Elements

Telling the time with an Aeropress?

Aeropress bloom, coffee in an Aeropress

The first stage of making coffee with an Aeropress is to immerse the coffee grind in the water. Here, the plunger is at the bottom of the coffee.

On occasion, it takes a change in our routine for us to re-see our world in a slightly different way. And so it was that when there was an opportunity to borrow an Aeropress together with a hand grinder, I jumped at it. Each morning presented a meditative time for grinding the beans before the ritual of preparing the coffee by a different brew method. Each day became an opportunity to think about something new.

Perhaps it is not as immediately eye catching as the method of a slow pour of water from a swan necked kettle of a V60, and yet making coffee using the Aeropress offers a tremendously rich set of connections that we could ponder and contemplate if we would but notice them. And it starts with the seal. For those who may not be familiar with the Aeropress, a cylindrical ‘plunger’ with a seal tightly fits into a plastic cylinder (brew guide here). The first stage of making a coffee with the Aeropress is to use the cylinder to brew an ‘immersion’ type coffee, exactly as with the French Press (but here, the plunger is on the floor of the coffee maker). Then, after screwing a filter paper and plastic colander to the top of the cylinder and leaving the coffee to brew for a certain amount of time, the whole system is ‘inverted’ onto a mug where some coffee drips through the filter before the rest is forced out using the plunger to push the liquid through the coffee grind.

clepsydra creative commons license British Museum

A 4th century BC Ptolemaic clepsydra in the British Museum collection. Image © Trustees of the British Museum

Immediately perhaps your mind could jump to water clocks where water was allowed to drip out of two holes at the bottom of a device at a rate that allowed people to time certain intervals. It is even suggested that Galileo used such a “clepsydra” to time falling bodies (though I prefer the idea that he sang in order to time his pendulums). With many holes in the bottom of the device and an uneven coffee grind through which the water (coffee) flows, the Aeropress is perhaps not the best clock available to us now. However there is another connection between the Aeropress and the clepsydra that would take us to a whole new area of physics and speculation.

When the medieval thinker Adelard of Bath was considering the issue of whether nature could sustain a vacuum, he thought about the issue of the clepsydra¹. With two holes at the bottom and holes at the top for air, the clepsydra would drip the water through the clock at an even rate. Unless of course the holes at the top were blocked, in which case the water stopped dripping, (a similar thing can be observed when sealing the top of a straw). What kept the water in the jar when the top hole was blocked? What kept it from following its natural path of flowing downwards? (gravity was not understood at that point either). Adelard argued that it was not ‘magic’ that kept the water in when no air could go through, something else was at work.

What could be the explanation? Adelard argued that the universe was full of the four elements (air, water, fire, earth) which are “so closely bound together by natural affection, that just as none of them would exist without the other, so no place is empty of them. Hence it happens, that as soon as one of them leaves its position, another immediately takes its place… When, therefore, the entrance is closed to that which is to come in, it will be all in vain that you open an exit for the water, unless you give an entrance to the air….”²

inverted Aeropress and coffee stain

The Aeropress inverted onto a coffee cup before the plunger is pushed down. Complete with coffee stain behind the cup where the inversion process went awry.

Now, we would argue that whether the water flows down and out of the Aeropress, or not, depends on the balance of forces pushing the water down and those pushing it up. The forces pushing the water down and out of the clepsydra, or Aeropress, are gravity and the air pressure above the water in the cylinder. Pushing it up, it is only the air pressure from below. Ordinarily, the air pressure above and that below the water in the Aeropress are quite similar, gravity wins the tug of war and the water flows out. In an enclosed system however (if the holes at the top are blocked), were the water to flow out of the bottom, the air pressure above the coffee space would reduce. This makes sense because, if no new air gets in, the same amount of air that we had before now occupies a larger volume as the water has left it, the pressure exerted by that air will have to be less than before. A reduced air pressure means a reduced force on the water pushing it down through the filter and so the force pushing the water down can now be perfectly balanced by the force (from the surrounding air) pushing the water up: the water remains in the Aeropress. The only way we get the coffee out is to change the balance of forces on the water which means pushing down the plunger.

But perhaps it is worth stepping back and imagining what the consequences could be of having the idea that the universe was just full of something that had to be continuous. You may find it quite reasonable for example to consider that vortices would form behind and around the planets as they travelled in their circular orbits through this ‘something’*. Such vortices could explain some of the effects of gravity that we observe and so there would perhaps be no urgency to develop a gravitational theory such as the one we have. There would be other consequences, the world of vacuum physics and consequently of electronics would be significantly set back. In his lecture for the Carl Sagan Prize for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science, The Director of the Vatican Observatory, Br Guy Consolmagno SJ explored previous scientific ideas that were almost right, which “is to say wrong” (You can see his lecture “Discarded Worlds: Astronomical Worlds that were almost correct” here) If it is true that so many scientific theories lasted so long (because they were almost correct) but were in fact wrong, how many of our scientific ideas today are ‘almost correct’ too?

It makes you wonder how our preconceptions of the world affect our ability to investigate it. And for that matter, how our ability to contemplate the world is affected by our practise of doing so. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For that to be true, the beholder has to open their eyes, look, contemplate and be prepared to be shown wrong in their preconceptions.

What connections do you make to your coffee brew each morning? I’d love to know, here in the comments, on Twitter or over on Facebook.

 

* Does a connection between this and stirring your freshly brewed Aeropress coffee with a teaspoon trailing vortices stretch the connectivity a bit too far?

¹ “Much Ado about Nothing: Theories of space and vacuum from the Middle Ages to the Scientific Revolution”, Edward Grant, Cambridge University Press, (1981)

² Quoted from Adelard of Bath’s “Quaestiones Naturales” taken from Much Ado about nothing, page 67.

Phlogiston in the Watch House

Watch House coffee Bermondsey

The Watch House in Bermondsey

At the end of Bermondsey St, tucked away in an odd looking building on the corner, is a café known as the Watch House. Stepping inside you are met with a very strange impression: this is far from your normal rectangular room. Instead an octagonal space, complete with Victorian style tiling and wood burning stove greets you. There are about five small tables inside, which were all occupied (some shared) when we arrived late in the lunch hour. So we sat at a table outside, although there was also bench seating on the other side of the door and a lovely park just next door, the old St Mary Magdalen graveyard.

The building itself dates from the time when the “watch house” was the base for a makeshift local constabulary that would monitor the local area ensuring that no body-snatchers were operating in the graveyard next door. The body snatchers used to ‘acquire’ recently buried bodies for use in anatomy classes at the capital’s teaching hospitals. Nowadays, as with many other disused burial grounds in London, the graveyard next door has been transformed into a park. On the other side of the café, a drinking fountain (the gift of a Henry Sterry Esq.) is embedded into the wall. An interesting feature reminding us of the drive to provide drinking water to London’s population both then and now with the newly installed fountains at the nearby Borough Market.

coffee at Watch House

What fantastic colour in this filter.

As I placed my V60 on the table outside, the light shone through it making the coffee appear to glow with a deep red tinge. Temporarily ignoring my normal idea that such transient beauty can’t be captured, I tried to photograph it, an endeavour that predictably failed to capture the full radiance of the cup. Nonetheless, the clear red coffee did not have significant sediment at the bottom of the cup. Perhaps this is not surprising, it was a V60. But nevertheless this lack of sediment has a connection with the water fountains both at the Watch House and at Borough Market and the wood burning stove. You could even make a macabre link to the graveyard next door. But without pursuing that last one too much, the link is Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) and the transmutation, or not, of water into earth.

The problem was this: In the early seventeenth century Jon Baptist Van Helmont had planted a 5lb (2.3 kg) willow tree into a pot of soil of mass 200 lb (91 kg)¹. He covered the pot of soil and only allowed rainwater into the tree/pot system for 5 years. At the end of his experiment, the mass of soil was unchanged but the willow tree was now 169 lb 3 oz (76.8 kg). Clearly, the “element” water had transmuted into the “element” earth* and so added to the mass of the tree. A few years later and scientists boiling distilled water (which had of course been purified by previous boiling) noticed that there was always a solid residue left after the water had boiled away². Another piece of evidence for the transmutation of water into earth.

Lavoisier, who became known as the father of modern chemistry, thought differently. He had been interested in obtaining clean, safe drinking water for the inhabitants of Paris and had noticed that when rainwater was repeatedly distilled, the amount of solid residue left after boiling decreased with each distillation. How was this reconcilable with the idea that each time you boiled water part of it became the element earth? But if water wasn’t ‘transmuting’ into earth, what could explain the solid residues observed by the other scientists of his day?

Lavoisier suspected the potash or soda used in making the glass vessels used in the experiments. He thought that this could be dissolving out of the vessels when the water was boiled, leaving what looked like a solid residue at the bottom of the cup². To demonstrate that this could be the case, Lavoisier took a sealed container of water called a ‘Pelican’ (which has two arms to allow the water vapour to cool and drip back down to the base of the unit). He first weighed the water and the vessel, separately and together and then boiled the water in the sealed pelican for 100 days. After 100 days he weighed the container-water system again. The total mass had not changed. However, when they were weighed separately, something odd had happened. The glass vessel (the pelican) had lost some mass while solid salts had appeared in the vessel. Although these salts weighed slightly more than the mass lost by the pelican container, Lavoisier considered the discrepancy within error thereby showing that the ‘transmutation’ observed by other scientists was actually salt dissolving out of the glass vessel.

Lavoisier’s experiments were an important contribution to the development of experimental method as well as a refutation of the old idea of the transmutation of the elements earth-air-fire-water.

Lavoisier, drinking fountain, Bermondsey

The fountain on the side of the Watch House. How had a need for supplying the public with drinking water shaped our scientific thinking?

Which leaves one last connection: the wood stove. Since the dawn of humanity, there has been the question “what is fire?”. By the time of Lavoisier, fire was explained by the idea that matter contained more or less “phlogiston”. Something could catch fire if it contained a large amount of phlogiston, it would not ignite were it to have too little phlogiston³. One observation clearly explained by the phlogiston theory was the observation that a burning candle, covered by a glass bell jar, would extinguish itself. The idea was that the candle (which contained phlogiston) released that phlogiston into the air. If the candle burned within a jar, the air surrounding the candle would became saturated with phlogiston. Once saturated, the air could ‘hold’ no more phlogiston so none could escape the candle wick. This would mean that the flame would go out.

Lavoisier, now recognised as one of the three independent co-discoverers of oxygen, showed that oxygen, not phlogiston, was needed for burning to occur. The question is how did he do it? And a question for you, when you are enjoying your sediment free delicious coffee next to a warming wood fire: how would you?

 

*to be fair to Van Helmont, it is hard to blame him for arriving at this conclusion. It was still a few centuries before photosynthesis was discovered and the idea of the four elements of fire, earth, water and air was still active in his time.

The Watch House is at 199 Bermondsey St, SE1 3UW

¹”Lavoisier in the year one”, Madison Smartt Bell, Atlas Books (2005)

²”Lavoisier”, Jean-Pierre Poirier, University of Pennsylvania Press, (1996)

³”From phlogiston to oxygen”, John Cartwright, Hatfield (2000)

 

In their Elements at Bean Reserve, Bangsar, KL

coffee in Bangsar at Bean Reserve

Bean Reserve, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Note the logo on the window.

The first thing that struck me as I entered Bean Reserve in KL was the geometry. Somewhat hidden along a street behind Jalan Maarof, Bean Reserve offers a quiet space amidst the bustle of Bangsar. The 2D representation of a 3D object that is Bean Reserve’s logo is somehow mirrored in the choice of the tables and chairs that are contained in the cuboid space of this café. Triangular tables are arranged to form larger, quadrilateral tables. Circular stools nestle underneath square tables. Light streams into the café from a large window on one side of the room. The other side features a sliding door that was occasionally opened, revealing the desks of The Co, a co-working space that shares the building of Bean Reserve.

Although we only tried the drinks (an exceptionally fruity long black and a very cocoa-y iced chocolate), there looked to be an interesting selection of edibles on offer, with a bottle of chilli sauce stored behind the counter. Soy milk was available if you prefer non-dairy lattes and there were a good range of drinks on offer from nitro-cold brew to iced chocolate, just what can be needed in the heat of KL! Coffee is roasted by Bean Reserve themselves (who are both a café and a roastery), thereby providing the residents of (and visitors to) Bangsar with a seasonally varying range of great, freshly roasted coffee.

geometry at Bean Reserve

Triangular tables and circular stools.

The different geometrical features in the café immediately suggested Euclid to my thoughts. Written over 2300 years ago, Euclid’s The Elements was, for many years, the text book on geometry and mathematics. It is said that Abraham Lincoln taught himself the first 6 books of The Elements (there are 13 in total) at the age of 40 as training for his mind¹. Working from 5 postulates and a further 5 common notions, Euclid describes a series of elegant mathematical proofs, such as his proof of the Pythagoras theorem. And so, it may be appropriate that there is one more geometrical connection between the ancient Greeks and Bean Reserve: That sliding door that connects the café to the working space of The Co.

The space, occupied by The Co, behind the sliding door seems to be much larger than the café. But how much larger is it? Double the length? Double the volume? This is similar to the problem that perplexed the Delians. The idea is simple: Find the length of the side of a cube that has a volume exactly double that of a given cube. It is thought that the problem may have been formulated by the Pythagoreans, who, having succeeded in finding a method of doubling the square (see schematic), extended that idea to 3D. Could a simple geometrical method be used to double the cube? (There is of course the alternative legend about the problem having been given to the Delians by the Oracle)

A geometrical method for finding the length of a square with twice the area of a given square… now for 3D

It turns out that this is a tough problem, but one that may again have relevance for our world today. While researching this café-physics review, I came across a book by TL Heath² that had been published in 1921. In his introduction he wrote:

The work was begun in 1913, but the bulk of it was written, as a distraction, during the first three years of the war, the hideous course of which seemed day by day to enforce the profound truth conveyed in the answer of Plato to the Delians. When they consulted him on the problem set them by the Oracle, namely that of duplicating the cube, he replied, ‘It must be supposed, not that the god specially wished this problem solved, but that he would have the Greeks desist from war and wickedness and cultivate the Muses, so that, their passions being assuaged by philosophy and mathematics, they might live in innocent and mutually helpful intercourse with one another’.

 

 

Bean Reserve can be found at 8 Lengkok Abdullah, Bangsar, 59000 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

¹History of Mathematics, An Introduction, 3rd Ed. DM Burton, McGraw-Hill, 1997

²A History of Greek Mathematics, Thomas Heath, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1921