gravitational lensing

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.


Caustic Coffee

A post that applies equally to tea, just swap the word “tea” for “coffee” throughout!

A cusp caustic in an empty mug of coffee

Have you seen this line?

Look deep into your coffee. Do you see the secrets of the cosmos being revealed? Well, neither do I usually but there is something in your coffee that could be said to have ‘cosmic implications’ and I’m sure it’s something that you’ve seen hundreds of times.

Now, admittedly it is easier to see this effect if you put milk in your coffee. Imagine drinking your (milky) coffee with a strong light source (the Sun, a lightbulb) behind you. You see that curved line of light that meets in a cusp near the centre of the cup? You can see various photos of it on this page. Yes, it is indeed the reflection of the light from the curved mug surface but it is far from just that. It is what prompted a professor at Duke University to say “It’s amazing how what we can see in a coffee cup extends into a mathematical theorem with effects in the cosmos.” To understand why, perhaps it is worth reflecting a bit more on our coffee.

The shape of the curve is called a ‘cusp’  and the bright edge is known as a ‘caustic’. It is fairly easy to play with the angle of the cup and the light so that you can see the first cusp curve but you can go further and create caustics that are the result of multiple reflections. Such multiple reflections can give heart shaped curves or “cardioids” so, in a certain sense adding milk to your coffee is good for (seeing) the heart.

caustic in a cup of tea or coffee

A cusp reflection is just visible in a cup of (soya) milk tea

Caustics were first investigated by Huygens and Tschirnhaus in the late 17th century. Mathematically, the cusp curve is termed an epicycloid, you can draw one by tracing the shape made by a point on the circumference of a circle rotating around a second circle, as this graphic from Wolfram mathematics demonstrates. There is a lot of maths in milky coffee. But just how is it that these curves reveal the “Cosmos in a cup of coffee“? It turns out that once you start to see caustics you start to see them everywhere. Caustics are not just going to be formed on the inside of your coffee mug, they can be formed by light waves getting bent by ripples on the surface of a stream or even by gravity, in a phenomenon known as “gravitational lensing”.  Gravitational lensing is when a massive object, such as a black hole or a galaxy, bends the light travelling past it so that it acts analogously to a lens in optics (but a very big one). It is this last type of caustic that prompted the headline quoted above. In a series of papers published in the Journal of Mathematical Physics, Arlie Petters of Duke University and coworkers calculated how light from distant objects was focussed through gravitational lensing and the effects of caustics. Their predictions (and in particular any exceptions to their predictions) could lead to a new way to search for the elusive dark matter, which is thought to contribute to much of the Universe’s mass. They are now waiting for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) to start mapping the sky in order to test their theories.

multiple caustics from multiple LEDs

Multiple light sources are being reflected in this cup.

Before concluding this discussion of cosmic coffee, it is worth taking another look at the mathematician Tschirnhaus. As well as maths, he was known for his philosophy and his chemistry. In fact, it seems that he was responsible for the invention of European porcelain. As noted elsewhere, it has been argued that it was the ability of Europeans to start making their own porcelain that explained the rapid rise in consumption of tea and coffee during the eighteenth century in Europe. Interestingly, one of the tools that allowed Tschirnhaus to succeed in manufacturing porcelain in Dresden where others elsewhere failed was his use of “burning mirrors” to focus the heat and to achieve higher furnace temperatures than were otherwise available. He was using those caustics that he and others had so thoroughly studied mathematically in order to produce the type of cup in which we most often encounter the easiest caustics. A lovely little ‘elliptical’ story on which to end this Daily Grind.

In order to see the caustics in your coffee, it is necessary that the coffee reflects the light incident on it. Meaning, you need to add milk to your coffee. I knew there had to be a good reason to add milk to coffee at some point. Please do share your photos of caustics in your coffee either here or on Facebook or Twitter.