Is sixty the old forty?

Lundenwic coffee

What is the ideal temperature at which to serve coffee?

What is the optimum temperature at which to enjoy a cup of coffee?

A brief check online for the “ideal” serving temperature for coffee suggested a temperature of around 49-60ºC (120-140ºF, 313-333K) for flavour or 70-80ºC (158-176ºF, 343.1-353.1K) for a hot drink. In my own experiments (purely to write this article you understand), I found that I most enjoyed a lovely coffee from The Roasting House (prepared by V60) at around 52ºC. My old chemistry teacher must have been one who enjoyed the flavour of his coffee too. His advice for A-level practicals was that if we wanted to know what 60ºC ‘felt’ like, we should consider that it feels the same on the back of our hand as the underside of our cup of coffee. So, for argument’s sake, let’s say that we serve our coffee at the upper end of the flavour appreciation scale: 60ºC.

But, have you ever stopped to consider what 60ºC means or even, how we arrived at this particular temperature scale? Why do we measure temperature in the way that we do? While there are interesting stories behind the Fahrenheit scale, today’s post concerns the Celsius, or Centigrade, scale. Indeed, we use “degree Celsius” and “degree Centigrade” almost interchangeably to mean that temperature scale that has 0ºC as the melting point, and 100ºC as the boiling point, of water. It is one of those things that has become so habitual that setting 0ºC at the freezing end and 100ºC at the boiling end seems obvious, intuitive, natural.

thermometer in a nun mug

Careful how you drink your coffee if you repeat this experiment!

And yet the temperature scale that Anders Celsius (1701-1744) invented back in 1741 did not, initially, work this way at all¹. Celsius’s scale did indeed count from 0ºC to 100ºC and was defined using the same fixed points we use now. But rather than counting up from the melting point, Celsius’s scale counted up from 0ºC at the boiling point to 100ºC at the freezing point. Rather than degrees of warmth, Celsius’s scale counted degrees of cold. So, in the original Celsius scale, the serving temperature of coffee should be 40ºC: Sixty is indeed the old forty*.

Which immediately begs a question. Why is it that we count temperature up (the numbers get higher as it gets hotter)? A first answer could be that we view that temperature is a form of measurement of ‘heat’ and that heat is an energy. Consequently, something cold has less energy than something hot, “cold” is the absence of “heat” and therefore what we should measure is “heat”. This means that our thermometers need to indicate higher numbers as the temperature gets hotter, and so we are now counting the correct way. While this is good as far as it goes and certainly is our current understanding of ‘heat’, ‘cold’ and temperature, how is it that we have come to think of heat as energy and cold as the absence of heat? It was certainly not clear to scientists in the Renaissance period. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) considered that cold was a form of “contractive motion” while Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) thought that although ‘caloric’ atoms were needed to explain heat, ‘frigoric’ atoms were also needed to explain cold.

effect of motivation on experience of pleasure while drinking coffee

How heat, rather than visible light, is reflected provides clues as to why we measure temperature ‘up’.

One experiment that helped to show that heat was an energy (and so lent support to the idea of measuring temperature ‘up’) was that of the reflection of heat by mirrors. In the experiment, two concave mirrors are placed facing each other, some distance apart. Each mirror has a focal length of, say, 15 cm. A hot object is placed at the focal length of the first mirror. At the focal point of the second mirror, is placed a thermometer. As soon as both objects are in place, the temperature indicated by the thermometer increases. If the mirror were covered or the thermometer moved away from the focal point, the temperature indicated decreases again to that of the room. It is an experiment which can easily be demonstrated in a lecture hall and which fitted with a view point that cold is the absence of heat.

However, around the same time as this initial demonstration, Marc-Auguste Pictet did another experiment, the (apparent) reflection of cold². The experiment was as before but in Pictet’s second experiment, a flask containing ice replaced the hot object. On repeating the experiment the temperature indicated by the thermometer decreased. Covering the mirror or moving the thermometer from the focal point of the mirror resulted in the indicated temperature increasing again. Just as ‘heat’ was reflected in the mirrors, so too (seemingly) was ‘cold’.

So, the question is, how do you know what you believe you know about heat? Are there experiments that you can design that could help to disprove a theory of ‘frigoric’? And how do you explain the experiments of Pictet? Reader, it’s over to you.

 

*Within ten years of Celsius’s death (of tuberculosis in 1744), his colleagues Martin Strömer and Daniel Ekström had inverted Celsius’s original temperature scale to the form we know today. A similar scale designed by Jean Pierre Christin was also in use by 1743³.

¹”Evolution of the Thermometer 1592-1743″, Henry Carrington Bolton, The Chemical Publishing Company, 1900

²”Inventing Temperature”, Hasok Chang, Oxford University Press, 2008

³”The science of measurement, a historical survey”, Herbert Arthur Klein, Dover Publications Inc. 1988

 

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