionally it is possible to see haloes on the coffee surface around the reflection of overhead lights in the café. A coffee corona! This reveals to us the fact that there are droplets of water above the surface of our coffee; an extra layer of hovering droplets. Something that we can sometimes see more directly in the dancing white mists.

Diffraction is a beautiful phenomenon that allows us to gaze and to contemplate how much we are able to deduce and how much we have yet to understand. How atmospheric our coffees and cafés are and the journey of understanding that we have taken to get to this point. Coffee gazing is a hobby that should be taken up by far more of us.

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