General

A short (lived) black

coffee at Story
A black coffee with bubbles on top. The colours on a bubble are the result of light interference. But sometimes the top of the bubble could appear black. What is happening there?

The long black can be distinguished from the Americano by the order in which the espresso and the water are added to the cup. This in turn will affect the type of bubbles on the surface of the coffee. As a guess, the long black (espresso last) will have many more but smaller bubbles than the Americano (water last) which will probably have larger, but fewer bubbles. Perhaps this guess is wrong, this could be an excuse to get out and drink more coffee.

We are used to the coffee being black and the bubbles on the surface reflecting a rainbow of shimmering colours that change with the light and with time before they finally burst. We know the physics of the colours on the bubbles: they are the result of the interference of reflections from the outer and inner surface of the bubble cancelling out certain colours and adding to others dependent on the bubble skin’s thickness. But what about black bubbles? Or, if not entirely black, perhaps the cap of the bubble can, for a short while, appear black just before the bubble bursts?

It is easier to take a short break from coffee and look for this effect in soap films. Like the bubbles on coffee, soap bubbles are caused by the surfactant in the soap solution having a hydrophilic (water loving) and hydrophobic (water hating) end. The hydrophilic end of the surfactant can point into the water (coffee) leaving the hydrophobic end to form a surface. When this is agitated with air, the hydrophilic ends remain contacted with water resulting in bubbles which are thin layers of water surrounded by these surfactant molecules. In coffee the surfactant is not soap but is formed by the lipids and fatty acids. These bubbles are therefore slightly weaker than the soap based bubbles and so while they will form on a coffee, it is not easy to make a film of a coffee bubble in the same way as you can dip a wire loop into a soap solution and come out with a soap film.

However, we can use the stability of the soap film to investigate the colours in the coffee bubbles and watch the colours evolve with time. At this point, I would strongly encourage anyone reading to grab a solution of soap and a wire loop and start playing with soap films.

Soap film in a wire loop held by a crocodile clip.
A soap film in a wire loop showing reflected horizontal coloured bands that are the result of light interference.

Holding the wire loop so that the soap film is vertical with a light source shining at it, we can watch as the film changes from being uniformly transparent to having bands of colour form and move down the film. We watch as there is a red/green band and another red/green band and then on top of the bands there appears a white, or at least pale blue, almost white, band and above that a layer that doesn’t reflect the light at all. If we view the soap film against a dark background looking only at the reflected light, this top portion of the film appears black. Rotating the loop we can see that the bands effectively stay in the same position because it is gravity pulling on this soap film that is causing the film to be thicker at the bottom than at the top. And we recognise that the coloured bands are revealing that thickness change to us by the fact that they are changing throughout the film. If we are careful as we rotate the wire, we could even see vortex like motions as the layers settle into their new position relative to the frame including at the very top where there are swirls and patches of fluid that mix the black layer with the coloured bands. What is going on there?

In fact, this black layer is one of the thinnest things that they human eye can see, and it occurs because of a subtle piece of physics. All waves have a number of properties defined by the position of the peaks and troughs on the wave. The wavelength is the distance between two equivalent points on the wave. The amplitude is the height of the peak (or trough). And the phase is the position of the wave relative to the peak (or trough). When light is reflected at a surface of a material that has a refractive index greater than that which the light is travelling through (eg. air into water, soap, or glass), the reflected wave has a 180 degree phase shift relative to the incident wave. Each peak becomes a trough, each trough becomes a peak. When light is already travelling through water, soap or glass and gets reflected at the surface of the material that is effectively air, there is no phase shift and the light is reflected back with the same phase as the incident wave (a peak remains a peak and a trough a trough).

At the top of the soap film, the layer is so thin that the light reflected from the first surface (180 degree shift) overlays that reflected from the back surface (no phase shift) so that peak and trough cancel each other out and we see no light reflected whatsoever for any visible wavelength; the surface looks black.

As bubbles ‘ripen’ or age, they will become thinner at the top of the bubble. It is at this point that you may be lucky enough to see a region of the bubble from which no light is reflected, this is the black film.

Which leads to some immediate questions. When we look carefully at the soap film, the boundary between the upper white band and the black film is quite sharp, it is not gradual as we may expect if the soap film were completely wedge shaped with gravity. It suggests that the top of the film is very thin and then suddenly gets thicker at the point where we start to see the colour bands. Moreover, the black film does not appear to mix with the thicker film just beneath it. As we watch, just before the soap film bursts, we get turbulence between the black layer and the thicker film, but the turbulent patterns appear like two fluids next to each other, not the same fluid in a continuum. And then, one final question. If we can’t measure the thickness of the black film with light (because it is all reflected as black) how can we know how thick this film is? If we rely on the light interference method, all we can say is how much thinner it is than the wavelength of light.

In fact, careful experiments have revealed two types of black film, which to us experimenting at the kitchen table would be indistinguishable. There is the common black film and the Newton black film. The Newton black film is effectively two layers of surfactant molecules only and is about 5nm thick (which is 5 millionths of a millimetre). The common black film is thicker, but is still much less than 100 nm thick. Investigating how these films behave is still an active area of research.

One last observation may prompt us to play for a bit longer with the soap films. Johann Gottlob Leidenfrost (1715-94) noted that if you put a sharp object such as a needle through the region of the soap film that showed the coloured bands, the film could self-heal and wouldn’t necessarily burst. If however you pierced the black region of the film, the film always burst entirely.

It seems that we could play endlessly with soap films, perhaps while watching the bubbles in our coffee. However you enjoy your coffee, have fun experimenting.

A couple more soap films showing reflected coloured interference bands. At the top, the film has become so thin that no light is reflected (clearly seen in the image on the right, where the lamp in the top left should be a circular reflection but is not reflected in the region above the coloured bands). In the image on the left, you can see what looks like turbulence or mixing just above the uppermost band.

Up in the air with a Pure Over Brewer

The diffuser sitting on top of the Pure Over coffee brewer. The holes are to ensure that the water falls evenly and slowly onto the grounds below.

The Pure Over is a new type of coffee brewer that is designed to brew filter coffee without the need for disposable paper filters. The brewer, which is completely made of glass, is a perfect size for brewing one cup of coffee and, as promised, makes a lovely cup without the need for wasteful paper filters. Generally, for 1-cup filter coffees, the Pure Over has become my go-to brewing method, although it does have a few idiosyncrasies to it that are helpful to be aware of while brewing.

An advantage of this brewing device is that it provides a large number of opportunities for physics-watching, including a peculiar effect that connects brewing coffee to an air balloon crash into the garden of a London Coffee House. It concerns a feature of the Pure Over that is specific to this particular brewing device: the ‘diffuser’ that sits on top of it.

The glass diffuser has five small holes at the bottom of it which are designed to reduce the flow of the water onto the coffee bed so that it is slower and more gentle. In order to avoid the paper filters, the Pure Over features a filter made of holes in the glass at its base. This filter does surprisingly well at keeping the coffee grounds out of the final brew, but it works best if the coffee bed just above it is not continuously agitated. The idea of the diffuser is that the coffee grounds are more evenly exposed to the water, with the grounds closest to the filter being least disturbed and so the coffee is extracted properly.

As water is poured from a kettle through the diffuser, the water builds up in the diffuser forming a pool that slowly trickles through the holes. Initially this process proceeds steadily, the water is poured from the kettle into the diffuser and then gently flows through and lands on the coffee. At one point however, the pressure of the steam within the main body of the brewer builds until it is enough to push the glass diffuser up a bit, the steam escapes and the diffuser ‘clunks’ back onto its base on top of the pure over. Then, this happens again, and again, until there is a continuous rattle as the steam pressure builds, escapes and builds once more.

The ideal gas laws, such as that found by Jacques Charles, relate the volume and pressure of a gas to its temperature. The application of the laws helped to improve the design of steam engines such as this Aveling and Porter Steam Roller that has been preserved in central Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The pressure of the steam builds until the force exerted upwards by the rising steam is greater than the weight of gravity pulling the diffuser down. Once enough gas escapes, the pressure is reduced and so the steam no longer keeps the diffuser aloft which consequently drops with a clunk. The motion could take our thoughts to pistons, steam engines and the way that this steam movement was once exploited to drive our industrial revolution. Or you could go one stage earlier, and think about the gas laws that were being developed shortly before. There’s Boyle’s Law which relates the pressure of a gas to its volume (at constant temperature). That would perhaps partially explain the behaviour of the pure over. But then there’s also Jacques Charles and his observation that the volume of a gas is proportional to its temperature (at constant pressure). This too has relevance for the pure over because as we pour more water in from the kettle, we warm the entire pure-over body and so the temperature of the gas inside will increase. Consequently, as the amount of hot water in the pure over increases, the temperature goes up, the volume of that gas would increase but is stopped by the diffuser acting as a lid. This leads to the pressure of the gas increasing (Boyle) until the force upwards is high enough, the diffuser lid rises upwards on the steam which escapes leading the pressure to once again drop and the diffuser top to go clunk and the whole cycle begins again.

Of course, we know that Boyle’s law is appropriate for constant temperature and Charles’s law is appropriate for constant pressure and so the laws are combined together with the Gay-Lussac/Amonton law into the ideal gas laws which explain all manner of things from cooling aerosols to steam engine pistons. And yet, they have another connection, which also links back to our pure over, which is the history of hot air balloons.

Charles discovered his law in around 1787, a few years after the first non-tethered hot air balloon ascent, in Paris, in June of 1783. The hot air balloon is a good example of the physics that we can see in the pure over. Although Charles must have suspected some of the physics of the hot air balloon in June, he initially decided to invent his own, hydrogen filled balloon which he used to ascend 500 m in December of 1783. Hydrogen achieves its lift because hydrogen is less dense than air at the same temperature. However, it is the hydrogen balloon that links back to coffee and coffee in London.

hot air balloon
The ideal gas laws also contribute to our understanding of the operation of hot air balloons. We are familiar with them now, but how would such an object have been perceived by observers at the time of the first flights?

The first balloon flight in England took place using a hydrogen, not a hot-air, balloon in 1785. The balloon was piloted by Vincenzo Lunardi who was accompanied by a cat, a dog and, for a short while, a pigeon (before it decided to fly away). But it was not this successful flight that connects back to coffee, it was his maiden flight on 13 May 1785. On that day, Lunardi took off from the Honourable Artillery Company grounds in Moorgate, flew for about 20 minutes and then crashed, or as they said at the time “fell with his burst balloon, and was but slightly injured”(1) into the gardens of the Adam and Eve Coffee House on the junction of Hampstead Road and, what is now, Euston Road. In the 1780s the Adam and Eve coffee house had a large garden that was the starting point for walks in the country (in the area now known as Somers Town)(2). Imagine the scene as, quietly appreciating your tea or coffee, a large flying balloon crashes into the garden behind you.

The Adam and Eve is no longer there, in fact, its original location now seems to be the underpass at that busy junction, and the closest coffee house is a branch of Beany Green. However there is one, last coffee connection and it brings us back to the pure over. The pressure of the steam under the diffuser needs to build until the upwards force of the steam can overcome the gravitational force down of the weight of the glass diffuser. In the same way Lunardi had to have enough lift from the hydrogen balloon to compensate for the weight of the balloon and its passengers. Lunardi had wanted to be accompanied by another human on the day of his successful flight. Unfortunately, the mass of two humans in a balloon was too much for the balloon to accommodate which is why, the human was replaced by the dog, the cat and the pigeon.

Which may go some way to illustrate how far the mind can travel while brewing a cup of coffee, particularly with a brew device as full of physics as the Pure Over.

1 London Coffee Houses, Bryant Lillywhite, George Allen and Unwin publishers, 1963

2 The London Encyclopaedia (3rd edition), Weinreb, Hibbert, Keay and Keay, MacMillan, 2008

Pure Percolation

Pure over boxed
The Pure Over in its box. The glass base is designed with an inbuilt filter, avoiding the need for disposable paper filters but making the physics of percolation unavoidable.

It was entirely appropriate that the first coffee I tried in the Pure Over coffee brewer was the directly traded La Lomita Colombian from Ricardo Canal via Amoret Coffee. Ricardo was a special guest at one of the Coffee and Science evenings we held at Amoret Coffee in Notting Hill (pre-pandemic) where, among other things, he spoke about how he is using Biochar on his coffee farm. Biochar is a porous, charcoal based material that can help to provide the coffee plants with nutrients as well as water, thereby reducing the amount of fertiliser the plants need. To understand how it works, we need to understand a bit about percolation, which of course we also need to understand in order to brew better coffee in the Pure Over. Indeed, there are enough similarities, and an extension to a quirk of how espressos are brewed, that it is worth spending a little more time thinking about this process and the connections revealed as we brew our coffee.

Percolation recurs in many of the brew methods we use for making coffee. The V60, Chemex, Kalita wave, percolators and the espresso itself, all rely at some point on water flowing through a bed of ground coffee. The flavour of the resultant cup is dependent on the amount of coffee surface that the flowing water is exposed to together with the time that it is in contact with the coffee. What this means is that grain size, or the degree to which you grind your coffee, is critical.

Playing with brewing coffee, we know some things by experience. Firstly, frequently, the flow through a coarse grind of coffee will be quite fast (probably too fast to make a good cup). Secondly, we know that for any particular brew method, the more water we pour into the brewer, the faster the water initially comes through. We also know that we can affect the flow rate of water through the coffee if we increase the area of the coffee bed, or decrease its thickness. These observations were quantified into an equation by Henri Darcy in 1856. Darcy’s work had been as an engineer, designing and building public works such as the aqueduct that brought drinking water into the city of Dijon in the 1840s. Darcy received significant recognition at the time for his work including the Légion d’honneur, but it is more for a later set of experiments and particularly for his equation that we remember him today. In the 1850s Darcy was working on the problem of water purification. Passing water through a bed of sand is still used as a method of purifying the water today. Darcy used a series of cylinders filled with sand to investigate how quickly water trickled through the sand bed in order to come up with a proper quantification of those things that we too know by experience with our coffee filters. You can read about the mathematics of Darcy’s equation here.

espresso puck
An espresso puck. The compact structure nonetheless allows water to percolate through it at high pressure.

Darcy found that the flow rate of water through the sand bed increased when the porosity of the bed was higher (fine, dense sand would delay the flow of the water more than coarse, loosely packed sand). If there was a greater pressure on the water at the top of the bed (ie. more water is on top of the sand), the flow rate through the bed would increase too. Conversely the flow would get slower as the water was made more viscous. This is something we too know from experience: try to pour honey through the coffee grounds and it just won’t work.

For us to apply Darcy’s insights into making better coffee, it means that we need to think about the grind size. Too coarse and there will be lots of empty space through the bed of grounds: the porosity is high, and the water will flow straight through. Too fine and the flow rate will decrease so much that rather than just the sweet and slightly acidic solubles that first come out of any coffee extraction*, there could be too much of the bitter organic compounds that come out later, changing the character of the cup. With coffee we have an additional concern. Unlike sand, coffee grinds will swell, and splinter, as water is added to them, closing up any narrower paths and lengthening the brew time. This also means that, unless we properly wet the grounds prior to filtering our coffee, the extraction will be non-uniform and not reproducible. Another reason to bloom coffee thoroughly before brewing.

There is one more factor in brewing our coffee however that Darcy’s equation, which is valid for more stable systems, overlooks. Darcy assumed a constant flow rate of water through the sand bed, but coffee is different. In his book about espresso*, Illy showed that the flow of the water through an espresso puck was not constant over time. Something really interesting was happening when you looked carefully at an espresso puck. Ground coffee can come in a large distribution of sizes. In addition to the grind that we are aiming for, we also get a whole load of smaller particles called ‘fines’. Sometimes this is desirable, but with espresso, and by extension with our filter coffees, these fines add a twist to the physics of the percolation. As the espresso water is pushed through the coffee puck, the fines get pushed down through the puck between the ‘grains’ of the coffee grinds. This reduces the flow rate of the water until the point at which they get stuck. This will have the effect of increasing the contact time between the coffee and the water and so allowing more flavour solubles to be extracted. But crucially, these fines remain somewhat mobile. If you were to turn the whole espresso puck upside down (and Illy had a machine that allowed him to do this in-situ), the fines would again go on the move. Migrating from the new top of the puck to the new bottom. Filling the voids between the slightly too coarse grains. Complicating the simplifications in Darcy’s equation, but adding flavour to our brew.

Watch House coffee Bermondsey
There is a fountain on the wall (right hand side) of the Watch House cafe in Bermondsey. Many public fountains in London date from the 1850s emphasising just what a problem access to drinkable water once was.

Which leaves the connection between the farming method and the coffee. Biochar is formed by burning carbon containing waste (such as plant matter) in a low oxygen environment. Burying the resultant charcoal is therefore a way of storing carbon, and preventing its release into the atmosphere, for many years. But it is not just good for carbon storage. The buried charcoal is highly porous and traps nutrients within its structure so that the plants growing near it can be fertilised more efficiently. Moreover, the fact that it is porous, just like the coffee or sand beds, means that it traps water for a long time. Consider how long it takes a used filter full of coffee grounds to completely dry out! The water gets trapped within the porous structure and does not evaporate easily. This aspect of the biochar means that, as well as nutrients, the plants that grow nearby get a good source of reliable water. The ancient civilisations of the Amazon region used something similar to biochar in their farming techniques resulting in soil now known as “Terra Preta”, an extremely rich form of soil that improves plant growth. On his farm, Ricardo is going fully circular and making his biochar out of old coffee trees. The old trees thereby giving new opportunities to the fresh growth. It is a carbon capture scheme that reduces the need for fertilisers and that relies on percolation physics to work to best effect for the plants.

It seemed a moment of perfect coffee-physics poetry to use coffee grown on a farm using these techniques while initially experimenting with my own, percolation sensitive, Pure Over brewer. Percolation physics and interconnectedness all in one cup.

*Illy and Viani (Eds), “Espresso Coffee”, 2nd Edition, (2005)

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.

Filtering

When you prepare a filter coffee with a paper filter, you typically rinse the filter before starting the brewing process. As you do so the paper swells and can absorb several ml of water.

The other morning while preparing a V60, I noticed that the filter paper absorbed between 3-6g of water (3-6ml) each time I rinsed the filter before making a new coffee. My mind wandered to re-hydrating space food and the importance of water in the texture of the food we eat (and coffee we drink). And then I was reminded of a question I had been asked during these Covid-19 times: would a face mask that is damp work better, or worse, than a dry one for reducing the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19?

The answer did not seem obvious. On the one hand, when we wet the paper filter while brewing coffee, the fibres within the paper swell and reduce the pore size of the filter. It seems likely that cotton fibres in a mask would behave similarly. This would have the effect of slowing and reducing the transmission of particulates through the mask. But on the other hand, we’re not thinking about particulates but about small amounts of viral material hosted in water droplets that are somehow exhaled. I decided on the “no idea” response at the time and put the question aside. Until the other morning while preparing coffee.

Unsurprisingly this question, and many like it are now the subject of intense research. I say unsurprisingly because a few years ago a new family of superconductors was discovered with (relatively) very high transition temperatures*. I was on holiday at the time but when I returned, it was to a large number of emails and ideas for experiments on these new materials that became known as the iron based superconductors. We had our first paper on these materials within a couple of months which, like all papers on this at the time, was uploaded, without peer review, to a pre-print server. Eventually most of the papers on the pre-print server got published in peer-reviewed journals, but this process was slow because it relied (and still does) on other scientists reading and taking the time to carefully respond to the points in your manuscript, then for you to address these points, for them to read it again and then, hopefully, ok the paper for publication. If you wanted to get the paper out and for a discussion to start, it had to be uploaded to the pre-print server.

canali Curators Coffee
Iron is a magnetic element. It was puzzling how a magnetic element could exist in a superconducting material and, moreover, seemed to make these materials even better superconductors than their non-magnetic counterparts.

Clearly, in order to keep up with scientists worldwide, we were looking at the pre-print server every morning looking for new ideas and new observations (and if anyone had done the same as we were trying to do at that precise moment but ‘beaten’ us to it). We had to be careful while assessing the claims in the pre-print papers. Some of the pre-prints were eventually withdrawn as they had made overblown claims (admittedly very few). Many were revised and had their claims either subtly altered or brought down a bit from hyperbole before being published in the journals. But none of this mattered to the world outside the lab because while exciting to us, and while the temperature of the transition was, from a physics perspective, very high, for the general public it would have been hard to get excited about materials that went superconducting below about 50 K or, in more common units, -223 C.

This side-story matters because, like our superconductors, the pandemic is the subject of intense research with much of it being uploaded to pre-print servers first so that scientists world wide can get into a conversation about the latest results. However, unlike our superconductors, the general public cares a great deal about a pandemic that is affecting us all and about the scientific rationale for measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing etc. While it is tempting to read the pre-prints, as I am not working in the field, it is not possible for me to read the papers on pre-print servers and be able to have a good guess as to whether the claims are reasonable, over blown or under-evidenced. So, I try to rely only on papers that are past the point of peer review and published in scientific journals. There is something very disheartening about reading an interesting newspaper report that near the end says “the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed…”. Will the interesting study hold up? It is difficult, from outside the research area, to tell.

However, we need to get back to the masks and the filters. Was there a study, in the peer-reviewed and published literature, that looked at whether moistened masks performed better than non-moistened masks?

Masks: can we set up an experiment to see how effective ours are relative to the fitted N95s that are not available to most of us?
Masks: can we set up an experiment to see how effective ours are relative to the fitted N95s that are not available to most of us?

In fact, there is a lot of research on the effectiveness of masks. The research includes computer modelling, imaging of real people breathing/talking/coughing with and without masks and more reproducible tests where the mask material is tested using the conditions of a simulated sneeze. This last study also tested whether that simulated sneeze is contained better by a cloth mask (with filtration down to PM 2.5) or a damp cloth mask (with the same nominal filtration).

The different types of research are needed because they answer different types of question. How effective each type of mask is will depend on the type of material (tested with the simulated sneeze) and the way that people wear them (tested by the imaging of people wearing masks). While the computer modelling suggests what may happen in more ‘real life’ environments such as being outdoors with a gentle wind blowing.

In terms of the initial question about the damp masks, it turns out that the fact that the fibres in the mask swell with the water does indeed help reduce the droplet transmission through the mask material. But the authors caution that if the mask is worn for a longer period of time, the damp mask may get saturated with virus loaded droplets and so the mask would need to be changed (and refreshed with fresh water) frequently in order for it to be effective against transmission of the virus loaded droplets. (It’s also noteworthy that the effect of the damp mask was only tested for one mask type that may not be typical of what the general public wears). However, for most of us it would not be practical anyway to wear a damp mask. Moreover, if we were having to change the mask frequently, it may not be helpful for us at all. But the good news is that the imaging studies show that we don’t have to do either.

A fantastic report in Scientific Advances showed two things. First, that most masks that we wear properly give a significant benefit for the people around us. And secondly, they provided an experimental set up that can easily and relatively cheaply be replicated by people with a little technical knowledge and a mobile phone. However, given that ‘relatively cheaply’ still means about $200, I’ll take their results instead, if you don’t mind spending the money on a laser and some lenses (or happen to have some lying around), please do let me know how you get on.

Press Room coffee Twickenham
Another paper filter, this time at the Press Room, Twickenham. When we add water to a (dry) paper filter, the fibres within it swell and expand making it a better filter. Would the same happen with masks?

The authors took several of the types of face mask being worn by the public and imaged the droplets coming from a person speaking through each of them. The masks tested included surgical masks, N95 masks, and hand-made masks with 2-layers of cotton or 2-layers of cotton with an extra polypropylene layer in the middle. All of these masks reduced the droplets transmitted through the mask significantly. Indeed, relative to no-mask, some home-made multiple cotton layer masks cut the droplets by nearly a factor of 10. The exceptions were bandanas and neck gaiters. The bandanas that were tested only cut the droplets getting through by a factor of 2, but the gaiters were worse. Speaking through the neck gaiter that they tested, the authors observed that the number of droplets getting through the gaiter actually increased relative to speaking wearing no mask. While this seems counter-intuitive, they suggested that this was likely because the gaiter was breaking up the larger droplets into multiple smaller droplets and so their equipment, which just measured the number of droplets, measured an increase relative to someone wearing no mask.

The problem here of course is, as the computer simulations showed, smaller droplets stay in the air for longer, larger droplets tend to fall with gravity. Something else that we know by thinking about our coffee.

So the final conclusion? Yes, it is possible that a damp mask may be better than a dry one though there are caveats on that result. But in actual fact, most masks that we wear in an indoor environment will help to protect other people (though maybe be careful with the gaiter materials). And a second conclusion? Perhaps preparing a coffee should be a time of escape from the concerns of coronavirus and really, next time, I should just enjoy the moment and think about re-hydrating space food.

*Actually, the iron-based superconductors had been discovered a couple of years previous to the excitement. But at that point, the reported transition temperatures were low enough that even the superconducting field was curious but not excited.

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)

Packaging, all about substance

The OK Vincotte or OK Compost HOME labels are for items that are suitable for “home” composting. This label was on a coffee bag from Amoret Coffee

Who would have thought that buying coffee to drink at home could be such a moral minefield? There are issues of sustainability: for the people involved in the coffee process through to the planet. Issues of transportation and the balance between supporting local independents or larger companies with different sustainability policies. And in amongst all this are issues of packaging the final product. How does your freshly roasted coffee arrive? Is it in a bag that you have no choice but to dispose of in the ordinary rubbish, or in a bag (or even bottle) that can be re-used and recycled or composted?

As many of us are buying more coffee on-line at the moment, I thought that it may be helpful to have a list of roasters who have gone to some effort in thinking about the sustainability of their final packaging. Of course many other issues are involved in your decision about which coffee to purchase. This list is only intended as a place to collate information on coffee bean packaging. The list is not definitive, so if you know of a roaster (or if you are a roaster) who is not currently featured on this list but you think ought to be, please let me know as I will be updating the page regularly. Similarly if you notice a mistake, please get in touch (e-mail, Twitter, Facebook).

One more caveat. We each need to decide what we consider a ‘good’, or sustainable packaging. The issue is highly complex. Some of us will have the ability to compost at home, some will have access to an industrial composting bin, some will go to supermarkets regularly and would prefer to recycle plastic together with other plastic bags. And then of course there is the problem that packaging is just one part of a whole relationship between farmer, supplier, roaster, customer and planet. It requires thought and consideration on our part as consumers, on the part of the coffee roasters and, I think, it requires kindness on all our parts, appreciating the efforts of those who are trying to improve things while recognising that there is currently no perfect solution.

In alphabetical order:

Compostable (Home)

Very few items marked “compostable” are, in reality, “home” compostable. Properly home compostable items are certified by the “Ok Compost, Vincotte“/OK compost-HOME labels.

Amoret – Notting Hill, London and online. Coffees (including directly traded coffees) are supplied in bags certified as home compostable (OK Compost). Owing to supply problems during the pandemic, some bags of coffee have been packaged in EN13432 (industrially) compostable bags instead but a recent addition of a new supplier should hopefully solve these supply problems.

Coromandel Coast – online. Shade grown coffee from India, coffee orders online come in a Natureflex bag within a recyclable cardboard box. Natureflex is certified as ASTM D6400 but also listed as “home” compostable and indeed composted in my worm bin composter in 17 weeks (packaging was from Roasting House in that instance).

Roasting House – online. Delivery by bike in the Nottingham area. Ground coffee is supplied in home compostable packaging. Whole beans are supplied in recycled and recyclable bags (see below). You can read more about their latest packaging policies here.

Compostable (Industrial)/Biodegradable

Most packaging that is marked compostable (or biodegradable), but that is not marked as home compostable, will require specialist facilities to compost/degrade such as industrial composting. Compostable items should be certified by (BS) EN 13432 and/or ASTM D6400.

Coromandel Coast – Croydon and online. Bags of coffee purchased in Filtr, the coffee shop associated with Coromandel Coast in Croydon, are supplied in industrially compostable packaging. For coffee purchased online see above.

Dear Green – Glasgow and online. “Together we can all make a difference”. Next year, COP26 will go to Glasgow and Dear Green are ready, organising the 2018 Glasgow Coffee festival to be re-usable cup only. Coffee is supplied in biodegradable packaging.

Glen Lyon Coffee – Perthshire and online. Glen Lyon coffee made a commitment to zero waste in 2017 and use OK Compost Industrial certified coffee bags for their 250g and 500g packaging. 1kg bags are designed to compost within 3 months in a home composting environment. They offer a ‘drop box’ for customers to return their bags for composting. You can read further details about their dedication to sustainability here.

Recyclable

Several roasters have opted for recyclable packaging and quite a few are using the Dutch Coffee Pack bags which are additionally carbon neutral (via offsetting which you can read about here). Be careful with the “recyclable” label as it may, or may not, be suitable for collection with your household waste. Look for the recycling labels on the bags. PET plastic (label 1) is often collected with the street based collections but LDPE (label 4) should be taken to a supermarket where they provide recycling for plastic bags.

Atkinsons – Lancaster, Manchester and online – Established in 1837 as a tea merchant in Lancaster, Atkinsons now sell tea and coffee using recyclable packaging which is also carbon neutral.

Casa Espresso – online – Great Taste award winner for 3 years in a row, coffee is supplied in recyclable and carbon neutral packaging.

Chipp Coffee – online – In addition to using recyclable packaging, you can read more about the ethical and sustainability policies of Chipp Coffee here.

Fried Hats – Amsterdam and online – recyclable but also re-usable. The coffee comes in bottles that can be re-used before ultimately being recycled.

Good Coffee Cartel – online – Coffee in a can, but this time a re-usable and recyclable can containing speciality coffee beans.

Manumit coffee – online – “Manumit”, a historical verb meaning to set a slave free. Manumit coffee works with people who have been subject to exploitation and modern slavery so that they can rebuild their lives. Their coffee comes in recyclable and carbon neutral, Dutch Coffee Pack packaging

New Ground – Oxford, Selfridges and online. Providing opportunities for ex-offenders to develop new skills and employment, coffee is provided in recyclable packaging.

Paddy and Scotts Suffolk based, various outlets and online – Coffee packaging is described as PET recyclable or compostable. Check labelling on package. More info here.

Rave Coffee – Cirencester and online – Rave coffee have been conscientious in describing the reasoning behind their policy of using recyclable (LDPE (4)) bags, You can read about the rationale here.

Roasting House – For whole beans, Roasting House supply the coffee in (recycled and) recyclable paper packaging. Ground coffee is supplied in home compostable packaging (see composting section).

Runnerbean Coffee – Berkshire based Runnerbean coffee uses recyclable (LDPE label 4) coffee bags and, additionally runs a tree planting scheme to offset their carbon footprint. They had been using compostable bags until recent supply problems, check their website for the latest details.

Steampunk coffee – online. I’m reliably informed that their coffee is supplied in recyclable packaging but have been unable to confirm.

This list will be updated regularly. Please do get in touch if you would like to suggest a coffee roasting company who should be included: email, Twitter, Facebook.

A demon in your coffee

Americano, Maxwell's demon
So innocent looking. But could an imaginary demon lurking within help us to understand more fully a major theory in physics?

Is there a way of preparing an Americano that can reveal a particularly knotty problem in physics with implications for information theory?

The question arises out of a field of physics, developed through the nineteenth century, that deals with energy and temperature: thermodynamics. It is the theory that describes how a hot coffee, left in a cold room, will eventually cool to the temperature of the (ever so slightly warmer) room. And though this may seem a trivial example, the theory is immensely powerful with applications from steam engines to superconductors. But it is back with the cooling coffee that we may find a demon, and it is worth finding out a bit more about him.

There are four laws of thermodynamics (the original three and then what is known as the ‘zeroth’ law). But it is the second that concerns us here. It can be phrased in a number of different ways but essentially says that there is no process for which the only result is the transfer of heat from a cold object to a hot one. To think about our coffee, the coffee will cool down to the same temperature as the room, but as the law describes, the room cannot get colder by giving its heat to the coffee cup (so the coffee gets hotter)!

It is in fact, one of the few places in physics where there is a ‘direction’ to time. For most of the laws of physics, time could run in the opposite direction without changing the effect, but not so for this one. The second law of thermodynamics is a definite provider for an arrow of time.

coffee clock, Rosslyn coffee
The clock at Rosslyn Coffee in the City of London. But the image alludes to a fundamental truth: the way that coffee cools is one of the few areas of physics for which it matters which way time ‘flows’.

But that is a digression. We ought to return to the demon in the coffee. The second law of thermodynamics seems to be based on our common sense (though perhaps that is because our common sense is formed within the laws of physics that determine the second law of thermodynamics). But with confidence in our common sense to understand the second law of thermodynamics, let’s do a thought experiment in which we make a strange type of Americano. Imagine a cup of coffee with an impermeable partition cutting through it. Into one half of the cup we pull a lovely, single origin, espresso. The crema rising onto the surface with some brilliant tiger striping on show. Into the other half of the cup we pour some water, initially at the same temperature as the coffee. We drill a small hole in the partition and watch what happens. Of course we know what happens. Ever so slowly, the coffee starts to get into the water and the water into the coffee until we are left with a balanced Americano on both sides with both sides at the same temperature.

Great, but now let us introduce the demon. Actually, he’s called “Maxwell’s Demon” because it was Maxwell who first proposed him (in ~1871), but we can call him anything we like. Perhaps he’s not a he at all. Our demon sits next to the small hole we have made in the partition and watches as the molecules travel towards the hole from the water’s side and the side holding the coffee. This demon is a bit of a trouble maker and so any fast moving molecules (hot) from the water he allows to get into the coffee and any slow moving molecules (cold) from the coffee he allows to get into the water. He does not allow slow molecules from the water into the coffee or fast molecules from the coffee into the water. Just to add to the mix, any coffee solubles he returns to the coffee allowing only water molecules through the hole in the partition.

If our demon exists, we would end up with a lot of very fast molecules on the coffee side (which will therefore be hotter) while the water would hold slower molecules (and be colder). We’d have a very hot espresso on one side of the partition and some luke warm water on the other. It’s not only a terrible Americano but a violation of the second law of thermodynamics! Which is worse?

Although he was proposed as a thought experiment, it is a problem with serious implications for the second law of thermodynamics (which otherwise seems to be a very good model of how things work). Because while we may not seriously consider an actual demon in the coffee, what stops some mechanical tool that we make from violating the second law, if the demon, in principle, could exist? Could the second law be wrong? Could there be a way of getting heat into our coffee from a cold room?

3D hot chocolate art on an iced chocolate, Mace, Mace KL, dogs in a chocolate
Art on a hot chocolate at Mace in KL. Well, what is your mental image of Maxwell’s demon?

The consensus has been that even were the demon to exist, ultimately he is powerless against the second law which does not get overturned by his presence. Because even if we could end up with a super hot espresso on one side of the barrier and cold water on the other side, this is not the whole system; the whole system includes the demon. And the second law applies to the whole system not the system minus the demon. So when we consider the energy (and entropy) of the demon in doing the work necessary to decide which molecules to let through and which to filter out, we find that work is done on the system (by the demon) and the entropy, the disorder if you like, of the whole system has increased (which is another way of phrasing the second law). Calm is restored, we get our Americano back, the laws of physics as we understand them are retained.

But Maxwell’s demon has not been completely exorcised yet, or at least, he is proving to be quite helpful. Because it turns out that there are methods for which the energy cost for the demon is minimal and the argument above no longer works. It seems we are back to square one. But even in that situation, it was realised that the demon has to record, make a note of, which molecules are fast and which are slow, which are coffee and which are water. It has led to an understanding that information has to be part of our consideration of thermodynamics. And as our ability to manipulate nanostructures and individual atoms improves, so experiments are able to explore how information ties into thermodynamics and why Maxwell’s demon still has not undone the second law yet. But it is here that we encounter another demon, the one that is found in the details, so if you are interested you can read more about it here.

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.

Coffee and science: a problem shared?

coffee and Caffeine at Sharps

What is the future of coffee? Science? Our society? Are these things held together more closely than we imagine?

There is a lot of science in coffee (and a lot of coffee in science). And there are also many scientists who are keen coffee drinkers and vice versa. But is there more in common between these two fields than even this? Could a shared problem be hiding a different (shared) problem?

One issue for coffee drinkers is reliability and reproducibility. How can we ensure that we get a good cup each time we visit a café or brew our own? In a similar way, how do we ensure that our experimental results in science are correct and reproducible? It is a fairly fundamental tenet of science that an experiment should be able to be reproduced in another lab with similar equipment. The suggestion is that this is not always happening, we have a ‘reliability’ problem in science (and sometimes in coffee).

A possible solution, in both fields, is some form of automation. In the world of coffee this is quite obviously just by making coffee via a machine. There have been several attempts to make reproducibly good coffee using an automated pour over machine. In the world of experimental science, it is not quite so clearly an automation process but is described instead as “data sharing”. The results of all experiments, or at least those that are published, should be shared (uploaded with the published paper) so that others can examine the data in more detail and form their own conclusions†.

For both coffee and science, it is suggested that this opening up of our process so that it is more transparent or reliable, will increase the reproducibility of good results and, crucially, mean that we get those results faster. We will get reproducibly good coffee without having to queue so long in the morning; we will make discoveries more quickly and have faster progress in science.

It seems that the problem that we thought we had, reproducibility, is perhaps not the one that we are actually aiming to solve. The problem we seem to be interested in is ensuring faster progress.

coffee under the microscope

We can look at coffee under the microscope (here are two different coffees ground to the same degree). But do we need to look more closely at the process of making good coffee or of doing science?

But an emphasis on faster progress can undermine our initial ideal of a reproducibly good result. For scientific research the emphasis on getting results quickly (at least within the time frame of the science funding cycle) has led to predictable problems. There are cases that I know about where results that were contrary to those that were wanted were suppressed. Not permanently. No, that would be demonstrably scientific fraud. No, suppressed just long enough for the first ‘ground breaking’ paper to be published. Then, after a suitable length of time, the second paper showing the problems with the first can follow up. Those involved get two papers (at least), and rapid progress is shown to be happening in the field. Would data transparency help here? Clearly not, because the initial set of data would still be suppressed until it was wanted those few months later.

What we need is a change in the structure of how science is done. We need to value scientific integrity and so trust that other scientists do too. We know that the current situation whereby promotions, funding etc are determined by the number of papers in ‘good’ journals, can act to undermine scientific integrity. This needs to change if the reliability issue is to be addressed. In the type of case described above, there would be no consequences for the people who kept their names on the paper(s) published. The only consequences would be if anyone refused to have their name on the paper as they knew it was misleading. And even then, the consequences would be to that person/those people in terms of their CV, and publication list, not those who published the paper and of course, shared the data.

coffee at Watch House

A good pour over takes time.
What are we looking for in coffee, in science? Is progress an aim of itself?

For the coffee, there are already discussions about whether the increase in throughput offered by automated coffee brewing techniques really contributes to the coffee experience that the cafés are trying to encourage. Can we really expect someone to slow down, take in the aroma, the mouthfeel, the taste and flavour if we rush the cup through to them on a production line? Isn’t part of the enjoyment of something to have to wait for it (hence lent before Easter; fasting before a feast)?

It is not that automation necessarily is bad. We can get a genuinely all round good coffee in a café that utilises a machine based pour over (perhaps). We can also get genuinely reproducible data in a situation where data is routinely shared. It’s just that data sharing does not solve the reproducibility problem, nor does automation give us continually good coffee. What makes the difference is a café that cares about the product that they are serving; scientists that care about the integrity of the research that they are doing. Automation processes give us faster results, they do not, automatically, give us better science (coffee).

Moreover, our desire for faster progress obscures questions that we should be asking if we slowed down a little. What is a good coffee experience? Who (if anyone) should own the scientific data shared? Is our desire for good coffee, quickly and (relatively) cheaply obtained, an aspect of that consumerism that is damaging for the planet’s ecological health? How much do we need to trust each other (and take responsibility for our own integrity) for our society, including our scientific society, to function? Is faster progress in and of itself, a “good” to aim for?

And perhaps, there is a final, more fundamental question. Have we become so accustomed to seeing ourselves and our work as merely a cog in a machine that we have become inured to the dehumanisation of society which seems to us almost natural and itself progress? Is this what we want for society?

The process of making a good cup of coffee indeed shares many things with the process of doing science. Perhaps this should not be surprising, both are practises embedded in our society. Certainly our view of the society that we live in can be informed by slowing down with our coffee as we enjoy a little science (or should that be the other way round)?

 

†It is not quite an automation process in the sense that the data is taken by a machine and then uploaded. However, it is still a dehumanisation process. At the root of the concept is the idea that the human experimenter can be taken out of the process. I would be happy to expand on this in the comments but for the sake of readability haven’t done so here.