get noticing

Noticing at Artisan, Ealing

coffee Artisan Ealing

A good coffee is a solid foundation for any afternoon’s noticing.

A cafe-physics review with a difference. In that, it’s not so much a review as an invitation. What do you notice in a café?

Last week, I had the opportunity to try Artisan’s Ealing branch. Although I had found a lot to notice on my previous visit to the East Sheen branch, I had a very specific reason for visiting the Ealing location of this small chain of four cafés. The coffee (espresso) was reliably good. Smooth and drinkable in a friendly atmosphere. Just as with the café in East Sheen, there were a good selection of edibles at the counter and plenty to notice. The light shades were immediately outstanding as something to notice while a framed ‘hole in the wall’ provided a conversation point. The café was very busy and while there was plenty of seating with many tables, we were still lucky to have got a table for two near the back. Behind us there was a lesson going on in the coffee school while on the wall was the calendar for the space booking downstairs. And it was this that I had come here for.

A couple of months ago, Artisan announced that this space would be available to rent to provide a friendly space (with coffee) for the meetings of local small businesses or charities. This stayed in the back of my mind for a while as it came about at roughly the same time as an idea for Bean Thinking.

Lampshades at Artisan Ealing

First the obvious. Immediately striking, these lampshades could provide several avenues for thought.

There are a couple of us who are interested in meeting, about once a month, to discuss science. As ‘science’ is quite a big subject, we thought we would limit it to science that is associated with coffee or with the café at which we are meeting. Perhaps readers of this website may realise that this is not such a restriction, it is quite easy to connect coffee to the cosmic microwave background radiation of the Universe or to chromatography and analytical chemistry. If we were to meet in a location such as Artisan, there should be plenty more food for thoughts. The lampshades prompted me to consider what made substances opaque or transparent? Where is the link to coffee and methods for measuring the coffee extraction? The hole in the wall suggested thoughts about the algorithms behind cash machines. I’m sure that there is plenty more to notice if we take the time to see it.

And so this is an invitation. Would you like to join us in exploring what we each notice about the science of our surroundings? The plan would be to meet once a month, probably starting late January 2019 or early February (date and location to be confirmed). An afternoon on the weekend is probably better than an evening and we’d probably stay for an hour or two. You do not have to be a practising scientist to come along indeed, it would be great if we could have people from a variety of walks of life. The idea is not (necessarily) to answer scientific questions that we each may have but instead to explore the science behind the questions, to find the connections that form our ideas of the universe. To really notice our surroundings and our coffees (tea drinkers would also be welcome). As a consequence of this, mobile phones/laptops etc. will be discouraged during the afternoon. We’d like to notice things around us and not be distracted by what a search engine suggests about it; if we think a search engine could help us, we’ll use it after we’ve left and come back the following month to discuss the issues further. So, if you are curious, would like to explore what you notice and can tolerate keeping your phone on silent and in your pocket for an afternoon, please do come along, it would be great to meet some of you.

menus and lampshades in Artisan

You may like to look more closely at this photo. How are the menus supported? What does that tell us about the history of science?

In order to understand whether there would be any interest in this idea and to hear your input about the format, content, location, time etc. I have set up a mailing list for these cafe-science-spaces. Please do sign up to the mailing list to hear the latest announcements concerning these events and also to email me back to contribute your opinion. You can sign up to the mailing list using the sign up form below. Alternatively, if you don’t want to sign up to the mailing list but do want to hear more, I will be advertising the events on Twitter and Facebook so please do feel free to follow me there.

 

Please enter your email address here if you would like to hear about future Bean Thinking events.

 

Chemical extraction in a V60

chromatography, paper chromatography, V60

Brewing a coffee, insight into analytical chemistry

Ever considered the connection between your morning brew and a century old technique that, it is fair to say, revolutionised analytical chemistry?

Last week, a new coffee arrived in the post from the Roasting House coffee club, followed shortly by an email with details about that week’s coffee. This is not unusual, the coffee club means that a different coffee arrives every two weeks. What was slightly unusual was the email which started:

“There are some brief tasting notes on the bag of coffee we sent you, but before you go on and read the more detailed description, have a good taste of the coffee yourself….”

The opportunity to do so finally arrived and I prepared a V60. First measuring out the freshly ground beans, rinsing the filter, watching the bloom, then slowly pouring the remaining freshly boiled water onto the grounds, all the while noting the aroma.

Taking this opportunity to slowly prepare (and appreciate) a coffee, I noticed that some of the soluble elements in the coffee climbed the filter paper during the pour. A few hours afterwards, the paper had gained a circular rim of coffee solubles around the top of the paper. Although in many ways quite different, this effect was very reminiscent of the technique of chromatography.

Roast House coffee, tasting chromatography

The coffee in question. What tasting notes would you get if you slowed down and tried this one?

The biggest difference between the behaviour of the V60 filter and “paper chromatography” is that in the former, the bottom of the filter paper is continuously immersed in both the sample (coffee) and the solvent (water). In chromatography on the other hand, a drop of the sample (e.g. coffee or ink) is put onto the filter paper which is then placed in a solvent (e.g. water, ethanol). Different components within the sample travel different amounts up the filter paper depending on how soluble they are in the solvent and how they interact chemically with the filter paper. So different components will travel different distances up the filter paper before they get stuck while the solvent continues to travel up the paper. All else being constant, each component always travels a certain distance relative to the solvent and so this provides a way of separating chemical components ready for further analysis or identification.

Perhaps you remember using chromatography to separate the colours in an ink pen at school? The ink was spotted onto a piece of filter paper and then immersed in water. We watched as it separated into various colours illustrating the number of different dyes that had been used to make up the ink. When used professionally though, the chromatography technique can be used to investigate trace impurities in soil, air, drinking water etc. It has even been used to analyse the components in coffee. From something that can be done in school science, it is an incredibly powerful chemical technique.

What was surprising was that the technique of chromatography was not invented until 1903, while the idea of using paper in chromatography only came about in 1944¹. Those who first used chromatography as a method to identify chemicals (in plants), did so using columns of powder rather than paper. Paper chromatography was invented to investigate the separation of amino acids and specifically was used to understand the composition of the antibiotic tyrocidin¹. Just as the ink in our school experiments separated into different dyes, so the chemicals that they were investigating would separate into different components, different chemicals would stay at different heights on the filter paper.

Since its invention, the technique had been extended to include gas chromatography rather than just liquid and has been developed to be extraordinarily sensitive. It is now possible to analyse chemicals with a mass of just 10^-15 grammes, a quantity which is too small to even easily imagine. Even just a couple of decades after the invention of the technique it could be said:

“Amino acids… could now be separated in microgram amounts and visualised…. (Paper chromatography) would allow one within the space of a week [to do some analysis]… which until then could very well have occupied the three years of a Ph.D….”¹

V60 chromatography chemistry kitchen

A few hours later and the coffee had travelled up the filter paper with the solvent (water).

However, to return to the coffee. Through tasting rather than chemistry, I obtained a toffee aroma, with earthy notes and hints of redcurrant that evolved as the coffee cooled into a sweet toffee taste. The tasting notes further down the email on the other hand said:

“There’s a rich chocolate base, a kind of woody pine taste, sweet summer fruits, even tobacco. Remember, taste it before you judge it! Tobacco notes and woody pine don’t sound particularly appealing and maybe you don’t taste them at all!”

Much more descriptive than my effort. It seems I need to return to my V60 and improve my tasting ‘chromatography’. There are so many ways to slow down and appreciate a good coffee, what do you notice in yours?

A ‘coffee tasting wheel’ can be found here if you, like me, would like to improve your coffee tasting ‘chromatography’.

¹Chapters in the evolution of Chromatography, Ed. John V Hinshaw, Imperial College Press, 2008

Making a splash

You spilled your coffee, a terrible accident or an opportunity to start noticing?

Why do some droplets splash  while others stay, well, drop like? It turns out that there is some surprising physics at play here. When a drop of water, or coffee, falls from a height and onto a flat surface (such as glass), we are accustomed to seeing the droplet fracture into a type of crown of smaller droplets that form a mess over the surface. Visually spectacular, these splashing droplets have even been made into an art form (here).

Fast frame-rate photography reveals how each micro-droplet breaks away from the splashing drop:

Video taken from Vimeo – “Drop impact on a solid surface”, a review by Josserand and Thoroddsen.

 

So it perhaps surprising to discover that there are many things about this process that we do not yet understand. Firstly, if you reduce the gas pressure that surrounds the drop as it falls, it does not make a splash. In the extreme, this means that if you were to spill your coffee in a vacuum, you would not see the crown-like splashing behaviour that we have come to expect of falling liquids. Rather than splash, a droplet falling in low pressure spreads out on impact as a flattening droplet. This counterintuitive result was first described in a 2005 study (here) that compared the effect on splashing of droplets with different viscosities (methanol, ethanol, 2-propanol) falling through different gasses.

cortado, Brunswick House, everyday physics, coffee cup science

Don’t spill it!
But would a latte splash more or less than a long black?

The authors of the study ruled out the effect of air entrapment surrounding the droplet as it falls as high speed photography had not indicated any air bubbles in the droplet just before impact. Instead they considered that whether a drop splashes on impact – or not – depended on the balance between the surface tension of the falling liquid and the stress on the drop created by the restraining pressure of the surrounding gas. Calculating these stresses led to a second surprising result. Whether a drop splashes on impact or not depends on its viscosity (as well as the gas pressure and the speed of impact). But the surprising bit is that the more viscous the liquid, the greater the splash.

From a common-sense perspective (that may or may not have any bearing on the reality of the situation), an extremely viscous liquid like honey should not splash as much as a less viscous liquid like coffee. This suggests that there is an upper-limit in viscosity to the relation predicted in the 2005 study. After all, although the authors did change the viscosity of the liquids, the range of viscosity they studied was not as great as the difference between coffee and honey. This sounds like a perfect experiment for some kitchen-top science and so if any reader can share the results of their experiments on the relative splashes formed by coffee and honey, I would love to hear of them.

 

Mint infusions

blue tits, mint water, mint infusion, mint leaves in water

Mint in a glass of water. Do other species appreciate a mint aroma too?

Very often, in a café, there will be a jug of mint infused water sitting in a corner, offered as a complimentary accompaniment to the coffee. A fragrant way of ‘refreshing our palate’. Mint is one of many aromatic plants that we use to scent our rooms or freshen our breath. But are we the only species that uses mint and similar aromatics such as lavender in this way? Do other animals appreciate the aroma that a freshly plucked mint leaf can provide?

A few weeks ago (in mid-spring in the northern hemisphere), I noticed some odd bird behaviour going on just outside the window. A blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) had landed on the edge of a pot of mint and was busy tearing leaves off the plant that was growing just outside. We watched as the bird hopped around to the other side of the pot, tearing off the younger, fresher leaves. What on earth was it up to?
the blue tits didn't get this one

A sprig of mint growing in a pot.

A quick use of duckduckgo (or google if you’d prefer), revealed a surprising answer (or at least further questions) to this odd behaviour. It would appear that blue tits have been observed to pick mint, lavender and curry plant leaves and use them to line their nest. Moreover, individual blue tits have a preference for different plants. Some females (it appears to be the female that collects the leaves) prefer mint, some lavender, and presumably some prefer curry. There is even a video from “Springwatch” that filmed this behaviour in a blue tit nest a few years ago (link is here). Similar behaviour has been observed in some other bird species such as the Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) but not in other, related bird species such as coal tits or great tits. So what could be driving this behaviour, is it, as the BBC said in its headline “aromatherapy”?

This image is copyrighted gardensafari.net

Does this blue tit prefer mint or lavender?
Image used with permission and © Gardensafari.net (thanks)

According to research, in fragranced nests, the number of bacteria/pathogens on the chicks was significantly reduced compared with non-scented nests. The chicks also seemed healthier, not only did they have a higher red blood cell count, they grew faster. What remains unclear is the reason that this should be so. Is it that the mint is anti-bacterial? Or is it, as suggested in the programme Springwatch, that the smell can perhaps relax the immune system of the birds allowing them to “put more effort into their growth”. Moreover, how did the birds first know how to pick these plants? How did this behaviour spread?

There is always a risk that we anthropomorphise other animals and consider that they appreciate aromatherapy when they are not doing so. There is however an alternative risk that we reduce animals almost to biological automata that manifest different behaviours purely for the biological advantage it gives them (as if they know that in advance). These questions are too far outside my ‘specialist’ area, for me to attempt to consider on Bean Thinking. However, as an ‘interested observer’ I can still appreciate and wonder at the interesting sights that five minutes spent observing our surroundings can provide. I will also enjoy the feeling it brings to know that we are sharing the mint on the window sill with the blue tits and their chicks.
Have you ever observed similar behaviour by birds in your neighbourhood? What birds around the world share our preference for mint? Comments are always welcome either here or on Facebook or Twitter.