Seeing things at a kopitiam (coffee shop)

Rocky, Bangsar, KL, Malaysia, koptiam

A kopitiam in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

One of the great things about travelling is exploring the different cafe and coffee cultures in different countries. Is it the coffee that is important? Or food, alcohol or maybe just the opportunity for socialising? In Singapore and Malaysia, the “kopitiam” (or coffee shop) is a familiar part of each neighbourhood. Each kopitiam serves local coffee (kopi) and a variety of foods which are usually prepared while you wait, from stalls around the edge of the kopitiam. The kopitiam provides a space for socialisation and meeting people over a bowl of steaming noodles. Inside electric fans are blowing continuously in an effort to lessen the heat. Frankly, the local coffee is not to my taste but there are plenty of other things to eat and drink in each kopitiam. A breakfast of “kueh” and black tea for example is a welcome change from toast at home! In many areas of Singapore, and to a lesser extent Malaysia, local kopitiams are closing to make way for the new style cafés which serve a range of freshly roasted, pour over or espresso based coffee. Not being Malaysian or Singaporean I do not want to comment too much on that, I guess it is similar to the decline of the “caffs” in the UK. Mourned by many in the community but welcomed by others for the improved quality of the coffee.

straw, water, glass

An everyday example of refraction. The water refracts the light to make the straw appear ‘broken’.

However, with so much going on in a kopitiam, the temptation to look at a kopitiam-physics review was too great, especially when I started to “see things” at the edge of the shop. Am I going mad? No, it was not that my imagination was playing with my mind; I saw the ingredients for a mirage. You see, at the edge of the kopitiam the hawkers will cook noodles, or rice dishes etc. and this creates heat. Above some stalls there will be clouds of steam rising as the noodles boil in a pan. The clouds appear white because of the scattering of light by reasonably sized water droplets (more info here and here). Above other stalls, there is no steam but the heat created by the cooking makes the air immediately above the stove warmer (and therefore less dense). This less dense air refracts light less than air at room temperature. It is refraction that causes that straw in your iced coffee to look as if it is broken as you look at it (see picture). In the kopitiam, it means that as you look through this region of warm air you see a wobbly or wavy type pattern as the light from outside is refracted by different amounts depending on the temperature of the air that it goes through. It is this that is the primary ingredient for seeing a mirage.

The fact that air at different temperatures refracts light by different amounts is the reason for mirages in the desert. Frequently, warm air is trapped at ground level by a layer of cold air above it. The light is bent as it travels through these layers (see diagram here) and so it may appear as if they sky is on the ground (which the brain will interpret as a pool of water on the ground). Conversely, if there is a layer of cold air trapped beneath a layer of warm air, the light is bent downwards and so objects that are usually below the horizon due to the curvature of the earth can be seen (illustrated by the diagram here).

Edmond Halley, Canary Wharf, Isle of Dogs, view from Greenwich

The view towards the Isle of Dogs (and Canary Wharf) from Greenwich. Things have changed a little since Halley’s time.

Back in 1694 Edmond Halley (who drank coffee with Isaac Newton at the Grecian) was investigating the evaporation of water as a function of temperature. He wanted to see if evaporation alone could explain the rainfall and the quantity of water in the river system. As he did so he noticed that, in still air, there was a layer of water vapour that formed above the bowl of evaporating water. He noticed this because it refracted the light in an unusual manner. At the time, there was reported to be an unusual phenomenon that occurred at high tide near Greenwich. It seems that cows used to graze on the Isle of Dogs in London. Ordinarily the cows could not be seen from Greenwich because they were too far away, but occasionally, at high tide, the cows would be visible. Putting together what he knew about the evaporating water Halley wrote “This fleece of vapour in still weather… may give a tolerable Account of what I have heard of seeing the Cattle at High-water-time in the Isle of Dogs from Greenwich, when none are to be seen at low-water (which some have endeavoured to explain by supposing the Isle of Dogs to have been lifted by the Tide coming under it.) But the evaporous effluvia of water, having a greater degree of refraction than the Common Air, may suffice to bring these Beams down to the Eye, which when the Water is retired, and the vapours subsided with it, pass above, and consequently the Objects seen at the one time, may be conceived to disappear at the other”*. I think that although he had the mechanism correct (in terms of refraction), the cause of this odd refraction was temperature inversion and a layer of cold air immediately above the Thames rather than water vapour but what do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.


* Punctuation and capitalisation kept as in original. Taken from Edmond Halley, “An Account of the Evaporation of Water, as It Was Experimented in Gresham Colledge [sic] in the Year 1693. With Some Observations Thereon” Phil. Trans. 18, 183-190, 1694″

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