surface tension

The universe in a cup of coffee

black coffee, Vagabond, Highbury
The universe in a cup of coffee, but how much can we take this literally?

When people ask, what is Bean Thinking about, they often get the reply, it’s about “the universe in a cup of coffee”*. And it is perfectly true, much of the physics of the coffee cup is mirrored by the physics of the universe: you could think about the Black body radiation and the Cosmic Microwave Background, or the steam from the cup and cloud formation, but what about General Relativity? Could it really be that physics such as that of General Relativity mirrored in a coffee cup?

It could, perhaps, initially appear a ludicrous idea. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity explains the gravitational attractions of massive objects such as stars and planets through the curvature of space-time. And although what occurs on the planetary scale must also be valid on the scale of the coffee cup, we would surely expect classical, Newtonian physics to dominate here. But that would be to neglect the equally ludicrously named “Cheerios effect” and a paper that was published in Nature Communications earlier this month.

The cheerios effect is the phenomenon that you may have noticed on your tea or coffee whereby two floating objects on the surface are attracted to each other (and named after observations of the effect in a breakfast bowl). Two bits of a dropped biscuit come together or two bubbles bounce to form a pair. The effect occurs because both objects dent the surface of the drink by bending the surface of the liquid through surface tension effects. Consequently, the two objects don’t float on a flat coffee surface but a curved one and when they get close enough together, the surface tension effects bring the objects together into one big indentation rather than two smaller ones.

You can see surface tension effects from the curvature of the coffee around the edge of a cup. It is also visible around objects that float on top of the coffee.

On the face of it, this has similarities with the ‘cartoon version’ (or schematic) of the idea of gravity in general relativity. Each massive object (ie. any object with mass) bends the space-time around it, the more massive an object, the more the space-time is bent. This has the effect of seeming to bend light and leads to gravitational attraction. And yet there are very many differences. A liquid surface is 2D, planets clearly move in at least 4D, the way the surface bends owing to surface tension is surely not the same as the way that space time bends owing to its distortion through massive objects. It could go on only it turns out that some of the maths is quite similar: the surface is distorted proportional to the mass of the object in a cup of coffee, the attraction between the objects is a product of both masses (as it is with gravity). Indeed, it has even been proposed that studying the cheerios effect could be a way of gaining insight into some of the problems of general relativity. But there was always a catch: Friction.

On the surface of a coffee, although the floating object is bending the surface proportional to its mass, it is in some sense in contact with the fluid. When the object moves, there is a frictional resistance to the movement caused by the object’s interaction with the coffee. This makes it quite different from the situation in space. And so you would have been correct in your suspicion that general relativity would not be easily found in a coffee cup, but only for reasons of friction.

Which is where the recent Nature Communications paper comes in. Rather than float objects on coffee, the researchers floated silicone oil droplets on liquid nitrogen. Being a liquid, the nitrogen is subject to surface tension effects just like coffee, but being a very cold liquid (196 C below freezing point), it shows a second effect when the (room temperature, ie. warm) oil droplets are floated onto it: the inverse Leidenfrost effect.

Coffee, Van Gogh
What do you see in your coffee cup?

Again, you may have seen the Leidenfrost effect while frying eggs (or tofu if you’re vegan). When the frying pan is very hot, drops of water sprinkled into the pan will immediately vaporise in the layer between the pan and the droplet causing the drop to dance around the pan as if it is flying. The inverse Leidenfrost effect is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the inverse of this. When the liquid is very cold and a hot object is introduced to its surface it will instantaneously vaporise meaning that the hot object on the surface will skip over the cold liquid, without friction.

The reason that this is relevant to the idea of general relativity in a coffee cup is that this bending of the surface of the liquid nitrogen, coupled with the inverse Leidenfrost effect effectively levitating the drops means that you have a warped liquid surface, like the bending of space-time, but the floating object moves with absolutely no friction, because there is no contact between it and the liquid beneath. Clever.

And so what happens when you introduce two droplets to the nitrogen surface? How do they interact? Well, they attract each other and can even orbit each other like planets until, as the friction effects start to grow even in this system, the drops cease behaving as planets and can collide. It is a fascinating observation but one with relevance to biological self-organisation rather than an immediate extension to general relativity. That will be for another study, perhaps one with super-cold brew coffee.

So, the universe in a cup of coffee? Perhaps. But sometimes not strictly literally.

You can read the paper in Nature Communications here (it’s open access), or the summary in Physics.Org here.

*With suitable acknowledgement of the Feynman anecdote that you can see here.

Details at The Italian Coffee Club, Shepherd’s Bush Market

Italian coffee club, Shepherd's Bush Market
The Italian Coffee Club. Plenty of chairs both inside and out.

What’s in a name? A hundred impressions and assumptions, an idea that to know somebody is to know their name? And so it was that The Italian Coffee Club thew me. Towards the Uxbridge Road end of Shepherd’s Bush Market, The Italian Coffee Club is in a wooden lined chalet. A few tables outside and some prominent signage leave you in no doubt as to the fact that coffee is served here. A sign asks if you would like to try the signature Italian blend, while another informs you that the aroma of the coffee “comes from here”.

Which goes part the way to explain why I was surprised when I walked in. Inside, a number of chairs and tables line the, fairly narrow, space leading to the counter. Towards the counter are various large jars of freshly roasted coffee beans ready for retail. Perhaps this should have given me a clue to check my assumptions. The roasts were varied with a good choice of origins, including several single origin. The coffee menu offered the usual choices and…. V60s of any of the various coffees that they sold (sadly I noticed this only after I had ordered an Americano). The coffees are roasted by The Italian Coffee company and include several direct-trade relationships. Although I had the “signature” Italian blend on the day, I did purchase 200g of the La Abuela washed Colombian to take home with me as beans. La Abuela means grandmother and apparently this coffee farm (which is one of those with which The Italian Coffee club has a direct trade relationship) is run by an 80 year old lady growing coffee that scores 83+ in the speciality quality score.

The aroma of coffee comes from here, The Italian Coffee Club, Shepherd's Bush
There were several signs about the aroma of coffee. This was one of them outside the cafe.

Looking around this chalet/cafe, the first thing that caught my attention was a sign about “smelling the aroma”. This immediately conjured up thoughts as to how it is that we actually perceive smells. In some ways an incredibly basic sense, in others, something that we still do not understand. It also prompted me to think about anosmia (smell blindness) and its allegorical relevance to my assumptions as I had entered the cafe about the coffee I would find.

The jars of coffee were the sort of transparent bottle with a rubber seal, reminiscent of vacuum physics. A (presumably decorative) manual coffee grinder at the bottom of the shelves could have prompted thought trains about automation and whether the coffee making process is improved by the uniformity of grind obtained by industrial grinders or the imperfections (but connections) that we would have through a fully manual brew (I think it may depend on what we mean by ‘improve’).

And then I looked down at my coffee and noticed a hair floating on top of it. I knew it was mine because it hadn’t been there originally and it was of the right length and colour. But I could tell it was there due to the indentations on the liquid surface around the hair, much as you can see the indentations around the feet of a pond skater. How much force was the hair exerting on the surface of the coffee to make such indentations? And when would it ‘fall through’?

Hair, surface tension, coffee
I wasn’t worried: it was definitely mine! But look at the way the surface of the coffee is affected by the hair. Why does it bend in such a way?

The surface tension of the coffee is caused by the water molecules in the liquid being attracted by the other water molecules into the coffee but not having anything above the surface to balance that force. Consequently, there is a net attraction for the molecules at the surface into the coffee and a ‘skin’ is formed on the surface, rather like an elastic sheet. This ‘skin’ takes a certain force to break it, which can be measured and which is called the ‘surface tension’. My hair, about 5cm long, as a typical human hair, weighs about 168 micrograms. Which means the gravitational force acting on it is F = mass x gravitational acceleration = 1.68 microNewtons. Expressed as a Force per unit length, this works out as 34 microNewtons per meter. In comparison, at 60 C, the surface of water requires a force of https://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/water-surface-tension-d_597.html0.067 Newtons per meter to break through it. My hair would be no match: the surface tension supports the hair.

What about a pond skater? That has a slightly larger mass (at 0.02 g) and it is also slightly shorter (20 mm), so its force per unit length is also larger at 0.01 Newtons per meter. So although it is going to push down more on the surface of a pond (or my coffee) than my hair is, it still won’t break the surface.

cat in Shepherd's Bush Market
It’s the little things….

As this is a coffee blog, what if we took the example of a coffee bean and, neglecting for one minute any other considerations, calculated the force it exerts on the water/coffee. Beethoven’s 60 beans of coffee had a mass of 9 g. So one bean has, roughly, a mass of 0.15 g. Each bean is about 1cm long and so it exerts 0.15 Newtons per meter on the water surface. Certainly enough to break it: so we could use coffee beans to measure surface tension. A novel purpose for the coffee bean, but I prefer my more traditional approach of grinding and drinking it.

Which took me back to the Colombian, La Abuela that I purchased from The Italian Coffee Club and tried, at home, as a V60. Sweet and syrupy, with cherry fruit: an enjoyable coffee for some time to ponder.

The Italian Coffee Club can be found in Shepherd’s Bush Market, Shepherd’s Bush.

A tense moment for a coffee…

capillary bridge

A bridge formed by water between a cup and a cafetière.

Each and every coffee represents an opportunity to uncover an unusual bit of science. Sometimes the connections between what happens in your cup and the wider world are fairly obvious (e.g. the steam above your coffee and cloud formation), but sometimes the connections seem a little more obscure. On occasion, your observations may lead to philosophical speculations or stories from history. Every coffee is an opportunity to discover something, if you just slow down and ponder enough.

It was with this in mind that I looked at my freshly made French Press coffee a few weeks ago. I had positioned my cup very close to the cafetière such that a small water bridge had formed between the cup and the cafetière (see photo). Such “capillary bridges” have been studied for a couple of centuries and yet there is still more work to do. Caused by the surface tension of the water, understanding the way these bridges form and the shape of the surfaces produced is important for fields such as printing and powder processing. Yet it is only in the last 150 years or so that we have started to understand what surface tension is. Moreover, much of the pioneering work on this subject was done by an amateur scientist who just noticed things (and then designed some very clever experiments to discover more).

Agnes Pockels (1862-1935) is now regarded as a surface science pioneer but in 1891 she was a complete unknown. Although she had wanted to study physics, she was prevented from going to university because she was female. Consequently, all her study of the subject had to be through her brother Friedrich’s books and letters. It is not known what prompted her investigations but from 1880 she had been experimenting with a device to measure the surface tension of water. The device used a sliding weight to measure the force required to pull a 6mm diameter wooden disk off of the surface of a trough of water.¹ The design of this device was so successful that, a few years later, Irvine Langmuir adapted it slightly in order to study the surface of oils. He went on to receive the Nobel Prize for his work in 1932. Yet it is a device that could also be built in your kitchen, exactly as Agnes Pockels did².

reflections, surface tension

The effects of surface tension can be seen in the light reflected from a coffee

Pockels measured the surface tension of water contaminated by oil, alcohol, sugar, wax, soda crystals and salt (amongst other things)¹. She discovered how the surface tension of the water could be affected by pulling the surface or introducing metal objects onto it. She discovered the “compensating flows” that occurred between regions of different surface tension (you can see a similar effect with this soap boat). Yet all of this remained hidden from the wider world because Pockels was unable to publish. Not having access to the contemporary literature about surface tension and moreover unknown, unqualified and female, no journal would look at her work let alone publish it. Nonetheless, she was clearly a brilliant experimentalist and capable physicist.

Things changed when Pockels read a paper by John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh) in about 1890. Rayleigh was quite the opposite of the unknown Pockels. As well as his work on sound, electricity and magnetism and the (co-) discovery of Argon, Rayleigh is known for his work on understanding why the sky is blue. (Which is another phenomenon that you can see while preparing your coffee if you drink your coffee with milk.) In his paper on surface tension, Rayleigh had come to similar conclusions as Pockels’ work but Pockels had gone further. Unable to publish herself, she instead wrote to Rayleigh, in German, detailing her experimental technique and results. Rayleigh responded by forwarding her letter to the scientific journal Nature together with an introductory paragraph:

“I shall be obliged if you can find space for the accompanying translation of an interesting letter which I have received from a German lady, who with very homely appliances has arrived at valuable results respecting the behaviour of contaminated water surfaces. The earlier part of Miss Pockels’ letter covers nearly the same ground as some of my own recent work, and in the main harmonizes with it. The later sections seem to me very suggestive, raising, if they do not fully answer, many important questions. I hope soon to find opportunity for repeating some of Miss Pockels’ experiments.”¹

Coffee Corona

You may have seen white mists form over the surface of your coffee (seen here by the rainbow effect around the light reflection). But what are they and how do they form? This is still not really known.

Rayleigh’s introduction and Agnes Pockels’ letter were published in Nature on 12 March 1891. The paper enabled Pockels to publish further results in both Science and Nature as well as in other journals. In 1932 she received an honorary doctorate in recognition of her work.

It seems that this coffee-science story has two main messages. The first is to emphasise how much we gain by ensuring everyone has access (and encouragement) to study physics (or indeed whatever subject they are motivated by). What would we have lost if Agnes Pockels had not had the books of her brother and made the decision to write to Rayleigh? But the second message is that Agnes Pockels managed all this, at least initially, by merely noticing what was going on in the liquids around her. Being curious she designed and built a piece of equipment that enabled her to measure what she was intrigued by and by taking a systematic series of data she discovered physics that was unknown to the wider community at the time. So the question is, what do you notice when you look at your coffee? How does it work, what can you discover?

Please do share any interesting physics that you see in (or around) your coffee either here in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter. Tea comments would also be welcome, but whatever you do, slow down and notice it.

 

¹Rayleigh, Nature 1891, 43, 437-439, 12 March 1891 (full text here)

²Reference to the kitchen is here.

Coffee and cream baubles – not just for Christmas

floating, bouncing drops

Drops of water can be stable on the water’s surface for many minutes if you put the water on a loudspeaker, more info on how to create these at home here.

You may have noticed them before: balls of liquid dancing on the surface of your coffee (or tea) that seem to last for ages before being absorbed into the drink? Perhaps you have added milk to your coffee and noticed that it took some time before the milk entered into the brew?

It turns out, there’s some very interesting physics that is happening whenever you add milk to your tea or when you are preparing a pour-over. It can link coffee to wine and to quantum mechanics. It is worth taking a closer look at these drops.

You may remember that you could use a loud speaker to make droplets of coffee bounce on a cup of the same. The vibrations in the cup meant that the air between the droplet and the drink never got squeezed out of the space between them. So, rather than coalesce, the drop jumped up and down on the coffee surface before finally disappearing under. This type of bouncing bauble has been shown to behave in similar ways to quantum particles in wave-particle duality. An analogue of quantum physics in the macroscopic droplets on the surface of your drink.

But that type of bauble required the use of a loud speaker (or some similar way of generating vibrations on the surface of the coffee). What if you could ‘bounce’ a drop of coffee on a cup of coffee without any external props like speakers? Well, it turns out that you can. In November 2017 a group of researchers showed how a temperature difference between a drop falling into a drink and the drink itself could result in the drop appearing to float on the surface of the drink for many seconds. The obvious example was cold milk into a cup of coffee (or tea). But I think that it may also happen in a V60 when you prepare a pour over, more on that below.

science in a V60

Bubbles of liquid dancing on the surface of a brewing coffee.

The idea is quite simple. If there is a temperature difference between the drop and the coffee, when the drop approaches the coffee, there will be thermal gradients across the drop/cup system. Surface tension is temperature dependent: the higher the temperature, the weaker the surface tension. Differences in surface tension across the surface of a liquid result in compensating liquid flows (one of the best places to see this is in a glass of wine, but there’s also a great party-trick experiment you can do to demonstrate it which is here). So, because there is a temperature difference across the surface area of the droplet (owing to the difference between the droplet and the cup), there will be liquid flows set up within the drop. These flows are like circulating vortices which draw the surrounding air into the gap between the drop and the cup and so prevent the existing air between the drop and the cup from escaping. If the air has nowhere to escape to, the drop can’t merge with the drink, in fact it ‘levitates’ for a number of seconds.

The authors suggest that this is a reason that you can often see rain drops staying on the top of puddles or ponds before being subsumed into the water, or why you can see the cream (or milk) stay as globules on the surface of your coffee (or tea). And so I wonder, could this also be the explanation for an odd phenomenon that I sometimes notice while brewing coffee in my V60. Perhaps you have seen this too? After some time, the new drops of filtered coffee impacting on the surface skit along to the edge of the jug. They stay as balls of coffee on the coffee’s surface for quite some time before becoming part of the brew. You can see a photo of some of these droplets above. Initially I thought that this was because the surface of the coffee had started to vibrate with the impacting droplets. But it is also possible that it could be this temperature effect. As the (brewed) coffee in the jug would be cooler than the water dripping into it from the filter, there would be a temperature difference between the droplet and the coffee but the reverse of the milk-coffee situation. The drop would be warmer than the coffee it’s dripping into. The authors of the study suggested that it was the magnitude of the temperature difference that was the key, not the sign of the temperature difference. So that would fit with the V60 observations seen previously. However how would you show which effect (vibration or temperature difference) is responsible for the behaviour?

Enjoy playing with your tea, coffee and V60s. Do let me know the results of your experiments. Is it a vibration thing or does the temperature difference have to be there to begin with? Let me know what you think is going on.

I am also grateful to Amoret Coffee for alerting me to this story in the first place through Twitter. If you come across some interesting coffee-science, please let me know, either here in the comments section (moderated, please be patient), or on Twitter or Facebook.

 

 

 

Coffee Rings: Cultivating a healthy respect for bacteria

coffee ring, ink jet printing, organic electronics

Why does it form a ring?

It is twenty years since Sidney Nagel and colleagues at the University of Chicago started to work on the “Coffee Ring” problem. When spilled coffee dries, it forms rings rather than blobs of dried coffee. Why does it do that? Why doesn’t it just form into a homogeneous mass of brown dried coffee? Surely someone knew the answer to these questions?

Well, it turns out that until 1997 no one had asked these questions. Did we all assume that someone somewhere knew? A bit like those ubiquitous white mists that form on hot drinks, surely someone knew what they were? (They didn’t, the paper looking at those only came out two years ago and is here). Unlike the white mists though, coffee rings are of enormous technological importance. Many of our electronic devices are now printed with electrically conducting ink. As anyone who still writes with a fountain pen may be aware, it is not just coffee that forms ‘coffee rings’. Ink too can form rings as it dries. This is true whether the ink is from a pen or a specially made electrically conducting ink. We need to know how coffee rings form so that we can know how to stop them forming when we print our latest gadgets. This probably helps to explain why Nagel’s paper suggesting a mechanism for coffee ring formation has been cited thousands (>2000) of times since it was published.

More information on the formation of coffee rings (and some experiments that you can do with them on your work top) can be found here. Instead, for today’s Daily Grind, I’d like to focus on how to avoid the coffee ring effect and the fact that bacteria beat us to it. By many years.

There is a bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa (P. aeruginosa for short) that has been subverting the coffee ring effect in order to survive. Although P. aeruginosa is fairly harmless for healthy individuals, it can affect people with compromised immune systems (such as some patients in hospitals). Often water borne, if P. aeruginosa had not found a way around the coffee ring effect, as the water hosting it dried, it would, like the coffee, be forced into a ring on the edge of the drop. Instead, drying water droplets that contain P. aeruginosa deposit the bacteria uniformly across the drop’s footprint, maximising the bacteria’s survival and, unfortunately for us, infection potential.

The bacteria can do this because they produce a surfactant that they inject into the water surrounding them. A surfactant is any substance that reduces the surface tension of a liquid. Soap is a surfactant and can be used to illustrate what the bacteria are doing (but with coffee). At the core of the bacteria’s survival mechanism is something called the Marangoni effect. This is the liquid flow that is caused by a gradient in surface tension; there is a flow of water from a region of lower surface tension to a region of higher surface tension. If we float a coffee bean on a dish of water and then drop some soap behind it, the bean accelerates away from the dripped drop (see video). The soap lowers the surface tension in the area around it causing a flow of water (that carries the bean) away from the soap drop.

If now you can imagine thousands of bacteria in a liquid drop ejecting tiny amounts of surfactant into the drop, you can hopefully see in your mind’s eye that the water flow in the drying droplet is going to get quite turbulent. Lots of little eddies will form as the water flows from areas of high surface tension to areas of low surface tension. These eddies will carry the bacteria with them counteracting the more linear flow from the top of the droplet to the edges (caused by the evaporation of the droplet) that drives the normal coffee ring formation. Consequently, rather than get carried to the edge of the drop, the bacteria are constantly moved around it and so when the drop finally dries, they will be more uniformly spread over the circle of the drop’s footprint.

Incidentally, the addition of a surfactant is one way that electronics can now be printed so as to avoid coffee ring staining effects. However, it is amusing and somewhat thought provoking to consider that the experimentalist bacteria had discovered this long before us.

Scratching the surface in coffee week

reflections, surface tension

The effects of surface tension can be seen in the light reflected from a coffee

UK Coffee week is once again upon us meaning that all week we can be justified in thinking about, drinking, appreciating and celebrating coffee. And of course, as soon as we start to do this, we realise we have to drink, appreciate and celebrate water which is, ultimately, what really makes most of the cup of coffee. So UK Coffee Week raises money for Project Waterfall which is a charity that brings clean water to coffee growing communities. Giving something back by enjoying something good.

In keeping with the water theme, this week The Daily Grind is all about water, including an experiment that enables you to make a hole in it. As this is also the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, perhaps we could call the post “Holey water for Holy Week”.

But moving quickly to the experiment. While drinking your coffee, you may have noticed how around the edge of the cup, the coffee appears lighter, not quite so dark, as in the interior. The coffee is being bent upwards at the edge of the cup by the surface tension of the water in the coffee. Now, what happens if you add alcohol to the coffee? If you do this in your coffee cup you may well end up with an Irish coffee which may provide even more of an excuse to celebrate your coffee drinking, but if you were to put your coffee on a plate first (I know, why? but bear with me) you will get a quite different result. You will be able to make a hole in the middle of your coffee. The reason is that the surface tension of alcohol is much weaker than that of water. Consequently, if you try to mix a very thin layer of coffee with a small amount of alcohol, something slightly unexpected happens as this video shows:

The addition of a small amount of alcohol into the middle of a thin layer of water (or coffee) causes the water to recede. As the alcohol evaporates off, you are left with a dry ‘hole’ in the coffee. Why is this? It is effectively a liquid-tug-of-war on your plate. The higher surface tension in the coffee (or water) pulls against the weaker surface tension of the alcohol which eventually means that the water breaks away, leaving the hole. As the water molecules are continually moving, eventually they start to meet again over the dry spot and close the hole.

You can’t see this in your mug of course because the mixing occurs throughout the liquid while the plate ensures that this is only a surface effect.

You will need a strong alcohol, perhaps gin or vodka but please do try this experiment, let me know how you get on and enjoy the coffee, water (and alcohol) in UK Coffee week. And if you want to donate to Project Waterfall, you could either find a participating café here or donate online here.

 

Coffee ring bacteria

coffee ring, ink jet printing, organic electronics

Why does it form a ring?

We have all seen them: Dried patches of coffee where you have spilled some of your precious brew. The edge of the dried drop is characteristically darker than the middle. It is as if the coffee in the drop has migrated to the edge and deposited into a ‘ring’. It turns out though that these coffee rings are not just an indication that you really ought to be cleaning up a bit more often. Coffee rings have huge consequences for the world we live in, particularly for consumer electronics. Various medical and diagnostic tests too need to account for coffee ring effects in order to be accurate. Indeed, coffee rings turn up everywhere and not just in coffee. Moreover, the physics behind coffee rings provides a surprising connection between coffee and the mathematics of bacteria growth. To find out why, we need to quickly recap how coffee rings form the way they do.

When you spill some coffee on a table it forms into droplets. Small bits of dust or dirt or even microscopic cracks on the table surface then hold the drop in the position. We’d say that the drop is pinned in position.

artemisdraws, evaporating droplet

As the water molecules leave the droplet, they are more likely to escape if they are at the edge than if they are at the top. Illustration by artemisdraws.com

As the drop dries, the water evaporates from the droplet. The shape of the drop means that the water evaporates faster from the edges of the drop than from the top (for the reasons for this click here). But the drop is stuck (pinned) in position and so cannot shrink but instead has to get flatter as it dries. As the drop gets squashed, water flows from the centre of the drop to the edges. The water flow takes the coffee particles with it and so carries them to the edge of the drop where they deposit and form into a ring; the coffee ring. You can see more of how coffee rings form in the sequence of cartoons below and also here.

However in this quick explanation, we implicitly assumed that the coffee particles are more or less spherical, which turns out to be a good assumption for coffee. The link with the bacteria comes with a slightly different type of ‘coffee’ ring. What would happen if we replaced the spherical drops of coffee particles with elliptical or egg shaped particles? Would this make any difference to the shape of the coffee rings?

Artemisdraws

As water evaporates from A, the drop gets flatter. Consequently, the coffee flows from A to B forming a ring. Illustration by artemisdraws.com

In fact the difference is crucial. If the “coffee” particles were not spherical but were more elliptical, the coffee ring does not form. Instead, the elliptical particles produce a fairly uniform stain (you can see a video of drying drops here, yes someone really did video it). The reason this happens is in part due to a pretty cool trick of surface tension. Have you ever noticed how something floating on your coffee deforms the water surface around it? The elliptical particles do the same thing to the droplet as they flow towards the edge. (Indeed, the effect is related to what is known as the Cheerios effect). This deformation means that, rather than form a ring, the elliptical particles get stuck before reaching the edge and so produce a far more uniform ‘coffee’ stain when the water dries.

E Coli on a petri dish

A growing E. Coli culture. Image courtesy of @laurencebu

By videoing many drying droplets (containing either spherical or elliptical particles), a team in the US found that they could describe drying drops containing elliptical particles with a mathematical equation called the Kardar-Parisi-Zhang equation (or KPZ for short). The KPZ equation is used to describe growth process such as how a cigarette paper burns or a liquid crystal grows. It also describes the growth of bacterial colonies. Varying the shape of the elliptical particles in the drying drop allows scientists to test the KPZ equation in a controllable way. Until the team in the US started to ask questions about how the coffee ring formed, it was very difficult to test the KPZ equation by varying parameters in it controllably. Changing the shape of the particles in a drying drop gives us a guide to understanding the mathematics that helps to describe how bacterial colonies grow. And that is a connection between coffee and bacteria that I do not mind.

As ever, please leave any comments in the comments section below. If you have an idea for a connection between coffee and an area of science that you think should be included on the Daily Grind, or if you have a cafe that you think deserves a cafe-physics review, please let me know here.

Predicting the weather with a cup of coffee?

What do the bubbles on the surface of your coffee tell you about the weather?

weather, bubbles, coffee, coffee physics, weather prediction, meteorology

There is a lot of physics going on with the bubbles on this coffee, but can they be used to predict the weather?

You have just poured a cup of freshly brewed coffee into your favourite mug and watched as bubbles on the surface collect in the middle of the cup. It occurs to you that it is going to be a good day, but is that because you are enjoying your coffee or because of the position of the bubbles?

There are a large number of sayings about the weather in the English language. Some of the sayings have a basis in fact, for example the famous “red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning“. Others though seem to verge on the superstitious (“If in autumn cows lie on their right sides the winter will be severe; if on their left sides, it will be mild”), or unlikely (“As August, so the next February”).  In 1869, Richard Inwards published a collection of sayings about the weather. “Weather Lore” has since undergone several new editions and remains in print although Inwards himself died in 1937. Amongst the sayings contained in the book is one about coffee:

When the bubbles of coffee collect in the centre of the cup, expect fair weather. When they adhere to the cup forming a ring, expect rain. If they separate without assuming any fixed position, expect changeable weather.

A quick search on the internet shows that this example of weather lore is still circulated, there is even a ‘theory‘ as to why it should be true. But is it true or is it just an old wives’ tale? Although I have consumed a lot of coffee I have never undertaken enough of a statistical study to find out if there could be an element of truth in this particular saying. The number of bubbles on the surface of the coffee is going to depend, amongst other things, on the type of coffee, the freshness of the roast and the speed at which you poured it. While the position of the bubbles will depend on how you poured the coffee into the mug, the surface tension in the coffee and the temperature. It would appear that there are too many variables to easily do a study and furthermore that the mechanism by which coffee could work as a weather indicator is unclear. It is tempting to write off this particular ‘lore’ as just another superstition but before we do that, it is worth revisiting another old wives tale which involves Kepler, Galileo, the Moon and the tides.

tides, old wives legends, Kepler, Galileo, Lindisfarne, bubbles in coffee

The pilgrim path between Lindisfarne and the mainland that emerges at low tide is marked by sticks. But what causes the tides?

Back in the mid-17th century, Newton’s theory of universal gravitation had not yet been published. It was increasingly clear that the Earth orbited around the Sun and that the Moon orbited around the Earth, but why exactly did they do that? Gilbert’s 1600 work De Magnete (about electricity and magnetism) had revealed what seemed to be an “action at a distance”. Yet the scientific thought of the day, still considerably influenced by Aristotelianism, believed that an object could only exert a force on another object if it was somehow in contact with it. There was no room for the heavenly bodies to exert a force on things that were found on the Earth. Indeed, when Kepler suggested that the Moon somehow influenced the tides on the Earth (as we now know that it does), Galileo reproached him for believing “old wives’ tales”: We should not have to rely on some ‘magical attraction’ between the moon and the water to explain the tides!

The point of this anecdote is not to suggest that a cup of coffee can indeed predict the weather. The point is that sometimes we should be a little bit more circumspect before stating categorically that something is true or false when that statement is based, in reality, purely on what we believe we know about the world. We should always be open to asking questions about what we see in our daily life and how it relates to the world around us. It will of course be hard to do a proper statistical study of whether the bubbles go to the edge or stay in the centre depending on the weather (whilst keeping everything constant). Still, there are a lot of people who drink a lot of coffee and this seems to me to offer a good excuse to drink more, so perhaps you have some comments to make on this? Can a cup of coffee predict the weather? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

 

Weather legends taken from “Weather Lore”, Richard Inwards, Revised & Edited by EL Hawke, Rider and Company publishers, 1950

Galileo/Kepler anecdote from “History and Philosophy of Science”, LWH Hull, Longmans, Green and Co. 1959

Calming the waves at Brutti & Boni

Brutti And BoniBrutti & Boni is a fairly new Italian cafe in South Kensington. Located at the less busy end of Gloucester Road, it was quiet when we popped in to try it a couple of weeks ago. The bright interior has light coming from a roof window at the back of the shop, though it seems that many people opt to sit outside with their espresso in the morning, watching the traffic go past. They serve Caffe Molinari coffee together with a good selection of Italian food items. All in all, a good place to go if you are in the area visiting the Science, Natural History or Victoria and Albert museums and fancy a break and a relaxed coffee nearby.

Inside, the shelves are stacked with various Italian condiments, pasta and olive oil. It was this that prompted me to visit Clapham Common to retrace the steps of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin of course was one of the founding fathers of the USA. He was also a keen scientist, diplomat, printer, in fact the man in some ways defines the word “polymath”. His interests and importance span so many areas that it is difficult to write a two-sentence description of him. Fortunately, for the purposes of today’s Daily Grind, I do not need to. Today, all that is important is that Franklin did some experiments on Clapham Common with oil.

Shelves of olive oil at Brutti & Boni

Shelves of olive oil at Brutti & Boni

Franklin had been investigating the “old wives tales” that a small amount of oil placed onto water ‘calmed the waves’. In fact, the old wives tales can be traced back to Pliny (the Elder) in his Natural History written in around 77AD. Pliny had written of pearl divers and how they sprinkled oil on their faces so that the water above them became calm, allowing them to see the oysters that they were looking for on the sea bed. Franklin himself describes, in his letter to the Philosophical Transactions (1774), an event that he experienced in 1757 while sailing to the UK. Noticing that the wakes behind two of the boats in the fleet were calm, he describes how he asked his ship’s captain about this curiosity. Replying slightly dismissively, as if to someone who is quite ignorant of the workings of the world, the ship’s captain replied that “The cooks… have I suppose been just emptying their greasy water through the scuppers, which has greased the sides of these ships a little”. Obviously it was common knowledge that oil calmed the waves.

So, one day in the 1760s, Franklin took a walk to Clapham Common and to Mount Pond. Emptying about a tea-spoonful of oil (oleic acid) into the pond he watched as the oil produced an “instant calm [on the pond] over a space several yards square, which spread amazingly, and extended itself gradually till it reached the lee [opposite] side, making all that quarter of the pond, perhaps half an acre as smooth as a looking glass.” Oleic acid is the principal component of olive oil. Franklin had effectively calmed the waves on the pond with a mere tea-spoonful of olive oil.

A view over Mount Pond, Clapham Common

A single tea spoon of oil would calm the ripples on Mount Pond, Clapham Common

We can calculate how thin the layer of oil had become by dividing the volume of oil in a teaspoon (5cm³) by the area of half an acre (2023 m²) to get an oil layer that was 2.5 nm thick. To put this in perspective, a coffee bean of width 7 mm would fit nearly 3 million of such oil layers in itself width-wise. Later, more precise, measurements of the thickness of such an oil layer, by Lord Rayleigh and Agnes Pockels, gave 1.6 nm and 1.3 nm respectively. This is approximately the length of a single oil molecule. It seems that the waves on water can be stilled by a single molecular layer of oil. How does this work? Why not let me know what you think in the comment section below.