In search of origins

Amaje coffee
Buriso Amaje Coffee from Ethiopia via Amoret Coffee in Notting Hill. The Jimma 74158 and 74160 varietals are selections from coffee grown in the wild.

It was a goat herder named Kaldi, so the story goes, who first noticed the effect of coffee beans on the the energy levels of his goats. After telling the local abbot of his observations, the monks at the nearby monastery realised that this drink could help them stay awake during prayer and so the reputation, and consumption, of coffee spread from Ethiopia and then throughout the world.

While the details may be questionable, there is evidence that the coffee plant originated in Ethiopia. Coffee still grows wild in parts of Ethiopia and the oldest varietals are also to be found there. And so, when I realised that my latest coffee was an Ethiopian Natural of varietal Jimma 74158 and 74160, roasted by Amoret coffee in Notting Hill, I thought, why not do a coffee-physics review rather than a cafe-physics review? For there are always surprising links to physics when you stop to think about them, whether you are in a cafe or sampling a new bag of beans.

This particular coffee was grown by Buriso Amaje in the Bensa District of the Sidama region of Ethiopia. The varietals were selections from the Jimma Research Centre from wild plants that showed resistance to coffee berry disease and were also high yielding. Grown at an altitude of 2050m, the naturally processed coffee came with tasting notes of “Blueberry muffin, white chocolate” and “rose petal” among others. Brewed through a V60, it is immediately clear it is a naturally processed coffee, the complex aroma of a rich natural released with the bloom. Indeed, the bloom was fantastically lively with the grounds rising up with the gas escaping beneath them in a manner reminiscent of bubbling porridge (but much more aromatic). And while I lack the evocative vocabulary of Amoret’s tasting notes, the fruity and sweet notes were obvious, with blueberry a clear descriptive term while I would also go for jasmine and a slight molasses taste. A lovely coffee.

Brewing it again with an Aeropress, the tasting notes were different. We could start to ponder how the brew method affects the flavour profile. But then we could go further, how would this coffee taste if brewed using the Ethiopian coffee ceremony? Which leads to further questions about altogether different origins. Where did this come from and how do our methods of experiencing something emphasise some aspects while reducing others? Ethiopia offers a rich thought current if we consider how things originated because it is not just known for its coffee, Ethiopia is also home to some of the world’s oldest gold mines. Today, one of the larger gold mines in Ethiopia lies just to the North West of where this coffee came from, while a similar distance to the south east is a region rich in tantalum and niobium. We need tantalum for the capacitors used in our electronic devices. In fact, there is most likely tantalum in the device you are using to read this. While niobium is used to strengthen steel and other materials as well as in the superconductors within MRI machines. Where do these materials come from?

The Crab Nebula is what remains of a supernova observed in 1054AD. Explosions like these are the source of elements such as iron. Image courtesy of Bill Schoening/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Within the coffee industry there has been a lot of work done to demonstrate the traceability of the coffee we drink. But we know much less about the elements that form the components of many of the electronic devices that we use every day. And while this leads us into many ethical issues (for example here, here and here), it can also prompt us to consider the question even more fundamentally: where does gold come from? Indeed, where do the elements such as carbon and oxygen that make coffee, ultimately, come from?

The lighter elements, (hydrogen, helium, lithium and some beryllium) are thought to have been made during the Big Bang at the start of our Universe. While elements up to iron, including the carbon that would be found in coffee, have been formed during nuclear fusion reactions within stars (with the more massive stars generating the heavier elements). Elements heavier than iron though cannot be generated through the nuclear fusion reactions within stars and so will have been formed during some form of catastrophic event such as a stellar explosion, a supernova. But there has recently been some discussion about exactly how the elements heavier than iron formed, elements such as the gold, tantalum and niobium mined in Ethiopia.

One theory is that these elements formed in the energies generated when two neutron stars (a type of super-dense and massive star) collide. So when the LIGO detector, detected gravitational waves that were the signature of a neutron star collision, many telescopes were immediately turned to the region of space from which the collision had been detected. What elements were being generated in the aftermath of the collision? Developing a model for the way that the elements formed in such collisions, a group of astronomers concluded that, neutron star collisions could account for practically all of these heavier elements in certain regions of space. But then, a second group of astronomers calculated how long it would take for neutron stars to collide which led to a problem: massive neutron stars take ages to form and don’t collide very often, could they really have happened often enough that we have the elements we see around us now? There is a third possibility, could it be that some of these elements have been formed in a type of supernova explosion that has been postulated but never yet observed? The discussion goes on.

coffee cup Populus
Where did it all come from? Plenty to ponder in the physics of coffee.

The upshot of this is that while we have an idea about the origin of the elements in that they are the result of the violent death of stars, we are a bit unclear about the exact details. Similarly to the story of Kaldi the goat herder and the origins of coffee, we have a good idea but have to fill in the bits that are missing (a slightly bigger problem for the coffee legend). None of this should stop us enjoying our brew though. What could be better than to sip and savour the coffee slowly while pondering the meaning, or origin, of life, the universe and everything? That is surely something that people have done throughout the ages, irrespective of the brew method that we use.

As cafes remain closed, this represents the beginning of a series of coffee-physics reviews. If you find a coffee with a particular physics connection, or are intrigued about what a connection could be, please do share it, either here in the comments section, on Twitter or on Facebook.

Coffee quakes

ripples on coffee at Rosslyn, the City
From ripples on the surface, to listening to the sound your coffee makes. What links a coffee to an earthquake?

What do you hear when you listen to your coffee? Or a related question, what links your coffee to earthquakes and seismology?

In recent weeks I have been making coffee with milk, not often, but enough to notice something slightly strange. While heating the milk in a small saucepan, I have accidentally tapped the side of the pan while the milk was in it. The tap, perhaps unsurprisingly, produced a ripple on the surface of the milk propagating away from the point of tapping. But what was surprising was that a very short time later, a second ripple was generated, this time from the other side of the pan propagating back towards the original wave.

The first ripple had not yet travelled across the milk surface before the second ripple had been generated and travelled back towards it. Something was causing a vibration on the other side of the pan before the first ripple had had a chance to get there. Was the pan acting like a type of bell which, as I tapped it, started to resonate all around its circumference?

Assuming that the vibration of the tap travels at the speed of sound through the metal of the pan, it would take about 50 μs for the vibration to travel half way around the circumference of the pan (diameter 14cm, with a speed of sound in steel ~ 4500 m/s). But then, if the pan were resonating, the resonance frequency would depend on the speed of sound in the milk filling the pan, which would increase as the milk was warmed. Would we see evidence for this if we video’d tapping the pan as we heated the milk?

coronal hole, Sun
Observing periodic changes to the luminosity of stars can indicate the elements within them. Image credit and copyright NASA/AIA

Rather than watching the liquid within, we could also learn about the interior of a cup of coffee by listening to it. The “hot chocolate effect” is the classic example of this. The effect occurs when hot chocolate powder is added to warm water or milk and stirred. Think about the pitch of a sound made by tapping gently on the base of your mug while you make a cup of hot chocolate. Initially, adding the powder and stirring it will introduce air bubbles into the liquid. As you stop stirring the hot chocolate but continue to tap the base of the cup the air bubbles leave the drink. The cup is acting as a resonator, so the sound that you hear (the resonance of the cup) is proportional to the speed of sound in the liquid in the cup. As the speed of sound in hot water containing lots of air bubbles is lower than the speed of sound in hot water without the air bubbles, the note that you hear increases in pitch as the bubbles leave the drink. You can read more about the hot chocolate effect in an (instant) coffee here.

It is here that we find the first connection between coffee and earthquakes. Seismologists have been listening to the vibrations of the Earth for years in order to learn more about its interior. By observing how, and how fast, waves travel through the earth, we can start to understand not only whether the inside is solid or liquid, but also what the earth is made from. This is similar to learning about the air bubbles in our hot chocolate by listening to the sound of the mug. More recently, the seismologists have shown the effect of the Covid-19 related “lockdowns” on reducing seismic noise. Something that does not have an obvious coffee cup analogy.

But seismology is not just confined to the Earth. Vibrations of a different kind have also been used recently to learn more about the interior of stars, although here it is a mix of seeing and ‘listening’. Generally, when the surface of an object vibrates, it leads to compressions and expansions of the medium within the object. This is the essence of what sound is. But in a star, these compressions and expansions also result in changes to the luminosity of the star. So, by looking carefully at the frequency of the variation in brightness of different stars, it should be possible to work out what is going on inside them. It is a branch of physics now known as “Astroseismology”. Recent astroseismology results from NASA’s Kepler satellite have been used to challenge theories about how stars form and evolve. It had been thought that as a star develops, the outer layers expand while the core gets smaller. The theories proposed that this would result in a certain change to the rotation speed of the core of the star. The astroseismology observations have revealed that, while the gist of the theory seems right, the core rotates between 10 and 100 times slower than the theories would predict. As one astroseismologist said “We hadn’t anticipated that our theory could be so wrong…. For me, finding that problem was the biggest achievement of the field in the last ten years.”.

We now use strain gauges in electronic measuring scales. They were originally invented for an entirely different purpose.

Seismology and astroseismology offer clear links between listening to your coffee cup and earthquakes (or star quakes). But there is one more earthquake related connection to the coffee cup and it could be noticed by any of us who want to improve our home brewing technique.

To brew better coffee, we need to measure the mass of the coffee beans that we are using. Typically we will use a set of electric scales for this. Inside the scales is a device, called a strain gauge, that shows a change in its electrical resistance as a result of the pressure on it (from a mass of coffee for example). The scales translate this change in the electrical resistance to a mass that is shown on the display. One of the inventors of the strain gauge however was not thinking about measuring the mass of coffee at all. His interest was in earthquakes and specifically, how to measure the effect of the stresses induced by earthquakes on elevated water tanks. In order to do that he needed a strain gauge which led to the devices that you can now find in your measuring scales.

Two links between your coffee cup and earthquakes or seismology. Are there more? Do let me know of the connections that you find, either in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook.

Smelling collectively

You can see the steam rising above the cup in this coffee at Carbon Kopi. But you will have to imagine the aroma.

It is hard to choose the best thing about coffee, so many aspects combine to make a good cup. But one of the key things about drinking coffee, particularly if you have had a difficult meeting or have just come in from the cold, is the aroma that wafts up as you grind the beans, add water to bloom the coffee and then brew. In happier times, we may be walking down the street preoccupied about something that is going on and then suddenly get hit by a fantastic aroma that signals our proximity to a good cafe. We perhaps ‘follow our noses’ to the source of the smell and then breathe in the scents as we enter the cafe. Which brings us, in a round about way, to moths and a recent paper that appeared in Physical Review E.

It is not that moths have been shown to have a particular liking for the smell of coffee. That may be an area of future research for somebody. But they do need a very good sense of smell because they need to be able to ‘follow their noses’ in order to find the source of a smell that they are interested in (typically a pheromone released by a female moth). This female moth may be located 100s of metres away from the male and probably does not emit that much odour, so how do the male moths find her?

In a similar manner to our approach to the aromatic coffee shop, the moths first travel against the wind, aware in some sense that the smell is carried downstream. If they lose the scent, they then fly perpendicular to the wind flow in an attempt to sniff the aroma once more. This pattern of zig-zagging flight allows them to approach the source of the smell fairly quickly*.

Eggs of a large cabbage white butterfly. No real links with coffee and few with moths, but the adult pair may well have had to find each other using the sense of smell.

It’s a clever method that is perfect if the wind flows in one direction without any turbulence. But how many times have you watched as leaves have been swept up in the wind flow and danced a swirling vortex pattern before falling back to the ground? Or, as you approach the side of a tall building, you get hit by a gust of wind that seems to come in a number of directions all at once because of the way that it is being affected by the presence of the building wall? We can see a similar thing in babbling streams and in our coffee as the convection currents swirl in vortices. The real world is not so simple as a linear wind flow, in the real world the wind is turbulent.

And yet still the moths find their way to the source of the smell that they are seeking. How do they do it, and could we design a robot (or robots) to emulate the moths in order to find, for example, chemical leaks? It was these questions that were addressed by the recent paper in Physical Review E. In the study they used mathematical calculations to look, not at the behaviour of an individual moth, but at the behaviour of a swarm of moths, a group of moths all searching for a mate.

In the computer model, each individual moth could discern the wind speed and direction and also detect odour molecules. So, left to their own devices, the individuals in the model would follow the zig-zag pattern of individual moths observed in nature (this was a deliberate element of the model). But the model-moths were given another ‘sense’: the ability to see the behaviour of their fellow model-moths. Which direction were the others going in? How fast were they moving?

The model-moths were then provided with one final behaviour indicator, a parameter, β, which was called a ‘trust’ parameter. If β = 0, the model-moths did not trust what the others were doing at all and relied purely on their own senses to reach the prize. Conversely, if β = 1, the model-moths completely lacked confidence in their own ability to discern where the smell was coming from and followed the behaviour of their peers.

We find our way to a cafe via visual cues or perhaps the sounds of espresso being made. But can we also follow the aroma?

Running the model several times for different wind conditions including a turbulent flow, the authors of the study found that the moths reached the destination smell best if they balanced the information from their own senses with the behaviour of their peers. In fact, the best results were for a trust factor, β ~ 0.8-0.85 meaning that they trusted their peers 80-85% of the time and relied on their own decisions 10-15% of the time. If they did that, they reached the smell source in only just slightly longer than it would take a moth to fly directly to the source of the smell in a straight line. An astonishingly quick result. As the authors phrased it, the study indicated that you (or the moths) should “follow the advice of your neighbours but once every five to seven times ignore them and act based on your own sensations”.

Now it would be tempting to suggest that this study has no relevance for us individuals finding a coffee shop and minimal relevance to coffee. But that I think would be premature. For a start, a similar result was found when the question was not about moths but about the best way for a crowd of people to leave a smoke filled room. If everyone behaved individualistically, or conversely, if everyone behaved in a purely herd like manner, the crowd took longer to escape the room than if people balanced their individualistic needs with a collective behaviour. It is a push to suggest that the same thing may be relevant for us finding cafes, but who knows what may happen post-lockdown(s) as we collectively attempt to find a well made flat white to enjoy outside our homes. Maybe we too need to trust our own senses some of the time but be open to taking the advice of those around us too.

*You can read more details in the paper Durve et al., Phys Rev E, 102, 012402 (2020)

Missing matter

soya latte at the coffee jar camden
Not one made by me! But instead a soya-latte at the Coffee Jar a couple of years ago.

During these strange times of working from home, perhaps you, like me, have been preparing a lot more coffee. For me this has included, not just my regular V60s, but a type of cafe-au-lait for someone who used to regularly drink lattes outside. My previous-latte-drinker turns out to be a little bit discerning (the polite way of phrasing it) and so prefers the coffee made in a similar way each day. Which is why I’ve been weighing the (oat) milk I’ve been using.

So, each morning to prepare a coffee, I’ve been using a V60 recipe from The Barn and then, separately, weighing out 220g of refrigerated oat milk into a pan that I then heat on the stove. Generally I heat the milk for just over 5 minutes until it is almost simmering whereupon I pour it into a mug (with 110 – 130g of coffee inside – depending on the coffee). Being naturally lazy, I keep the cup on the scales so that it is easier to pour the milk in and then, completely emptying the pan into the coffee, the scales register an increase of mass (of milk) in the cup of 205-210g. Which means about 10-15g of milk goes missing each morning.

Now clearly it is not missing as such, it has just evaporated, but it does prompt a question: can this tell us anything about the physics of our world? And to pre-empt the answer, it actually tells us a great deal. But to see how, we need to go on an historical diversion to just over three hundred years ago, when Edmond Halley was presenting an experiment to the Royal Society in London. The experiment shares a number of similarities with my heated oat milk pan. It was later written into a paper which you can read online: “An estimate of the quantity of vapour raised out of the sea by the warmth of the Sun; derived from an experiment shown before the Royal Society at one of their late meetings: by E Halley“.

lilies on water, rain on a pond, droplets
Coffee, evaporation, clouds, rain, rivers, seas, evaporation. Imagining the water cycle by making coffee.

Halley heated a pan of water to the temperature of “the Air in our hottest summers” and then, keeping the temperature constant, placed the pan on a set of scales to see how much water was lost over 2 hours. The temperature of the air in “our hottest summers” cannot have been very high, perhaps 25-30C and there was no evaporation actually seen in the form of steam coming from the pan (unlike with my milk pan). Nonetheless, Halley’s pan lost a total of 13.4g (in today’s units) of water over those two hours.

Halley used this amount to estimate, by extrapolation, how much water evaporated from the Mediterranean Sea each day. Arguing that the temperature of the water heated that evening at the Royal Society was similar to that of the Mediterranean Sea and that you could just treat the sea as one huge pan of water, Halley calculated that enough water evaporated to explain the rains that fell. This is a key part of the water cycle that drives the weather patterns in our world. But Halley took one further step. If the sea could produce the water for the rain, and the rain fed the rivers, was the flow of the rivers enough to account for the water in the Mediterranean Sea and, specifically, how much water was supplied to the sea compared to that lost through the evaporation? Halley estimated this by calculating the flow of water underneath Kingston Bridge over the Thames. As he knew how many (large) rivers flowed into the Mediterranean, Halley could calculate a very rough estimate of the total flow from the rivers into the Mediterranean.

Grecian, Devereux, Coffee house London
A plaque outside the (old) Devereux pub, since refurbished. The Devereux pub is on the site of the Grecian Coffee House which was one of the places that Halley and co used to ‘retire’ to after meetings at the Royal Society.

The estimates may seem very rough, but they were necessary in order to know if it was feasible that there could be a great water cycle of rain, rivers, evaporation, rain. And although Halley was not the first to discuss this idea (it had been considered by Bernard Palissy and Pierre Perrault before him), this idea of a quantitative “back of the envelope” calculation to prompt more thorough research into an idea, is one that is still used in science today: we have an idea, can we work out, very roughly, on the back of an envelope (or more often on a serviette over a coffee) if the idea is plausible before we write the research grant proposal to study it properly.

So, to return to my pan of oat milk simmering on the stove. 15g over 5 minutes at approaching 100C is a reasonable amount to expect to lose. Only, we can go further than this now because we can take the extra data (from the thermostats we have in our house and the Met Office observations for the weather) of the temperature of your kitchen and the relative humidity that day and use this to discover how these factors affect the evaporative loss. Just as for Halley, it may be an extremely rough estimate. However, just as for Halley, these estimates may help to give us an understanding that is “one of the most necessary ingredients of a real and Philosophical Meteorology” as Halley may have said before he enjoyed a coffee at one of the Coffee Houses that he, Newton and others would retire to after a busy evening watching water evaporate at the Royal Society.

Rosie and Joe, St Giles churchyard

Coffee in a Wake Cup at Rosie & Joe in St Giles. The space rewards those who notice.

There is a long history of hospitality on the site of St Giles in the Fields stretching back far earlier than the Notes coffee barrow. But Rosie & Joe is a lovely iteration to that tradition. There’s a definite focus on tea at Rosie & Joe but the coffee is roasted by Square Mile and prepared on a La Marzocco machine. There is also a good selection of food to nibble on (as well as more food stalls nearby on weekday lunchtimes). And although it is a cart, there are a few seats and tables dotted around so it is easy to sit back and enjoy your coffee while the world races by.

St Giles High St is a very busy road and yet, sitting in the churchyard of St Giles is strangely peaceful. Despite the traffic and the occasional siren, it is one of those rare places in London that you can find the stillness to listen. A beautiful place to enjoy a coffee from an independent stall in fact! And if you have your own cup with you, there is even 10p off your coffee. The coffee was smooth and sweet, fruity but definitely a sweet and full bodied type of fruity cup. But why was it so peaceful? Was it merely that it was a lovely (but breezy) spring morning when I tried Rosie & Joe? Or was it that it is a small bit of nature in a built up environment? Both of these helped but I think it is also the way that the place rewards those who notice by offering more each time you look.
The ghost sign hidden behind the tree just outside the churchyard.

There’s the, perhaps slightly grim, history suggested by the fact that the ‘garden’ is significantly raised above the level of the pavement in parts. There’s the brickwork and stone walls of the church itself of course. The ‘ghost sign’ on a nearby building that is revealed to the coffee drinker by the fact that the tree between us and it has not yet got its summer leaves. And then the nod to the history of the site hinted at by the coffee cart itself: Since Matilda, wife of Henry I founded St Giles’ leprosy hospital on the site, a “cup of charity” was given to condemned prisoners as they made their way past St Giles on their way to their execution at Tyburn*. Very different now, but the tradition of refreshment for the traveller is continued.

But then a fire engine’s siren reminds you that you are in a cosmos, a universe filled with beautiful physics. You know whether the fire engine is approaching or has passed away from you from how the pitch of the sound changes as it goes past. The Doppler shift meaning that sound waves travelling towards you have a shorter wavelength (higher frequency, higher pitch) than those travelling away (longer wavelength, lower frequency, lower pitch). And part of the beauty of physics is that it is so universal; what works for sound also works for light. If an object emitting light is moving away from us, the light appears to have a longer wavelength (lower frequency, it is red-shifted) than if the same object were stationary or moving towards us where it would appear as if it emitted light with a shorter wavelength (higher frequency, blue shifted).

signboard at Rosie and Joe
Doesn’t a right imply a duty? There’s a lot that could be said about #supportindependent
So, similarly, if we were to look at the surface of a rotating planet and saw how the light reflected off that planet’s surface, the side of the planet that was rotating towards us would look ever so slightly bluer than the side rotating away from us which would look slightly redder. And if the planet’s surface was like Venus and obscured by clouds (rather like the ghost sign at Rosie & Joe will be obscured by leaves in a couple of months time) we could use the reflection of radio waves from the surface rather than visible light to see the same red-shift/blue-shift in the radio waves as the planet rotates**. In this way we could determine the direction of rotation of the planet and how fast it was rotating just as we get an indication of the speed of the fire engine from listening to the sound of the siren.

The siren takes us from a consideration of inner stillness to a recognition of the scale of the universe. Which is rather apt for a cafe in a churchyard, where the architecture of a church is often designed to be read symbolically, from the person to their place in the grand scheme of things***. One great thing about this particular cafe though was how much there was to see that cannot be included in this cafe-physics review for reasons of space. The location truly rewards those who pay attention to what they notice here. I can only recommend that you take some time out, take your re-usable cup and go to find some time to enjoy your coffee (or tea) in this quiet space in central London.

*The London Encyclopaedia, 3rd Edition, Weinreb et al., 2008

**Astronomy, the evolving universe, 6th Edition, Zeilik, 1991

***How to read a church, Taylor, 2003

Rosie and Joe can be found in St Giles in the Fields churchyard, Monday-Friday.

An effective medium for coffee roasting?

coffee bowl pour over

How would you measure the moisture content of a coffee bean?

Recently I had the pleasure of a tour of Amoret coffee in Notting Hill. In addition to discussing an upcoming event that Amoret are kindly hosting (an evening of coffee physics, sign up to the events list to find out more), it was great to see the coffee roaster that is installed there. Fascinating, with what looks to be a really interesting series of coffees lined up ready to roast. And in the course of all this, we came upon the moisture meter, which got me thinking.

Measuring the water content of green (and then roasted) coffee beans is quite critical to gaining an understanding of your roasting process apparently. Sitting on the shelf next to the roaster at Amoret, a small box contained an instrument designed for measuring exactly this. Although it looks as if it is a giant ice cream scoop with a central pillar in the middle, it is actually designed to measure the water content of the coffee beans capacitively. How does it work and, knowing how it works, can we make any predictions as to anomalous results that it may occasionally provide?

The simplest style of capacitor consists of two metallic plates with a gap between them. The capacitance changes depending on the size of the metallic plates, the distance between them and, crucially for this subject, the material that fills the space between the plates. When you apply an electric field between the two plates, the electric moments of the material within the capacitor will tend to align with the electric field. Different materials will react differently depending on their “polarisability”. You only have to think about how a stream of water reacts to a statically charged balloon to see why.

Pulp, Papa Palheta KL

Electrical boxes in Pulp by Papa Palheta KL. The moisture meter at Amoret is much smaller than these old boxes at this ex-printing works.

What this means in practise is that a capacitor formed of plates filled with water will have a different capacitance to the same capacitor filled with air. We say that the ‘permittivity’ of the air is different from the ‘permittivity’ of the water. Measuring the capacitance tells us the permittivity of the material between the plates and so whether the capacitor is filled with air or water. Now fairly obviously, it’s not quite as simple as this because a coffee bean is neither air nor fully water and the moisture meter is not two parallel plates. But in terms of the physics of the measurement, the shape doesn’t really matter here while another bit of physics called “effective medium” theory helps us with the fact that the bean is neither fully air nor fully water. Effective medium theory tells us that the relative permittivity of the mixture is simply proportional to the sum of the individual contributions from the polarisability of each set of molecules. So, merely changing the number of water molecules between the plates will change the capacitance. By knowing what the contribution of the dry beans are, we can calculate the moisture content of the coffee beans as a percentage. Or at least, the instrument can do this calculation internally and provide you with a number on the display.

But. This is what got me thinking about the measurements of the coffee at Amoret. Coffee beans come in a range of sizes and shapes, as you can see by taking a look at the online selection at Amoret (here). Some of these coffees are small, tending towards a more spherical shape while some are significantly larger and more conventionally bean shaped. Is it obvious that the moisture content measured for different coffees is directly comparable? This is not to diminish the use of the moisture meter. As a comparative tool to measure before and after roasting for example, it should be a fairly good indicator. But what should we expect for the absolute accuracy of the instrument? Is a 16% moisture content measured in a small bean really equal to a 16% moisture content measured in a big bean?

At first sight it may seem a silly question, after all, the moisture content is expressed as a percentage; why should size matter? But perhaps we could have a little further think about this. The moisture meter will be optimised for a dense packing of coffee beans. So if we filled it with small beans such that there were very few air gaps between the beans, we would expect a fairly accurate moisture content measurement. If on the other hand, the beans were larger such that there were quite a lot of air gaps between the beans, the actual volume fraction of water molecules in the meter would be reduced (16% of 100% full is greater than 16% of 90% full). And as the capacitance is directly related to the number of water molecules in the sample, the water content that was measured would be less than the true value in each individual bean. So this leads to my first question for roasters using capacitive moisture meters:

  • Do your large beans, that don’t pack well into the moisture meter, often show lower moisture contents than your smaller beans?

variables grind size, pour rate, pour vorticity

Coffee roasting is part-science, part-art and requires great skill and attention. But can thinking about a little extra physics help to understand some of what goes on with the process?

A second point is slightly more subtle. Consider that I had two beans of equal moisture content (%). But one of those beans packs more fully into the moisture meter than the other larger, more irregularly shaped bean. On roasting these beans, they both lost the same volume fraction of water so, say, they went from 16% to 12% water content on roasting. Would both beans show that they had lost the same amount of water?

We could start by thinking about packing these beans into the meter. The one that was densely packed would show a moisture content that was close to the real value (in our example 16%).  The one that was less densely packed however would have a lower volume fraction of water and so show a lower water content. If we assume that the beans filled 90% of the space, the percentage that we measure would be 16% of 90% = 14.4%. On roasting, the two beans are again loaded into the meter and again the densely packed one will show a moisture content close to the real value (in our example 12%). The loosely packed one will show a moisture reading of 12% of 90% of the volume which is 10.8%. Crucially, if we are looking at moisture difference, the densely packed bean will appear to have lost more water (16% – 12% = 4%) than the loosely packed bean (14.4% – 10.8% = 3.6%). Which leads to my second question for roasters:

  • Do small beans that pack well into the moisture meter appear to lose more water for an optimised roasting profile than your larger, less densely packed beans?

Clearly, different beans will have different moisture contents anyway and so it may be difficult to discern any pattern between two specific coffees. The moisture readings may genuinely reflect the fact that the smaller beans have higher water content or vice versa. And also obviously, the measured moisture content is only one part of determining a successful roast profile. However the question is one of statistics. On average, do your larger, less well packed beans have a moisture level lower than you expect? And on average, do they seem to lose less water (measured capacitively) on roasting?

I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts, here, on Twitter or Facebook.

Semi skimmed at Full Fat, Balham

exterior of Full Fat Balham

The shopfront almost seemed to skinny for the name of this cafe.

Just around the corner from Balham tube station, on Chestnut Grove is a new (old) café, Full Fat. Although it has only been in its current location since September 2018, it was previously known as the Balham Kitchen and was apparently quite popular, not just because it was a friendly local café, but also because of the coffee and the chapatis.

We had chanced upon Full Fat while in Balham and took the opportunity for a chapati brunch. During our coffee break several customers came in and had a chat with the two people behind the counter. With coffee roasted by Workshop and an excellent range of homemade chapatis, along with friendly people, what is not to like? We enjoyed an Americano and an oat milk hot chocolate together with two chapatis. My egg chapati was perfectly done, just the right amount of pepper-to-egg balance. And the coffee was also very well made with plenty to think about just by gazing into it.

Although the café itself is quite small, there are three tables and several seats, enough to be able to ensure that you can probably perch somewhere to enjoy your coffee and chapati. There are even entertaining drawings on the walls of the café that make me wonder whether these are previous customers, immortalised on the walls enjoying a cup of coffee with their morning paper? Certainly they are a good reason to put down your smart phone and just soak in the atmosphere here.

pencil drawings in Full Fat

Pencil drawings at Full Fat Balham

Apart from the drawings, the other decoration in the café that caught my attention was behind another table: a striped piece of woodwork that was reminiscent of a type of cake served in Malaysia and Singapore, kueh lapis. It is a layered cake, the idea being that you peel each layer off to eat it, extending the enjoyment that you can get out of a cake. Although the layers peel easily, ordinarily the cake holds together as a cake, the layers do not glide over each other as if they are wholly separate, perhaps like chapatis stacked on top of each other. No, whether the cake works or not, as a kueh lapis, is down not just to the flavour, but also to the texture and to the way that each layer peels from the next, the subtle tug of one layer held, but not quite, by the last.

These interlayer or interface effects are often, ultimately, an atomic phenomenon. Just as when you drop a drip of coffee on the table, the thing that ultimately determines the shape of the droplet is the attraction between the molecules in the water and the atoms on the table surface*, so the stickiness of the cake has to be occurring, ultimately, at the atomic level.

Interface effects can be crucial in other solids too, not just coffee and cake. Consider sapphire. Sapphire has the molecular formula Al2O3. Ordinarily it is colourless and transparent, it becomes blue when impurities are added to it. But sapphire has another property which is that it is electrically insulating: a sapphire would not conduct any electricity if you tried to use it to connect to your light bulbs. This insulating behaviour is shared with another oxide, strontium titanate, SrTiO3, which is also a colourless and transparent material. Nothing of any interest there then. But, and this is the key thing, if you took a piece of strontium titanate and grew the sapphire on top of it, under certain growth conditions, this bilayer becomes extraordinarily electrically conducting, far better than many metals that you can think of. And it is because of the atomic effects that occur at the interface between the strontium titanate and the Al2O3.

Layering of wood at Full Fat

Can you see the layering on the wooden panel behind the table? Thought not, you’ll just have to visit Full Fat and see for yourself.

But then another example, a new finding that is perhaps more closely associated with coffee. When you take the semiconductor molybdenum ditelluride (MoTe2) and sandwich a thin layer of it between two sheets of graphene, some atomic-level interactions occur. In the case of MoTe2, the “band gap” of the semiconductor (which determines how it conducts electricity when light is shone on it) is altered by the van der Waals forces associated with the graphene layers: the interface effects are changing the way that the semiconductor reacts to light. Ordinarily if you shine a pulsed laser at such a semiconductor, the electrons† that get excited across the band gap are few enough that they behave as a gas within the semiconductor. This means that if you add more electrons (by pulsing the light on the semiconductor again), the density of the electron ‘gas’ will increase. What researchers have just shown is that for this 2D layer, if you shine very high powered lasers at the MoTe2 layer for a short length of time, so many electrons get excited that the semiconductor no longer behaves as if it contains an electron gas, but an electron ‘liquid’. A sort of droplet of electrons in the locality of the laser beam. And because of the way that the band structure had been affected by the interface layers, they managed to obtain this behaviour at room temperature. Although such liquids had been created before, the new thing about this result was that previously these experiments were usually done at very low (-269C) temperatures. Quite a temperature increase on previous results!

Droplets of an electron-hole excitation may seem a far step from the droplets of coffee that you could be enjoying at Full Fat. However, it is just a short hop for the imagination if you stopped to give it time to think. What will you notice next time you are in a café?

Full Fat is on Chestnut Grove, literally just around the corner from Balham tube station.

*Assuming that the table is flat. If the table is nanostructured, the structure itself can influence the ‘wettability’ of the table.

†Yes, and holes.

To stay or to go at Cafe from Crisis

coffee commercial St volcano

Cafe from Crisis on Commercial Street, E1. Notice the arches…

It was not what I had expected. Entering the door of the Cafe from Crisis, you go up a ramp with a bench running alongside it before the counter looms in front of you with a large café space opening up to your right (previously partially obscured from your view by the wall for the ramp). Perhaps it is fitting that my expectations were wrong. Many of us have ideas about the homeless (why they are homeless, what homelessness is etc) that may not match fully with the reality. And this café is, after all, in the head office of Crisis, a UK national charity working with the homeless and homelessness.

The coffee is roasted by Volcano and there are a large number of food options (including vegan and veggie) and cakes at the counter. A selection of keep cups are also arranged in a rack on the left of the counter, should you not have one yet. We ordered an Americano and tea (to stay) and took our numbered wooden spoon to the table so that they could find us. Although it was late lunchtime and busy, the drinks arrived fairly quickly with the coffee in a (Crisis themed?) red cup. Apparently serving coffee in red cups make us perceive the coffee as warmer than if it is served in a blue cup. Whether this is true or not, the warm brew was very welcome on this cold January day. The café is situated on a street corner which means that it has many windows, each topped with a shallow arch. The building looks fairly modern from the outside, but the arches were reminiscent of the way that older buildings can be dated by the window style, along with other features. The Cure played in the background which entertained my tea drinking companion but made me wonder about the ideas of Pythagoras on the psychological impacts of different sorts of music (and whether it affected the ability to find thought connections in a café).

plant in a coffee cup

It turns out there are many things to notice in this photo. From the bricks to the self-defence tactics of plants. But what about the nature of the home of the plant?

As we sat, enjoyed our drinks and looked around, we noticed that some plants had found a home in coffee cups placed on the tables around. Small plants in plastic pots (a nod to the anthropocene as pointed out by @lifelearner47 on twitter) were dotted around the café. Did they move from an espresso to a long black cup as they grew larger? Perhaps it was the spiky plant in one of the pots, but my mind immediately jumped to hermit crabs and their search for a new shell each time they grew a bit bigger. Marine hermit crabs  have been shown to be happy in any old discarded shell. Normally these are the ex-homes of gastropods that have, well, “moved on” would be a euphemism, but marine based hermit crabs have been known to make their shells out of all sorts of things including our plastic litter. Land based hermit crabs however are far more demanding and only move into shells that have been specially remodelled by earlier generations of hermit crabs for their own use. This means that land based hermit crabs have to develop a social awareness of other hermit crabs when they want to swap shells.

Apparently the interaction goes something like this: A group of hermit crabs come together in a small-ish area and begin to scope each other out. The loose collection becomes a cluster as the crabs explore whether one of the larger crabs can be evicted from its shell. As the process of eviction is about to occur, the remaining crabs (which can number quite a few, 10 or more) literally ‘line up’ in order of shell size so that, when the largest is evicted, each crab can move up to the next sized shell leaving the smallest, most undesirable shell on the seashore and the poor evicted crab, shell-less.

Several questions arise but one is, do the crabs make decisions, “to stay or to go” based on how advanced the eviction process is? So, say a crab wanders into an area with an unusually large number of crabs in it (perhaps 4) but the crabs are all lined up in a queue ready to swap into each others shells. Do the crabs coming into the area stick around for a long time or do they head off somewhere else? Or, conversely, what if they enter an area where there are more than the usual number of ‘colleagues’, but they are all scattered about, not yet ready to evict the largest crab. What would our incoming crab do then?

coffee red cup Crisis

What would you learn if you noticed the connections your mind was forming while enjoying a coffee?

These questions were addressed by a group working with the terrestrial hermit crabs of Costa Rica. By defining five cells on the beach, each with a different arrangement of (empty but inaccessible) shells that the incoming hermit crab may want, the researchers found that the incoming hermits were making some strikingly sensible decisions. When the crab came into a region of scattered shells (that the incomer mistook for fellow crabs owing to a trick with a combination of loctite glue and partially burying the empty shells that the researchers used to fool the incomers), the incomer tended to stick around, waiting for an opportunity to swap a shell. If the incomer came but saw that the queue of shells had already formed, it still stayed a bit longer in the region relative to a control area devoid of shells, but it did tend to leave it after some time, perhaps to look for new shells elsewhere. The researchers concluded that when the crab came into an area and thought it had a pretty good chance of inserting itself into a good queue position, it would stay in the area waiting for the eviction to occur and the shell swapping process to start. However when the crab came into an area where the queue had already formed, it was unlikely to be able to get a good position in the queue and so would investigate the situation for a bit before wandering off elsewhere in the search of a new shell in a different area.

Does this have any relevance to a café trying to do a bit to address the problems of homelessness and the homeless in our city and country? I will leave that to each reader to ponder. However, it was a great opportunity to learn something new about our world, which only happened because I stopped to notice something in a café and then wondered how hermit crabs get their homes. It’s always good to slow down and notice things. What will you see next?

Cafe from Crisis (London) is at 64 Commercial Street, E1 6LT.

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.

Connectivity at Populus, Singapore

Inside Populus

The cool interior of Populus

A friend recommended that we try a café in her neighbourhood near Outram, in Singapore. So, with some time to spare we walked up the hill and into the welcoming air conditioning of The Populus Cafe in Neil Road. The coffee is roasted by 2º North and there is an extensive menu of both coffee based drinks and a seasonal filter selection. There was also a range of iced drinks on the menu which in the Singapore heat were tempting, but I opted for the 6oz Long Black. Given more time, or a second visit, I would certainly try the filter, but this time an appointment across the island was calling. There seemed too to be a very good lunch selection on the menu, but again, the lunch appointment elsewhere meant that it was just the 6oz long black that day.

It should be possible to take some time back from a busy schedule full of appointments and concerns and sit back and ponder the connections in any café. Having run from one set of concerns and soon to have to go off to another, would this be possible in 30ºC+ heat? The comfortable space of Populus provided a perfect place to test this question. Sitting back while sipping my coffee, the first thing that struck me was the wood, arranged in different geometrical patterns on the walls. The floors too were decorated with hexagonal stone tiles while the door was glass. There was a different pattern on the door, but what was it? Staring at it for a while, I thought about the schematics you sometimes see for a connected world, each of us a point connected to the others (how true is it that we are all 6 hand shakes away from everyone else?). Maybe this fitted with the name of the café? My companion in these reviews instead thought of crystals and the way that crystal structures are represented with lines between the atoms. While loading the photograph of the door onto the website, I saw a pattern of flowers. It seems that the pattern on the door formed and reformed with each new view.

door, Populus

Looking through the door of Populus. What patterns do you see?

Then there was the cup. A black coffee in a black cup, with umbral and penumbral shadows (as pointed out by @Bob_MatPhys on Twitter). A few years ago there was great excitement about a new material that had been made to be blacker than any known material. The substance used a coating of carbon nanowires (of just 20nm diameter which is about 1/1000 the size of a grain of espresso grind) to absorb light across the visible, ultra-violet and infrared spectrum. And just as nano-structuring a material helps it to appear the ‘blackest’ object ever, so changing the structure of a material can make it invisible to other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum such as microwaves. Quite why various defence companies and governments would invest so much into this research I will leave for your imagination (it is not to avoid heating soup). A more peaceful and beautiful side of the effect of nanostructure on optical properties is the way that the feathers of a peacock have a striking green-blue hue. It is another example of light interacting with a structure and so producing different optical effects; all is not as it appears.

coffee cup Populus

A black coffee in a black coffee cup. But what does black mean? And is something that is transparent always so?

And the fact that all is not as it appears gives another connection to the Populus cup. For although it seemed quite black to my eyes, it was clearly shining in the infra-red. The hot coffee inside was radiating through the cup and onto my hands. Which could prompt us to consider what ‘black’ really means? And for that matter, what about transparent? Just as ‘black’ only absorbs light over a certain set of frequencies, so transparent only lets light through over certain frequencies. The door that we can see through with our eyes may be opaque to a different frequency range that we cannot see. Just over two hundred years ago Carl Wilhelm Scheele deduced the presence of the infrared by contemplating how his stove heated him in the winter. Although he could not see them, the ‘heat rays’ seemed to come straight towards him and yet did not cause a candle flame to flicker, clearly the heat was ‘radiating’ like light rather than travelling like a breeze on the air.

The knowledge that structure, as well as pigment, provides the colour to our world, or that what is transparent at some frequencies may be opaque to others, these things give us plenty to think about, scientifically and perhaps more philosophically, while enjoying our black coffee. Which shows that even ten minutes spent sitting with your coffee can result in a series of thought connections that you may not have enjoyed had you rushed from appointment to appointment while checking your smartphone. That we could all enjoy a good ten minutes (or more) in the Populus Cafe!

The Populus Cafe is at 146 Neil Road, Singapore 088875