Science history

Worth dying for? A glassy tale.

Pureover, pureover in packaging
The PureOver in its packaging. Glass and cardboard, no plastic in sight. The PureOver is designed to brew filter coffee but without the need for filters.

It was the middle of the afternoon and we had friends over, friends who wanted coffee but, “only a small cup”. What were our options? We could make a V60 which would be a bit of a waste or an Aeropress which, while great for a small coffee for one person, is pushing it a bit for two people (even if one only did want a “tiny” bit). It was time to dust off the PureOver. This all-glass brewing device makes approximately 2-300ml of filter coffee entirely without the need for any filters. It is my go-to brewing device for a decent sized cup of coffee for one person or a “small” and “tiny” cup for two people. The PureOver was designed by a group of glass-blowers in Portland (USA) who wanted to be able to brew drip coffee without waste filters. It is now made commercially in China and shipped around the world for people who want to brew likewise.

The PureOver works by creating a filter bed out of the coffee grounds themselves. The design of the brewer ensures that the coffee is fairly well packed at the bottom of the pot allowing the water to filter through but without (much) sediment falling into the cup underneath the brewer. I have written about the PureOver, including a “how-to” brew guide, elsewhere. The PureOver works well, brews a lovely cup of coffee and looks great. Which shows how well the hard bits have been hidden; much of life is an art where the performance hides the work behind it. In some parts of our lives this is obvious. Acting, for example needs to appear natural and not reveal the work that has gone into developing the character the actor plays. I think the same is true of teaching/tutoring* physics. Such teaching should be a seamless conversation and discussion between students and tutor, in some way hiding the work that has gone into the preparation of that conversation. The PureOver is exactly the same. There is a lot of physics that is within the filtration bed and the diffuser design, but the bit that I would like to focus on is the bit that we look straight through without noticing. It is the role of the glass.

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

The PureOver is made of borosilicate glass which was first invented by Otto Schott (1851-1935) in the nineteenth century. It is made by combining silica with boron trioxide (B2O3). One of the things that makes borosilicate glass so special is that it has a really low thermal expansion coefficient. From a practical point of view, and why this matters in the PureOver, is that it means that it is not likely to shatter as you add boiling (or just off the boil) water to the glass. You can brew coffee without the brewer breaking. We just want to be able to use the coffee brewer without thinking too much about it, using borosilicate glass allows us to do this.

If we do think about it a bit more though, the thermal expansion coefficient reveals something to us of the atomic structure of the material. All atoms in a solid vibrate, as they gain more energy (in the form of heat), the amplitude of that vibration increases, so they vibrate more. But atoms within a solid structure do not vibrate symmetrically. It is much harder (it takes more energy) to push them together than it is to pull them apart. This means that as the temperature increases they can vibrate ever so slightly further away from each other than they can towards each other and the net effect is that the atoms get further away from each other and the material expands**. The thermal expansion coefficient can therefore reveal clues as to the internal energies and structure of different solids. Applying this to borosilicate glass itself gets problematic as glass is a disordered rather than a well defined crystalline structure, but the principle is there.

We often come across borosilicate glass in “Pyrex” glassware, although since the 1930s/40s “pyrex” has been made of soda-lime glass rather than the original borosilicate. Nonetheless, it is a story involving pyrex that provides the title of this post. In 1953, a chemist working at Corning Glass Works in New York State, got a surprise as he dropped a piece of experimental glass he had been working on when he removed it from the furnace. Donald Stookey had serendipitously discovered “Pyroceram” a type of glass that was not only extremely heat resistant, it had also bounced, not smashed, when he dropped it. However despite being commercialised for other specialist products, Pyroceram was not, initially, used for kitchen items because the parent company Corning, also sold Pyrex and did not want any competition with that other successful product. So more research was done on Pyroceram which did lead to new commercial opportunities, including one that we probably have with us right now. Because the toughness aspect of the Pyroceram type glasses developed into what we now know as “Gorilla Glass” which is probably the screen on your smartphone.

Perhaps not quite how the designers imagined brewing a coffee. I brew the PureOver into my V60 jug in order to avoid the few grains of coffee that get through the filter from going into the final mug of coffee.

You can read more about the story of this discovery (and how it got used in the Apple iPhones) in the June 2022 issue of Physics World. Stookey went on to be awarded the US National Medal of Technology by President Reagan and of course, Gorilla Glass is now found in many products. So you would be forgiven for thinking that this marvel of technology is a recent phenomenon as an unbreakable glass would surely have been highly valued if it had been invented earlier. The story of a Roman craftsman may provide a contrasting pause for thought. As described by Petronius (quoted in the book “The Alchemy of Glass”***):

There was once a workman who made a glass cup that was un-breakable. So he was given an audience of the Emperor with his invention; he made Caesar give it back to him and then threw it on the floor. Caesar was as frightened as he could be. But the man picked up his cup from the ground: it was dented like a bronze bowl; then he took a little hammer out of his pocket and made the cup quite sound again without any trouble. After doing this he thought he had himself seated on the throne of Jupiter especially when Caesar said to him: ‘Does anyone else know how to blow glass like this?’ Just see what happened. He said not, and then Caesar had him beheaded. Why? Because if his invention were generally known we should treat gold as dirt.

*I am careful to keep my comment here to tutoring as that is what I have most experience of. If you teach larger groups or in a school, please do let me know what you think, whether this applies to teaching too, in the comments.

**See for example “Thermal Physics, CJ Adkins, Hodder and Stoughton, 1976

*** “The Alchemy of Glass; counterfeit, imitation, and transmutation in Ancient Glassmaking”, Marco Beretta, Watson Publishing International, 2009

For more about glass including the question of how transparent glass is, please see this post by Bobreflected.

Reflections, deviations…. coffee

The reflections from the surface of a cup of coffee of a building opposite a central London cafe. Towards the edges of the cup, the coffee bends upwards, revealed by the lines bending that would be expected to be straight.

A “flat white” could be ordered from many a coffee shop. A “flat black” may be a physical impossibility. We can realise this by gazing contemplatively, or perhaps even longingly, at a long black while it cools. Notice that the surface of the coffee is ever so slightly curved. Leaving aside the white mists that you may see skipping across the coffee surface, the coffee is flat in the middle of the cup but rises towards the edges. If you have noticed this, it is most probable that you did so because of the different way the light is reflected over the surface of the coffee. It is most obvious if you can arrange the reflections on the cup to reflect something supposedly straight: a window frame or a beam of strip light for example. The reflection is fairly clear and fairly straight until about 5mm from the edge of the cup where suddenly it bends. You can see an example of this in the photograph on the right.

The reason for the curvature is of course surface tension, which is the same effect that makes droplets form into shapes that are close to spheres. First investigated by Agnes Pockels and Lord Rayleigh in the nineteenth century, surface tension is caused by the fact that molecules at the surface of the water (in the coffee) will feel a net attraction to the other molecules within the water. There being no molecules of water above the surface of the cup, the surface molecules are pulled back towards the liquid in the cup. At the sides of the cup something slightly different is happening. There, the molecules in the water will be pulled back towards the liquid but will also experience the uncompensated attraction (or repulsion) from the atoms in the mug material. Exactly analogous to surface tension, but in the solid, the interaction of the surface energy of the mug with the surface tension of the liquid will pull the liquid into different shapes. It is for this reason that highly waterproof surfaces, such as fresh oak leaves, will form spherical drops of water, but wettable surfaces, such as an oak leaf in autumn, will accumulate flatter, less spherical droplets on the surface.

coffee, red wine, wet coffee stain, coffee spill, coffee ring
The interaction between the surface tension of the water and the surface energy of the solid surface it sits on determines the shape of the droplet. These drops of coffee and wine on paper were for an experiment about coffee ring formation. The droplets are: Drops of coffee (left), soapy coffee (middle) and red wine (right)

We see the effects of surface tension too when a bubble, or a small bit of dust, sits on the surface of the coffee. Again, looking at the light reflections, we see how the coffee, or tea, bends near the floating object showing how un-flat the surface really is. Bubbles are usually large enough that we can see them directly. In the photograph on this page for example, you can clearly see the reflections from the surface of the bubble together with the bent reflections of light from the surface of the liquid. However in the case of the dust, sometimes the dust is small enough that the reason that we see it is because of the change of the path of the light reflected from the surface. For a similar reason, the insects that skate the surface of a pond are visible because of the light patterns they make rather than their intrinsic visibility. Each time we are using the deviation of the light from its expected path in order to deduce the presence and shape of an object hidden to our view.

A similar deviation of the expected path of light is seen in the phenomenon of gravitational lensing which has been used to infer the presence of black holes. Such a deviation even provided experimental evidence for Einstein’s (then) recently proposed General Theory of Relativity, just over 100 years ago on May 29, 1919. The idea that light had weight and would be deflected by a gravitational field was not new, indeed, even the Newtonian model of gravity predicted that light would be deflected as it went past a massive object*. The question was how much and, as an important secondary question, how to measure it. As Arthur Eddington later described in his book “Space, Time and Gravitation”*, according to Newton, any object thrown horizontally on the Earth’s surface would fall 16 feet (in his use of units, 4.88 m in SI) in one second. The same was true for light. However with Einstein’s theory, the predicted deflection of light was 32′ (9.75m). The difficulty for the experimentalist is that in the same second, the light would have travelled nearly 300 000 km. Detecting such a small deflection over such a large distance would be difficult, harder than seeing a grain of dust on the coffee surface. Which is where the light deflection comes in. Because if you watch as the light from a distant star travels past a massive and fairly large object, such as the Sun, you should be able to discern the small, but significant deflection. And on May 29th 1919 a total solar eclipse (which thereby blocked the extra and interfering light from the Sun) offered a perfect opportunity for Eddington and an expedition sent by the Royal Society and Royal Astronomical Society (to Brazil and West Africa) to attempt to measure such a deflection.

tea reflections, bubble on tea, surface tension, light bending
The way that light reflects off a surface of a cup of tea in this case, reveals the curvature of the tea surface. In this case the curvature is clearly due to the bubble in the centre. Sometimes you can see distortions on the surface caused by bits of dust which are difficult to see on their own.

Although the deflection was significant, working with large telescopes and photographic plates, the magnitude of the deflection of the light that they were looking for was still only 1/1500 of an inch on the photographic plate. Two groups at two different locations took multiple photographs of the eclipsed Sun and the stars around it in order to measure the position of the stars as seen behind the Sun and then compare that to the position of the stars when they had been photographed earlier in the year without the Sun between them and the Earth. Eddington describes the experiment:

“There is a marvellous spectacle above, and, as the photographs afterwards revealed, a wonderful prominence-flame is poised a hundred thousand miles above the surface of the sun. We have no time to snatch a glance at it. We are conscious only of the weird half-light of the landscape and the hush of nature, broken by the calls of the observers, and beat of the metronome ticking out the 302 seconds of totality.”

Finally after developing and comparing the images back in London, the team confirmed a deflection of 1″.98 +/- 0″.12 (Brazil) and 1″.61 +/- 0″.30 (W. Africa) for the stars closest to the Sun (NB. 1″ indicates 1 second of arc). Einstein’s theory had predicted a deflection of 1″.74, Newton’s theory had predicted 0″.87. The results of the light deflection were far more in agreement with Einstein’s new theory of General Relativity than with the classical Newtonian model.

The ‘wobble’ of a few of the stars on the photographic plates had confirmed a prediction of the theory of Relativity. Which could lead to the question: What do you see, or not, as the light dances off of your coffee?

*”Space, Time and Gravitation: an outline of the General Theory of Relativity”, Sir Arthur Eddington, Cambridge University Press, first printed 1920, 1968 edition.

Me time at Hétam

Iced chocolate at Hetam. The chocolate is sourced from Indonesia. At the time of visiting, drinks were only available in take-away cups, hopefully this will change as the cafe becomes more established and the pandemic restrictions that were in place at the time of visiting are eased.

In 2021, a new cafe opened up in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Called Hetam, it is a cafe almost designed for the post-pandemic, Instagram age that we find ourselves living in. At the time of visiting, there was no ‘inside’ to this cafe, everything was outdoors: customer seating was outdoors, even the ordering and the counter were outdoors. Umbrellas provided some protection from the downpours as well as the hot sun that you can get in Kuala Lumpur. You order at a counter which is on the right of what looks like it used to be an ordinary house on the service road parallel to Jalan Maarof (between Lorong Maarof 5 and 6). The house is now the headquarters for the online section of Hetam and is where they package up their online sales. There are a small selection of edibles to the right of the cash till but the main focus is on the coffee, tea and chocolate. The coffee is roasted by Hetam. At the time of visiting, the coffee was a choice of either an Indonesian natural or a Brazilian washed coffee and available as any of the usual espresso based drinks. I found that the Indonesian worked better in the espresso but that when brewing with an Aeropress at home, the Brazilian came out on top. Various Japanese Genmaicha and Hojicha teas were available but each time, I focussed on the coffee. The chocolate also is sourced by Hetam mostly from Indonesia and is well worth trying.

The staff at Hetam were very friendly and knowledgable. When we first arrived, they talked us through checking-in using the MySejahtera (Covid-19) app when we didn’t have data on our phones (as of 1 May 2022, hopefully MySejahtera will be something you don’t need to use any more). This led to a conversation on the origins of Hetam and their hopes for the cafe for the future. We ordered a hot long black and an iced chocolate and took a seat in the side/back garden of the house. The space seems almost made for Instagram. Infact, perhaps it was. Carefully arranged bamboo adorns the sides of the garden. White pebbles form the floor while strategically placed bits of tree are scattered throughout the space leading to a certain, specific aesthetic. The first time that we enjoyed a coffee at Hetam, another couple were already there. As we sipped our coffee, the couple split into model and photographer and, with what appeared to be a well practised routine of recognisable Instagram poses, set about photographing each other against different backdrops. In subsequent visits, we enjoyed the place to ourselves.

The counter at Hetam is helpfully under a shelter, the other seats are mostly under umbrellas. You get a glimpse here of the ‘insta-ability’ of the cafe. Random dead logs form a counterpoint feature to the white pebbles of the seating area.

The name “Instagram” is apparently a derivation of a combination of “instant camera” and “telegram”. The idea being that a message is sent through an image acquired by an instant camera. The word camera is in turn derived (from both Latin and Greek) from the word for a chamber or a vault. Presumably this was a suitable name for the camera because early photographs were taken through a pin hole into a vaulted dark chamber. Which brings us into the realm of physics as the photograph is literally that which is written by light. Film cameras and even the old Polaroid instant cameras, could still, legitimately be said to take photographs. The light would fall onto a chemically active film and change it based on the exposure levels so that the image was written directly by the light. When it was developed, the negative would be the reverse of the places on the film ‘written’ by the photons of the light (for a description of the process and a recipe for developing film with coffee click here, opens as pdf). This is not true of the sort of “instant cameras” most would now use to upload an Instagram post. In the case of digital cameras, the photons of the light still activate a light sensitive electronic chip behind the camera lens, but much of the interpretation of the image is done using computer software. For example, many of the light sensitive cells in the camera are not colour sensitive, they are only sensitive to the number of photons that fall on them (the intensity of the light). Colour images are formed by considering neighbouring cells which each have a different coloured filter covering them. The relative intensity of the electronic response within each group of cells is then interpreted by the software as a different colour. At this point can it be said that the image is written by the light? The final image is a mixture of the light falling on the photoactive cells and the interpretation of that electrical data by the software in the phone or digital camera. The light directs the electrons within the device but does it write the image?

Table, pebbles and bamboo in the seating area of Hetam, KL.

There’s also the issue of what it means to have the image and to share it. The picture on the phone, the image shared through the screens, is a collection of data points that no one can hold. A photograph printed from film or even the negative is, in that sense, more tangible. In the case of the negative, what you hold is what was written by the photons, by the light, at the point at which the subject was seen. In either case though what does it mean to have, or even to share, that image? Erich Fromm in his book “To have or to be” contrasts a poem of Tennyson with a haiku of Basho*. In the former, Tennyson ‘plucks’ a flower out of a wall in order to study it. Basho in contrast looks “carefully” at the flower; paying attention to it but not possessing it. Fromm questions our mode of being, suggesting that Tennyson could be compared “to the Western scientist who seeks the truth by means of dismembering life.” Is this fair? Does our desire to possess an image, pluck a flower or to ‘capture’ a moment and thereby ‘keep’ it necessarily imply that we would seek truth by means of dismembering life?

Which may take us to a consideration of those dead tree branches on the gleaming stones. They appear like petrified wood, wood that has been preserved for years through a process of fossilisation. We cannot own such objects, they outlast us. If we photograph it we cannot keep that moment, what does it mean to us if we don’t look carefully at the instant but rather try to pluck it for posterity?

So finally back to Hetam. While it may be ideal for Instagram, and while it will definitely be worth a few good photo ‘captures’, the space is also ideal for contemplation. For sitting with a coffee, enjoying the moment, appreciating the surroundings, both aesthetic and people, and for being rather than having. A friendly, outdoor and relaxed cafe, what more could you want?

Hetam is on Jalaan Maarof just next to the Petronas petrol station on the service road to Jalan Maarof.

*”To have or to be” by Erich Fromm, Jonathan Cape publishers, 1976 (1978)

To err is human…

Press Room coffee Twickenham
A smaller V60. For one cup you would use less coffee, but the errors on the measurement will always be there.

Preparing a good V60 requires 30g of coffee (for 500 ml of water)*. This can be measured using a set of kitchen scales, but a first estimate can also be obtained, if you are using whole coffee beans, by timing the passage of the grind through the grinder. Using an Ascaso burr grinder, my coffee used to come through at an approximate rate of 1g/s, so that, after 30 seconds, I’d have the perfect amount of coffee. Recently however this has changed, depending on the bean, sometimes 30g is 40 seconds, sometimes just less than 30 seconds.

Clearly there is an error on my estimate of the rate of coffee grinds going through the grinder. This may be influenced by factors such as the hardness of the bean (itself influenced by the degree of roast), the temperature of the kitchen, the cleanliness of the grinder and, the small detail that the ‘seconds’ measured here refers to my counting to 30 in my head. Nonetheless, the error is significant enough that I need to confirm the measurement with the kitchen scales. But are the scales free of error?

Clearly in asking the question, we know the answer will be ‘no’. Errors could be introduced by improper zero-ing of the scales (which is correct-able), or differences in the day to day temperature of the kitchen (not so correct-able). The scales will also have a tolerance on them meaning that the measured mass is, for example, only correct to +/- 5 % Depending on your scales, they may also only display the mass to the nearest gramme. This means that 29.6g of coffee would be the same, according to the scales, as 30.4g of coffee. Which in turn means that we should be using 493 – 507 ml of water rather than our expected 500 ml (the measurement of which also contains an intrinsic error of course).

Turkish coffee
A Turkish coffee provides a brilliant illustration of the type of particle distribution with depth that Jean Perrin used to measure Avogadro’s constant. For more information see here.

The point of all of this is that errors are an inescapable aspect of experimental science. They can also be an incredibly helpful part. Back in 1910, Jean Perrin used a phenomenon that you can see in your coffee cup in order to measure Avogadro’s constant (the number of molecules in a mole of material). Although he used varnish suspended in water rather than coffee, he was able to experimentally verify a theory that liquids were made up of molecules, by the fact that his value for Avogadro’s constant was, within error, the same as that found by other, independent, techniques. Errors also give us an indication of how confident we can be in our determination of a value. For example, if the mass of my coffee is 30 +/- 0.4 g, I am more confident that the value is approximately 30 g than if the error was +/- 10 g. In the latter case, I would get new scales.

But errors can also help us in more subtle ways. Experimental results can be fairly easily faked, but it turns out that the random error on that data is far harder to invent. A simple example of this was seen in the case of Jan Hendrik Schön and the scientific fraud that was discovered in 2002. Schön had shown fantastic experimental results in the field of organic electronics (electronic devices made of carbon based materials). The problem came when it was shown that some these results, despite being on different materials, were the same right down to the “random” noise on the data. Two data sets were identical even to the point of the errors on them, despite their being measurements of two different things.

A more recent case is a little more subtle but crucial for our understanding of how to treat Covid-19. A large study of Covid-19 patients apparently showed that the drug “Ivermectin” reduced mortality rates enormously and improved patient outcomes. Recently it has been shown that there are serious problems with some of the data in the paper, including the fact that some of the patient records have been duplicated and the paper has now been withdrawn due to “ethical considerations”. A good summary of the problems can be found in this Guardian article. However, some of the more worrying problems were a little deeper in the maths behind the data. There were sets of data where supposedly random variables were identical across several patients which suggested “that ranges of cells or even entire rows of data have been copied and pasted“. There were also cases where 82% of a supposedly random variable ended in the digits 2-5. The likelihood of this occurring for random variables can be calculated (it is not very high). Indeed, analysis of the paper showed that it was likely that these values too were either copy and pasted or “invented” because humans are not terribly good at generating properly random numbers.

A gratuitous image of some interesting physics in a V60. If anyone would like to hire a physicist for a cafe, in a 21st century (physics) recreation of de Moivre’s antics at Old Slaughters, you know how to contact me…

Interestingly, a further problem both for the Ivermectin study and for the Schön data comes when you look at the standard deviation of the data. Standard deviation is a measure of how variable is the measured outcome (e.g. duration of time a patient spent in hospital). For the ivermectin study, analysis of the standard deviations quoted on the patient data indicated a peculiar distribution of the length of hospital stay, which, in itself would probably just be a puzzle but in combination with the other problems in the paper becomes a suggestion of scientific fraud. In Schön’s data on the other hand, it was calculated that the precision given in the papers would have required thousands of measurements. In the field in which Schön worked this would have been a physical impossibility and so again, suggestive of fraud. In both cases, it is by looking at the smaller errors that we find a bigger error.

This last detail would have been appreciated by Abraham de Moivre, (1667-1754). As a mathematician, de Moivre was known for his work with probability distribution, which is the mathematics behind the standard deviation of a data set. He was also a well known regular (the ‘resident’ mathematician) at Old Slaughters Coffee House on St Martin’s Lane in London[1]. It is recorded that between 1750 and 1754, de Moivre earned “a pittance” at Old Slaughters providing solutions to games of chance to people who came along for the coffee. I wonder if there are any opportunities in contemporary London cafes for a resident physicist? I may be able to recommend one.

*You can find recipes suggesting this dosage here or here. Some recipes recommend a slightly stronger coffee amount, personally, I prefer a slightly weaker dosage. You will need to experiment to find your preferred value.

[1] “London Coffee Houses”, Bryant Lillywhite, 1963

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.

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.

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.

Schrodinger’s Katsute (100), Angel

Katsute 100, tea in Islington
It was a sunny day when we visited Katsute100 in Angel, Islington

When Bean Thinking started, it was always going to be about coffee and yet, Katsute 100 is definitely a tea place. Not only that, but the idea was to see how the physics that we use to describe our universe is mirrored by the physics of the coffee and in a cafe, the physics of the every-day. On the other hand, the whole point of Schrodinger’s cat is to demonstrate how aspects of quantum mechanics are absolutely unlike our everyday experience: a cat both (and neither) dead and alive? And yet, without giving too much away, today’s cafe-physics review is absolutely this – a review of a tea house that features the famous thought experiment. How far Bean Thinking has moved!

Katsute 100 is a welcoming, and peaceful, Japanese tea place in Angel. With a full tea menu and some really great desserts, it is definitely a good place to spend half an hour, maybe more, watching the coming and going and exploring the tea. And there is certainly a lot of tea to explore, different tasting notes revealing themselves as the tea cools, the carefully placed tea pot and tray adding to the experience.

The shop itself is fairly narrow, decorated in sympathy with the Georgian age of the shop itself and with a view into a garden at the back. Japanese tea making equipment is displayed (and for sale) on the various wooden cabinets around the shop. My tea had been buttery (exactly as it had been described in the tasting notes) and the Ichigo Daifuku I had had with it was a fascinating exploration of texture. There were some Japanese art works on the wall and it was then that I saw my first one: a cat. Not a real one of course but one of several decorative cats that are, almost hiding, around the shop. The word “Katsute” has nothing to do with cats apparently meaning “once”, but nonetheless, a few cats do pop up here and there. And even where cats don’t pop up, there are drawers in the wooden cupboards that seem much like boxes, is there a cat there in the box? Is it dead, alive, both, neither? What does this even mean? And is it connected to Katsute, “once”, after all?

note the pouring slits on the teapot
Tea pot, tea cup and ichigo daifuku at Katsute 100

Looking carefully at my teapot, three grooves were carved into the spout allowing the tea to flow out. Each stream of complex flow interferes with the neighbouring stream to present an aesthetic of flowing liquid to match the sound and flavour of the tea. And of course it is reminiscent of an experiment that is key to the unfamiliarity of quantum physics: the double slit experiment.

When light (of a single wavelength, such as from a laser) is shone at a sheet with two holes in it, the light that has travelled through shows interference fringes and patterns. Indeed, it is one of the experiments that went to establishing the theory that light was a wave (and not, as Newton among others had thought, a stream of particles). The situation is quite different if you tried to pass particles through two slits, imagine a sieve with two holes and a stream of coffee beans travelling towards it, we’d expect each bean to go through one hole or the other, not both. In classical physics that’s what we would expect too and yet, when sub-atomic particles (such as electrons) were aimed at two slits and made to travel through them they interfered with each other, as if they were not particles but waves. But other experiments had shown conclusively that they were also particles and indeed, when each individually hit the detector it did so as a single spot, as a particle. Particles and waves? What was going on?

cupboards in Katsute 100
A lot of sake and a fair number of drawers. But what is behind each drawer and why is one missing?

In fact it was a result that had been predicted: Louis de Broglie had shown, theoretically in 1923, that all particles should have wave-like properties and simultaneously, that all waves should have particle-like properties. We should expect that under certain circumstances, light, electrons, neutrons etc, even atoms, should behave as particles and under certain other circumstances (such as the double slit experiment) as waves. But there was an important catch. The electron travelling through a double slit will behave as if it is a wave, passing through both slits and interfering with itself to produce the characteristic “diffraction pattern” of a wave but only if we do not try to look at it to see which slit it really passed through. If we try to detect which slit the particle has travelled through, we can indeed find that some of the electrons travel through one slit and some through the other but when we look at the resulting interference pattern it is gone! What we are left with is the (classically expected) pattern of two particles going through two slits exactly as if they had been very small coffee beans. (You can see a video of Jim Al-Khalili explaining this peculiar result here).

What is going on? To a certain extent, this question is part of the reason that quantum mechanics can seem so strange. We can’t really ask what is going on, or rather, if we ask, we cannot expect to get an answer! We can describe what happens and we can make predictions based on the mathematics that we use to describe the processes. Our technology and our understanding of physics has developed hugely because we can describe how things will behave. But we will stumble if we try to understand what is really going on behind these processes. As Feynman said in lectures he gave to physics undergraduates:

“We cannot make the mystery go away by ‘explaining’ how it works. We will just tell you how it works. In telling you how it works we will have told you about the basic peculiarities of all quantum mechanics.”§

And so things remain enigmatic. Questions that appear to show paradoxes such as the problem of Schrodinger’s cat* continue to puzzle and intrigue us. Is the cat dead or alive? Can the cat be both? Is the cat an observer and what role does the observer have in physical measurements? What does this imply for the fabric of reality? And is there a connection back to the name of this cafe, “once”?

You perhaps should not expect to find any answers in Katsute 100, but pondering these things with a good cup of tea may help advance your understanding. It will certainly help advance your mood if you are in need of some peaceful, thoughtful, time out.

Katsute 100 is at 100 Islington High St, N1 8EG

§ Feynman Lectures on Physics Volume III, 1965

*The story of Schrodinger’s cat is that a cat is placed in a box together with a small amount of radioactive source material. The box is then closed and we cannot see inside. The amount of radioactive material is such that in one hour it has a 50:50 chance of decay. If the material decays radioactively, it triggers the release of a vial of poisonous gas which would kill the cat. Our mathematical models of quantum mechanics suggest that, until it is measured, the radioactive material is in a ‘superposition of states’: it has both decayed and not decayed; the cat is both dead and alive. Only when we open the box after an hour and thereby measure the state of the radioactive material does the cat, at that point, ‘collapse’ into a state that is either dead or alive.