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*.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Not a question of how many coffees are acceptable before lunch, but an astronomical conundrum with consequences for your cup.
It starts with gravity. Perhaps you remember that Newton came up with a set of equations describing the laws of gravity. You may even remember the essence of those equations, that the force between two masses is proportional to their product and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. If we wanted to phrase it mathematically, the force, F, is given by:
F = GMm/(r x r)
Where G is a constant and r the distance between the masses M and m.
Which is all very well, but suppose we have three masses, or four? M, m and M’, m” for example. If we happened to drop an apple (mass = m) between the moon (mass = M*) and the Earth (mass = M), how exactly, and where exactly, would it fall? How do we add an extra mass into the equation?
It is one of those problems that can seem far removed from your coffee cup, but in fact, the connection is quite close.
Although these dusty discs are thought to be a host to planetary formation, astronomers have yet to observe any planets actually forming out of the dust. It is thought that in some cases, the gravitational perturbations caused by multiple stars at the heart of the dust clouds could lead to the formation of planets. And so the system in Orion, with three stars in the centre of the dust cloud was perfect to observe the effect of the three stars on the integrity of the disc. Over 11 years, the astronomers recorded the system and then included modelling into understanding how the planetary disc was breaking up. But of course, to do this, they would have needed to understand how the gravitational force is affected by having 3 or more interacting masses.
Because when you see a series of concentric circles on the surface of your coffee where the table underneath the cup is vibrating, or when you see more complex patterns as you drive a take away cup over a rough table surface, these patterns can be described using exactly the same Bessel functions as would have been used to model the star system in Orion.
And so there is a direct link between the maths describing the planetary formation in a star system visible in our night sky and the patterns of your coffee cup. But if you want to drink your coffee while gazing at Orion, you may want to stick to decaff, or wake before dawn.
Filling a re-usable water bottle from the tap, the sound starts off as a low hum, then rises in pitch before a sudden change in note as the water spills over the spout because you have over-filled it. Texturing milk in a pitcher, the sounds change as the bubbles form and break, ready for pouring as latte art. How often do we know what is happening by listening to the sound something makes?
And yet these sounds are revealing more than just when the bottle is full or the milk can be poured. They are teaching us, if we listen carefully, about the physics of what is going on within the water bottle, within the milk pitcher and even within coffee grinds as we bloom the coffee. Consider the water bottle. It is a classic resonator, the basis of many musical instruments. As we fill the bottle, the liquid level acts as an end point to the bottle, reducing the volume of air in the bottle as the water fills it. The note that we hear coming out of the bottle corresponds to the frequency of the sound wave that is resonant in the empty volume of space. As the frequency is inversely proportional to the (square root) of this volume, when the volume decreases (ie. the bottle is filled) the frequency increases, so the note that we hear will go up. The bottle is acting as an approximation to a Helmholtz resonator. You can read about how this can be used for experiments with coke bottles here, or more of the physics (and the maths behind it) here.
Similarly with the milk pitcher, the changing musical note is telling us about the changing conditions within the pitcher, though in this case it gets quite complex. Firstly, as the steam wand is introduced to the pitcher, air is introduced to the milk which “stretches” it. This builds the volume of the milk in the pitcher and introduces air bubbles into the liquid. The combination of the volume change and the introduction of air is going to affect the sound that the jug would make, but the sound you hear, the ‘hiss’ is most probably dominated by the sound of the steam leaving the steam wand. After a short while, the barista will lower the steam wand further into the milk in order to heat the milk in the pitcher. Treating the pitcher again as an approximation of a Helmholtz resonator, we know that the frequency that we hear from the pitcher increases as the speed of sound inside the resonator increases. As the speed of sound in the milk increases with temperature (assuming that it is mostly made of water), to a first approximation we expect the note that we hear to increase in pitch with time. So after the hiss, we will hear a note which rises in pitch as we continue to warm the milk. Is this what we hear?
Together with other species, we use the information that sound gives us to understand much of the world around us. “Listening” famously helps bats to navigate and hunt and also, helps us to understand more about what occurs in the ocean. Indeed, it has even been suggested that we should listen to the sounds recorded as space probes land on different planets or moons in order to gain further information about what could be hidden just out of view of the camera. Of course, the sounds on another planet may not sound exactly as they do on Earth. Prof. Tim Leighton of the University of Southampton has calculated (and then synthesised) what a methane-fall (like a waterfall but of liquid methane) would sound like on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan. You can hear the recorded waterfall on earth here, and the simulated methane fall on Titan here. Provided we know what we are listening for and to, better listening can improve our understanding of our surroundings.
An example of where better listening may improve our understanding of our surroundings comes with bread. One common way of knowing when bread is properly cooked is to tap its base and listen to when it sounds hollow. We can assume that this is because the bread crust acts as the walls of a resonator with the large number of air bubbles that form during cooking (and which make the structure of the crumb) being the bit where the sound wave resonates. The hollow sound shows that what is inside is solid, whereas if it were still dough-y, it would damp the resonance (no pun intended) and make it dull sounding. If this assumption is correct, the note that is made by tapping the bread will decrease as the bread cools and the speed of sound in the air in the bread decreases. But can we also get information about the crumb structure of our loaf by listening to the pitch of the loaf as we tap it? Would not the frequency of the resonance (ie. the sound) change depending on how open the bread structure is (a large, open loaf would perhaps have a lower ‘note’ than a loaf with a small crumb which may have a higher note). Is the bread ‘telling’ us more than just that it is cooked? Experimenting bakers, it’s over to you.
One of the great moments while brewing coffee happens as you add a small amount of hot water to the coffee grounds and an intense aroma rises towards you. Together with the sight of the bubbles of carbon dioxide escaping the just-ground coffee and the sounds as the grind expands, cracks and the bubbles pop, it is a multi-sensory experience.
It is also a very good point to stop what we are doing, and think for 30 seconds, or a minute. Which means also that it’s a perfect time to experiment with your coffee. Istobiii is inviting us all to an experiment to try what he is calling “cold bloom”. You can watch his invitation to the experiment here.
Does blooming your coffee with cold (or tepid) water produce better coffee? What would be the difference between blooming with colder water compared with just boiled? And why do we bloom anyway?
Given that Istobiii is suggesting extending the bloom time with the colder water to 1.5-2.5 minutes, we have plenty of time to think. Do give it a try, and have fun experimenting.
Last week, I revealed the results of an experiment into an odd observation while brewing coffee in my Aeropress: why was it that the bubbles formed on the opposite side to the hand I used to pour the water from the kettle? On the face of it, it was an easy experiment, with a simple explanation and a fairly clear set of results. But behind this story is a series of decisions and psychology that can illustrate, on a small level, some of how experimental science is done. It’s not for nothing that there’s the saying, the devil is in the details.
Theory, experiment and the impartial observer
There can be an erroneous idea about the progress of science, repeated even among people who should realise the fallacy. A theory, with testable predictions is proposed, which is subjected to experiment by a series of dispassionate observers in order to provide evidence that either supports the theory or disproves it. We dehumanise the theoreticians and experimentalists to observers who can emotionally disconnect and observe the results from an objective distance.
There are countless examples against this within the history of science (both for theories that have now been rejected but also for theories that we still consider good models) but I want to keep to the example that we can all have in front of us in our kitchen: that of the bubbles in an Aeropress.
With the Aeropress it was an odd experimental result that prompted a theory that then fitted the odd observation. The theory came with some extra ‘predictions’, but theory and experiment evolved together. Again, there are examples of this in the history of science but the experiment prompted the theory that prompted further experimental tests.
The problem then is that the experimenter (in this case me) was well aware of the theoretical predictions. Could I dispassionately, and completely subconsciously, pour a kettle as I had always poured the kettle, or would part of me, however much my conscious was opposed, change how I poured the kettle subsequent to my idea of how the bubbles formed?
For the case of the experiment with the Aeropress, this remains an open question. Generally though, many experimentalists will aim to try to reduce conscious or unconscious biases by putting procedures in place to prevent them coming in. When Isaac Newton and John De Saguliers investigated the role of air resistance on falling masses from inside the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, they dropped them from a trap door system. This meant that the masses (which in the first instance included glass balls filled with mercury) fell at the same time; the quiet suspicions of the experimentalist investigators could not influence the results. It created a mess on the floor of that great Cathedral, but it did eliminate this component of bias from the experiment. You can read more about their experiment here.
A need for peer review
Assuming that we are collecting data in a neutral way, what happens then? On the face of it, seeing if the bubbles appeared on the left hand side or the right hand side should be an easy question to answer. And in some cases, such as the pictures that I chose to illustrate my post about the results last week, the answer is clear. But are those photos representative of the whole data? And, for more ambiguous photos, such as the one shown here, how do you define which bubbles to count?
One problem here is that each photo is very slightly different. Either the angle is different, or there is steam on the lens, or the focus is not there. But even so, sometimes it is harder to see all the bubbles on an image. For this experiment I defined a minimum bubble size (which you can see as the white square in the image) which I used to decide which features on the surface of the coffee to ignore: after all, when viewing the image, it is not clear whether items smaller than this are bubbles or just a different colouration to the coffee crema.
You may notice that I did not mention this detail in last week’s post, but one of the images includes the square. This is one of those things that would (most likely) be picked up in what is known as ‘peer review’. When we write results up and submit it to a journal for publishing, the journal will typically send the paper out to 2 or 3 ‘referees’. These are people, who ideally work on similar experiments, who will read the paper and think “hang on a minute, what if it is not the bubbles but the bubble size that shows an effect, how have these authors counted the bubbles?” The example is admittedly a somewhat trite one, but the point is that the paper is read by someone who also does this sort of experiment and knows where problems can be encountered. The ideal is not to trip the authors up, or to show that they did anything wrong, but to see things from a new angle, a different set of obsessions and so ask the original authors to address points that improves the paper in the sense that we can all start to see what is going on*.
Peer review also of course helps to stop the publication of results that are wrong, or statistically invalid (see below). We therefore need some form of peer review in order that we can be collectively, as a society, happy that this science is being done robustly. So if you see a newspaper report that “the study, which has not yet been peer reviewed…” treat it with a very large pinch of salt and please don’t tweet it (unless you happen to also research that area and so can read the paper as if you are writing it).
We have attempted to eliminate our biases, we have been open and transparent about our methodology, what could possibly go wrong now? It is in not taking enough data. Say I made a coffee pouring from my right hand and the bubbles formed on the left, then with my left hand and the bubbles formed on the right, we can know that this is not enough to be sure that the bubbles ‘always’ form on the alternative side. For that bit of the experiment I made 22 coffees. Not enough to be statistically certain (more on that here), but probably enough for an observation on a coffee blog.
But the bit I want to focus on here is the part of the experiment where I counted the number of bubbles versus the bubble size. I was investigating any similarities with a study that measured thousands of bubbles over 225 images documenting 14 events. I counted the number of bubbles on one small portion of one coffee that may not be representative of the coffee generally. Can we accept that as a valid procedure?
While I may not have counted enough bubbles here, one experiment (that can involve coffee) where there certainly were enough objects counted was in the determination of the mechanism behind Brownian motion. Brownian motion is the phenomenon by which small particles of dust or bits of coffee move in random directions on the surface of your cup. It happens because the molecules within the water of the coffee hit against the dust and impart a small momentum to the particles. Because there are many molecules moving in all sorts of directions, the resultant movement appears random. If we look through a microscope we can see the particles moving but there is no way that we could see the molecules that move them. Back in the nineteenth century this became an exceedingly controversial topic: could you form a scientific theory for a phenomenon (such as Brownian motion) which relied on assuming an underlying reality (molecules) that you could not hope to see or measure directly? The question was (partly) resolved only in the early twentieth century with the very careful experiments of Jean Perrin (you can read more about Perrin’s experiments and their relation to coffee here). When Perrin summarised his results he wrote:
“I have counted about 11, 000 granules in different regions of different preparations to obtain the figure 21.2 of the first column.”
Which is slightly more than the number of bubbles I counted last week.
A way forward – truth and integrity
What does this mean for science and how science is done and reported, especially in this era of rapid research and in which everyone has an opinion? Is science discredited by the fact that we are humans, and not fully dissociated and objective, when we do it?
Although I ran out of space to discuss Michael Polanyi’s comments on statistics and pattern recognition, he does have something extremely relevant to say about the progress of science. For Polanyi, how we do science and how we behave as a society were (and are) intimately linked. He considered that for science to prosper, we needed “fairness and tolerance” in discussion. By fairness he meant the requirement to state your case, your experimental result or theory, openly, separating fact, from opinion and emotional involvement and openly allowing them each to be critiqued. By tolerance he meant that we needed to listen to the other, even while we disagree, in order to see where they may have a point. He linked this behaviour within science to the behaviour required of the public in listening (and sharing) science. As he said:
“Fairness and tolerance can hardly be maintained in a public contest unless its audience appreciates candour and moderation and can resist false oratory. A judicious public with a quick ear for insincerity of argument is therefore an essential partner in the practise of free controversy…“
Science and society move together.
And so an invitation. Keeping in mind the idea of Polanyi about honesty and integrity in discussion, I would like to invite any reader of this blog to become a peer reviewer of the experiment reported last week. Please go and enjoy a coffee, carefully preparing and noticing your brewing technique and then work out how you would have made the experiment and tested any results. Perhaps you have a different theory that would require a slightly different counting method than the one chosen? Perhaps you think that more experiments are necessary? Become my peer reviewer! Feel free to comment below, or on Facebook or Twitter. Or, if you would prefer, email me through the contact form here. Bear in mind I am human, and so I will react to your report. But if you and I keep can Polanyi’s warning in focus, perhaps we can together improve our understanding of the science behind bubbles in an Aeropress. And, by extension, improve our understanding of how science, and society, can work.
I genuinely do look forward to reading your comments.
*I have worked in academia long enough to know that this is not always how the peer review process works in practise. There are many cases where peer review falls short of the ideal, for all sorts of reasons. But it remains a necessary part of the publication process as many referees (and authors) do try to approach the process in this way. Obviously emotion gets in the way when we receive the referee’s report initially, or, on the other side, if we think that the authors have seriously misunderstood their experiment, but if we take a few days to sit with the report/paper, we do try to get towards the ideal.
I am a very lazy Aeropress brewer, but this very laziness resulted in an unexpected observation and coffee connection. Why was it that the bubbles that formed on the top of my coffee were always on one side of the Aeropress cylinder?
First some background. I had been brewing the coffee using an adaptation of the “inversion method“, perhaps it should be called the Bean Thinking inversion method, or BTiM. You can read a good brew guide for preparing coffee properly using the inversion method here. The method I used follows.
After the usual steps of rinsing the filter and blooming the grounds, I filled the Aeropress cylinder using (just boiled) water poured from a standard kettle. Owing to the configuration of the kitchen and the fact that I am right hand dominant, I used my right hand to do this. This generally results in a fantastic bubble pattern on the surface of the coffee, as you can see in the picture, but one that is generally asymmetric – the bubbles appear on the left hand side of the well.
Subsequent repetition of the technique showed that the adverb “always” was a bit of an over statement. However, without recording the bubble patterns after each brew, it is easier to remember the unexpected results, which tend to be asymmetric, and not notice the more even distributions. Michael Polanyi comments on this at length in his book on science and scientific theory/practise “Personal Knowledge” (and while it seems a strange title at the start of the book, the reasoning behind the title becomes clearer throughout the text).
Nonetheless, out of 11 brews, 7 had bubbles primarily on the left hand side of the cylinder, with 3 brews of a more even distribution and 1 with a right hand side distribution.
What could be happening? A discussion on Twitter led to a theory by @baristapierre that air was effectively being pulled into the Aeropress during the pour. Because of the way that water from a kettle spout would flow into the Aeropress, this trapped air, the bubbles, would appear primarily on the opposite side of the Aeropress cylinder from the pour. What would happen if I poured using my left hand?
Here I need to put a note on the method. While I am right hand dominant, I write with both hands and use each hand fairly interchangeably (while tending to favour the right). There may be some effect of my handedness on the pour, but this should not necessarily be too significant. What happened as I changed the handedness of the pour?
Sure enough, the bubbles appeared on the right hand side of the well. And again, but then a run of more ambiguous results. Finally, after 11 brews with the left hand, 5 had bubbles on the right hand side but 4 had bubbles on the left hand side and 2 had a more even distribution (You can see a graph of the final results below).
And so, it appears quite likely that the air-trapping on pouring mechanism suggested by @baristapierre is a good explanation of the bubble distribution seen. But why do the bubbles form at all? The question of how bubbles form in air entrapment caused by turbulence is one that we may ask at the beach while watching (and listening) to the waves crashing in towards the seashore. Each wave generates thousands, millions of bubbles (hence the white caps and froth on the waves as they come in). These bubbles are not only responsible for the sounds you hear as the waves come in, but as they burst they release aerosols of salt and organic matter into the atmosphere that in turn affect cloud formation and can even influence hurricane dynamics.
And yet astonishingly, it was not until 2002 that a theory was developed (and experiments performed) to measure the bubble formation in water waves. Using high speed video, the study photographed simulated waves in a laboratory and found that the waves formed in two phases. A first involved the collapse of the air cavity formed as the wave folded in on itself. These bubbles are larger and responsible for the low frequency “crash” of the wave that you can hear. The second, concomitant, phase, involved the impact of the water with itself, much like the bubbles in the Aeropress. These bubbles were much smaller (< 1mm radius) and so the sound associated with them was a higher hiss. Together these bubbles create the crash-hiss sound that is so familiar with the breaking of the waves.
By carefully analysing 225 images over 14 wave breaking events, the study found that the number of bubbles per unit area decreased with bubble radius but with a different dependence depending on whether the bubbles were smaller, or larger, than approximately 1mm.
These results were checked against the Aeropress brew with the highest number of bubbles (1 May 2020). On the positives, it was clear that the bubble size observed was similar to the ocean waves study of 2002. The bubble density also decreased with increasing bubble radius (see the graph below). However the rate of decrease with radius was not as observed in the ocean study. There could be many reasons for this, including the fact that counting from a steamy photograph taken 30 seconds after the pour was not the most accurate method of analysis! Nonetheless, it does emphasise, that, though there are many connections between the physics of a coffee and the physics of the world, and though there are even more connections if we use the coffee as a prompt to let our minds wander into the wonders of the universe, the Aeropress is not an ocean and we can stretch analogy too far.
And so, while we may not learn much about ocean dynamics while brewing Aeropress coffee, it turns out we can learn a fair bit about experimental technique and how science is actually done, including what Polanyi meant about noticing unusual distributions. This will be the subject of the next post. In the meantime, what have you seen while brewing coffee? Do let me know in the comments, on Twitter or on Facebook.
Five items make up 2/3 of all lightweight identifiable waste collected from the Thames each year. These items make their way either through being dropped, sometimes deliberately littered, or through another path, into the river where, without litter picks, they are eventually washed out to sea. Part of the estimated annual ~10m tonnes of plastic waste entering into the oceans, they end in one of the gyres of the oceans, vast expanses of sea covered by floating rubbish.
Only much of this waste doesn’t. Or at least not as much as we think should do and we don’t know why. Despite the fact that there is an estimated 250 000 tonnes of waste floating in places such as the North Pacific Gyre, this is not as much as is expected. In fact, the visible waste makes up only a few percent of the waste that is expected to be there. Where is the rest of the waste, and what does it have to do with physics, or indeed coffee?
One of the ‘top 5’ items found in the Thames (coming in at number 4) is take away cups. This is followed closely by take-away containers. This means that our behaviour on leaving cafes, restaurants (and pubs) is affecting the litter that ends up in the river. And this is without counting the fact that food wrappers and drinks bottles (including water bottles) are two of the other worst offenders. It is not necessarily that people are deliberately throwing the items onto the pavement as they walk (though there is that too of course). The charity Thames21 that organises river-side clear ups and litter picks also thinks that some of the waste is coming as a result of people trying to put items into over-filled bins or so-called “tidy litterers“. But the truth is, they don’t really understand the route that many of these items take before entering the river system.
It is a significant problem for us now as many of us are trying to support local restaurants or cafes by ordering take away and even when a place has drink-in space, often it is single-use disposable cups that are used. Part of this is understandable. There is a hygiene concern, even if there are counter-arguments that re-usables are safe to use in these times of Covid-19. But I don’t want to trivialise this concern, partly because people are making very hard decisions about how to keep their businesses going or earn enough to pay the next set of bills. If there is any doubt about the safety, it needs to be considered holistically by those running and working in the businesses and not those like me able to work from home and able to get delivery or pop-in and pop-out (and, in fairness, it is easy to see from a barista’s point of view that handling an untouched single-use cup and giving it in a contactless way to a customer is safer than receiving their re-usable container in whatever state of cleanliness it is presented in).
This part seems a question of balance. Balancing the need for economic support with the concerns of the single-use plastic problem. Do the places that you frequent use recycled (and recyclable) plastics or compostable ones? If the latter, is there a compost bin within the cafe to help with the disposal of these? Ultimately, is your take-away coffee going to help the business or are there other items that you can purchase that don’t require the same amount of packaging.
These are considerations with no easy answers which leads to the second approach that you could take. In non-Covid times, charities such as Thames21 are always looking for volunteers to help with clean ups and to get involved in counting the types of litter that find their way to the rivers. Becoming a ‘citizen scientist’ in this way helps to quantify the amount of waste entering our rivers but it also helps Thames21 and the river authorities to understand how the waste gets there in the first place. Why are our river banks so filthy?
But then the last question. If we know that so much waste is getting into our river, and we know that this is being replicated around the world, why is so little of it making its way to the gyres? What is happening to it?
This affects, to some extent, what we do about our plastic behaviour – the decisions we ultimately make about whether to have a take-away coffee or whether to buy a disposable or re-usable face mask (or even make one). One of the explanations is that the majority of the plastic is becoming micro plastic (<5mm size pieces) or even nano plastic and so sinking into the seas rather than floating on the surface. These micro plastics are the result of the break-up of larger items by UV and micro organisms at sea and also the direct pollution of micro plastics into the sea by clothes being washed or from cleaning products etc. Indeed, the Thames21 citizen scientists discovered micro plastic pollution at 20 out of 21 sites along the river bank in a recent litter survey. A different explanation is that the plastics that are entering our seas today take years, even decades to reach the gyres which are made up of plastics from the 1970s and similar aged pieces. Both explanations mean that we need to stop the pollution at source, but if it is the former, there is not so much point in cleaning up the gyres by pulling the large litter out – the majority of the plastic that is in the oceans is actually underneath what is visible.
How can we determine what plastic waste goes where? Well, we can increase the modelling of ocean currents to improve our ideas about how waste is transported from source to gyre, but we can also try to have a look from space, from the satellites that are monitoring other aspects of our behaviour on Earth. Now it turns out that it is not easy to see plastic from space because with many of the techniques we would use, such as radar, plastic and water ‘look’ very similar. But one thing that that the satellite data has shown is the fact that there are peculiarly calm regions of sea near the gyres. Calm sea looks different from choppy seas in the same way that the light reflected off your coffee looks different if you are sitting with it calmly or if you are running with it and it is sloshing around the cup. But the connections go a bit further than this. The reason for the calm is because of surfactants on the surface of the seas. These surfactants (like soap) ‘calm’ the waves in much the same way as oil calms the waves. It doesn’t take much surfactant to cover the surface of a large area of water as a consideration of how much oil covers the surface of your coffee can tell you.
The surfactants are produced by microbial activity, the result of small bits of plastic (micro plastics) having been colonised by microbes before it sinks. The calm regions of the sea may therefore be indicating areas of hidden micro plastics and demonstrating the depth of the problem of single use plastic waste.