rainbow

What haloes and crowns reveal about your coffee

Coffee Corona

Look carefully around the reflected white light. Do you see the rainbow like pattern?

Several weeks ago I had been enjoying some very good black coffee at OJO in Bangsar, KL. As is fairly typical for me, I had been trying to observe the white mists that form just above the coffee. White mists are fascinating, tissue-like clouds that you can often see hovering above the coffee. They form, tear suddenly and then reform into a slightly different pattern. As I was photographing my coffee, I noticed what seemed to be interference patterns on the mists (see picture), just like oil on water, a rainbow-like shimmering over the coffee surface. Yet that explanation did not make sense; interference patterns form because the layer of oil on water has approximately the same thickness as the wavelength of visible light (see more info here). The water droplets that make up the white mists are a good 15 times thicker than the wavelength of light. It is not possible that these mists are producing interference effects, it has to be something else.

Then, last week and back in London, I was walking towards the setting Sun one evening when I saw what looked like a rainbow in a cloud. What caused this and how was it related to what I had seen earlier in my coffee? A short trip to the library later and it was confirmed. What I had seen in the clouds was most likely a Sun-dog. Formed by the refraction of sunlight by ice crystals in the atmosphere, Sun-dogs manifest as bright regions of rainbow. The Sun-dog appeared in cirrus clouds because these are made from the sort of ice crystals that produce brilliant Sun-dogs. These ice crystals are flat and hexagonal so they refract sunlight exactly as does a prism. Just like a prism, red light and blue light will be refracted by differing amounts and so they will appear at different places in the sky. The minimum angle of refraction produces the most intense colouration and, for hexagonal platelets of ice, this occurs at 22º away from the light source.

Sun-dog, Sun dog

A Sun-dog in the clouds to the right of the setting Sun

I do not find degrees a particularly helpful way of thinking about distance but what helped me is that, in terms of the sky, if you hold your outstretched hand out at arms length, the distance from your thumb to the tip of your finger is, approximately, 22º. Hence, if you see a halo around the Sun at about that distance, it is most likely a refraction effect due to ice crystals in the sky and if you see an intense rainbow roughly parallel to the elevation of the Sun, it is very likely to be a Sun-dog.

What does this tell us about the colours in the mists above the coffee? Well, clearly the mists are not made of ice crystals but neither is the ‘rainbow’ colouring as far as 22º from the light source (a light bulb reflected in the coffee). Also, the rainbow is less vivid and, if you look closely, inverted from the rainbow in the clouds. In the cloud, the inner edge of the arc was red and the outer edge blue, in the coffee, the outer edge is more reddish, while the inner is more blue-ish. This is another clue. On the same evening as I had seen the Sun-dog, there was a full moon and around the Moon was a glowing ring, tinged slightly reddish on the outside. The ring was far closer to the Moon than the Sun-dog had been to the Sun. This Moon-ring, and the coffee colouring are the same effect, they are examples of ‘corona’ (literally crown) and they are caused by diffraction of light rather than refraction.

straw, water, glass

It is refraction that makes the straw appear broken in this glass of water.

Refraction we are all quite familiar with, it is the bending of a straw in a glass of water as you look through the glass. Diffraction is a little more tricky, but it is a consequence of how the light moves past an object. It can be understood by thinking about how water waves pass objects in a stream (or by playing with the simulation here). The amount that the wave is diffracted depends on both the size of the object and the wavelength of the wave. As blue light has a much shorter wavelength than red light, the blue will be diffracted by a different amount to the red. If the objects diffracting the light are of a similar size (as water droplets in white mists are going to be) a spectrum, or a rainbow of colour will appear around the light source. The more uniform the droplet size, the more vivid the spectrum in the corona. The thin cloud around the Moon that evening was made up of many different sized droplets and so the rainbow effect was very subtle. In contrast, around the reflection of the light bulb in the coffee, the water droplets in the white mist are a fairly similar size and so the spectrum is more vividly seen.

Seeing rainbow effects in the sky (or in the coffee) therefore gives us many clues as to what is in the sky or indeed, levitating above the coffee. Please do send me any pictures you have of coronae around light source reflections in your coffee, or indeed sun dogs if you are fortunate enough to see them*.

* Sun dogs are in fact apparently fairly common, it is more that we have to be attentive to see them.

Arepa and Co, Haggerston

Haggerston Canal

Arepa and Co are on the right hand side of this canal

Edmond Halley (of comet fame) was born in the London district of Haggerston in 1656. More recently, Arepa and Co a Venezuelan cafe located alongside the canal that runs through the district, has just celebrated its first birthday there. This cafe serves a variety of Venezuelan foods including the arepas of the name which are, apparently, a traditional corn cake that can be filled with a variety of fillings (more info here). There are seats both inside the cafe or outside, overlooking the canal. As it was the early afternoon and we’d already had lunch, we decided upon a coffee, a sugar cane lemonade and, to accompany it a plate of Tequenos de Chocolate. These unusual little pancakes filled with chocolate were delightful to enjoy with a cup of coffee and a view over the canal. Sitting back and enjoying this relaxing view, I noticed a tree on the roof of a building on the opposite side of the canal. Hanging on the tree were a number of glass shapes. As the wind blew, the different faces of the shapes caught the Sun. Looking towards these glass shapes, they appeared to change colour as the sunlight was refracted through them. A glinting rainbow array of light fell onto our side of the canal.

The story of the investigation of colour is a great example of how our preconceived ideas can influence the results that we think we see. Up until the seventeenth century, colour was viewed as a property of the surfaces of an object as opposed to “light” which was that which rendered objects visible. Therefore trying to explain how rainbows formed or light scattered from ornaments was a difficult task. Indeed, medieval philosophers (the term ‘scientist’ is a nineteenth century invention), considered that there were only seven colours: Yellow, orange, red, purple, green and black and white.

Prism associated with Isaac Newton

A late C17th prism in the British Museum collection, © Trustees of the British Museum

Work understanding colour as a refracted component of white light started with Marci in his 1648 work Thaumantias (another name for Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow) and continued with Newton’s famous experiments with prisms. Newton showed that a glass prism refracted the different colours of light by different amounts (resulting in a spectrum). If two prisms were placed at right angles to each other, the rainbow of light from the first prism recombined into white light emerging from the second. With the change in mindset that this brought about, phenomena such as the rainbow could be more easily explained.

Grecian, Coffee House, London Coffee House

The Devereux pub now stands on the site of the Grecian coffee house, a former meeting place of the Royal Society

Which brings me back to coffee. Back in the eighteenth century cafes (or coffee houses) were not just places to have coffee but places to engage in the latest philosophical, political or scientific discussion and debate. Scientists of the day regularly gave public lectures and demonstrations in coffee houses both as a way of entertainment and of education. One scientist who participated in this was Stephen Demainbray (1710-1782). Demainbray demonstrated Newton’s experiments and theories on colour to a coffee drinking audience. The models that he used to explain the refraction of light are now on display in the Science Museum which is well worth a visit if you are in London. In the present day, there are still cafes and coffee houses that try to do a similar thing (of showing fun science to a coffee drinking audience), although perhaps sadly there are fewer now than there were then. Two movements that are trying to put the science back into coffee houses are Science Cafes and Cafe Scientifique. Although not always held in cafes, both movements have the aim of combining interesting science with a cup of coffee or glass of wine. Somewhat poetically the next Cafe Scientifique in London is to be held, on the 9th December, at the Royal Society. It is poetic because back in the time of Newton, discussions with the Royal Society president (Newton) and other society members took place at the Grecian Coffee House.

Both “Science Cafes” and “Cafe Scientifique” have events worldwide. It is worth taking a look at their websites to see if there is an event near you. Why not pop along and see what you can find out while having a cup of coffee?

 

Sources used:

The Rainbow Bridge, Raymond L Lee, Jr and Alistair B Fraser, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002

The Nature of Light, Vasco Ronchi, Heinemann, 1970

London Coffee Houses, Bryant Lillywhite, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1963

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.