Dappled with Dew

Part of my morning routine can involve a walk through a local park. Each day reveals how the seasons are affecting the plants, bird life etc. This morning on walking through the park, I was treated to the spectacle of a thick layer of dew, shimmering and spectacular, glinting in the sunlight.

dew, surface tension, everyday physics, slow morvement
The dew this morning

Taking out my phone, I tried to take a picture of the scene for later and yet, what came out in the image was not the brilliant scene before me but instead some blurry grass. The ‘immediacy’ of the sight struck home. As with so many of the gifts that nature provides, attempting to take a photograph of it somehow just doesn’t quite capture the beauty of the moment. There are some great photographs of sunsets or sunrises, but part of the attraction of the image is not the photograph itself but our memory of those brilliant sunsets that we have experienced. The photograph is suggestive of the beauty that the photographer saw but somehow, the fullness of that beauty has not translated into the photograph.

As we stop to enjoy the moment, rather than photograph it and rush off to our morning appointment, we can start to notice what it is about it that captivates us. From my viewpoint, the majority of the dew this morning formed a silver blanket on the grass. It was this that caught my eye initially. Yet as I observed the dew, individual droplets came into focus and, because of the angle at which I was viewing them, they appeared as blue, as a slightly different blue and then other different colours. The physics of the rainbow was being revealed before me, one metre away on the grass. If I moved, the clues to these mysteries would disappear.

It was a reminder to slow down and notice things, who knows what we’ll see.  Perhaps you will disagree and say that it is just my poor photography skills that are the problem.  Please disagree in the comments section below!  Alternatively, if you agree and want to share a moment of beauty and everyday physics, please also share that in the comments section below.  I’ll finish this post however with an excerpt from the thoughts of someone who obviously did stop, slow down and observe his world.  The excerpt is from “Inversnaid” by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Dew, surface tension, everyday physicsDegged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft,
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.




From a Caravan to the Grecian

It is a Saturday morning as I write this while sitting in Granary Square in Kings Cross, London. I’ve just enjoyed an Ethiopean filter coffee at Caravan. If only more cafes offered the possibility of sampling single estate coffees rather than the espressos that are otherwise so popular in London.

Caravan, Granary Square, coffee, single estate, good cafes in London
The fountains in front of Caravan

In the square outside, people are laughing (and dancing!) in front of the old warehouses that accomodate Caravan. Amongst them all, four sets of ground-level fountains push jets of foaming water 50cm into the air, in patterns that change as you watch. There is so much physics here to observe: The white colour of the water foam, the dance of the water droplets as they emerge from the main jet of the fountain and then fall back to earth, the fact that the wet concrete around the fountains is darker than the dry concrete nearby.

Consider though one more observation. As the water shoots upwards, it is pushed by occasional gusts of wind from west to east making the fountains appear as loops rather than columns of dancing liquid. Although the direction of the wind is determined by local weather patterns, over the UK the prevailing wind direction is Westerly, that is flowing from west to east.

People have wondered about the origin of the winds from ancient times. The Greeks had four wind Gods who had authority over the winds from each direction: Boreas, god of the North wind, Notus of the South, Euros of the East and Zephryos of the West. Pliny the Elder speculated at length on the causes of the winds and yet the start of the modern conversation regarding the origin of the winds had to wait until 1686 with the publication of a work by Edmund Halley.

Grecian, Coffee House, London Coffee House
The Devereux now stands where the Grecian once was

Halley (1656-1742) is now more famous for the comet that is named after him rather than his meteorological work but, as with many scientists of the time, he had his finger in many pies. He also seems to have been a keen coffee drinker, or at least, he regularly spent time in one of London’s coffee houses, the Grecian, discussing science with Isaac Newton, Hans Sloane and others. A pub, the Devereux, now stands on the site of the old Grecian in a little side street off of Fleet Street.

Did Halley ponder cloud formation, rain and the origin of the winds while contemplating his steaming coffee cup on cold days in 17th Century London? Regardless, Halley did recognise that the heat from the Sun was the driving force for the wind system. Halley surmised that as a parcel of air was heated by the Sun and rose upwards, the cold air surrounding it would have to flow in to its place so as to replace the risen air so “ a kind of Circulation N.E. Trade Winds below will be attended by a S.W. above, and the S.E. with a N.W. Wind above”* The problem for Halley was that his explanation of the wind system could account for a North-South wind direction owing to the Sun’s heating the air at the equator, but not the Easterly direction of the Trade Winds near the equator nor the Westerly direction of the winds over the UK.

A few years later, George Hadley (1685-1768) suggested that it was the rotation of the earth that was responsible for the east-west component; the mass of air, being detached from the earth, would appear to flow in a particular direction as a consequence of the earth spinning below it. The idea was not new, Galileo had proposed it some years earlier while similar arguments were made later by the philosopher (and scientist) Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). At first sight, such an argument looks appealing but there are problems, as John Herschel (1792-1871) pointed out. If this were the explanation for the wind direction, the effect would be “so great as to produce not merely a wind, but a tempest of the most destructive violence”.

Herschel suggested, as had Hadley before him, that friction could slow the wind to the speeds that we normally observe, but while this may explain the wind speed at ground level, what about the upper circulatory patterns noted by Halley: What friction could slow these down?

Grecian, Devereux, Coffee house London
A plaque outside the Devereux pub

It turns out that this is not the reason for the discrepancy in the wind speed. Hadley’s theory was wrong on a number of issues (if you are interested, I suggest reading this article). The real driving force for the Trade Winds is the Coriolis effect which deflects the warm air rising at the equator towards the right as it travels to the North pole. The majority of this air then cools and descends at about 30 degrees latitude, circling back on itself (as per Halley) as the Easterly trade winds. However the air that continues in the westerly direction north (or south) of 30 degrees latitude becomes those prevailing westerlies of the sort that batter the shores of the UK (see here for more information).

Even if Hadley’s simple model was wrong, its contemplation did lead to an important discovery that is still relevant for us today. The question was: What was it in the upper atmosphere that could cause a friction effect that could slow the winds? The person contemplating this question was taking a walking holiday in the Alps in the first half of September in 1886. Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) observed a layer of clouds which showed “whirls formed by perturbation and rolling up” of the surfaces of two neighbouring layers of air. Helmholtz had observed what became known as “Kelvin Helmholtz clouds”, a beautiful but very rare cloud type, for an example click here. Helmholtz realised that the formation of these clouds required that two layers of air rubbed against each other. In the region between the two layers, the air became unstable, wavy and finally showed the whirls which are actually a series of vortices. As these vortices developed, the two layers of air would get more thoroughly mixed and it was in this way that friction could develop in the upper atmosphere.

Such vortices and “surfaces of discontinuity” are now an important concept in many places including the coffee cup. The video “Coffee Rings” presents another manifestation of the effects of surfaces of discontinuity. So we have returned from contemplation of the wind in a late summer square in London, through a famous Coffee House and back to the coffee.

I have not yet had the opportunity for myself to see a Kelvin Helmholtz cloud. If any reader has been so fortunate please share photos with @thinking_bean. Let me know what you think and what you see around you in the comments section below and most importantly, enjoy your coffee!

*from E. Halley, An Historical Account of the Trade Winds, Transactions of the Royal Society, 1686, p. 133, via “From Watt to Clausius”, DSL Cardwell, Cornell University Press, 1971

†Quotes taken from Anders O Persson, “Hadley’s Principle: Understanding and Misunderstanding the Trade Winds”, History of Meteorology, 3, (2006) p. 17 (linked in article)


Introducing Bean thinking

As this is the first true blog post, let’s do the introductions. What is Bean thinking and who is @thinking_bean?

Breakfast coffee, introductionThe human bean behind @thinking_bean has worked for a fair few years in university research centres, researching obscure but fascinating areas of physics where magnetism meets superconductivity. Such research fields can be very beautiful but perhaps not of immediate technological relevance. Understandably, this can cause some in our society to question the utility of investigating these phenomena. Part of the motivation behind Bean thinking is to explore this question, why do we do science?

A second motivation is to share the wonder of the world that today’s understanding of physics gives us. Some of these beautiful areas have not yet been fully understood even though they occur in something as apparently simple as a coffee cup. Through teaching, outreach, talking to friends and even in conversations with some colleagues, I became aware of the way that science, perhaps particularly physics, can be perceived as a very interesting, but perhaps very difficult subject, far removed from people’s everyday lives.

Yet this is not true! Slow down, put down your smart phone, e-book or tablet, observe the world. Physics is all around you. Warming your hands around a mug of hot coffee, you may not realise how it is related to the Big Bang. Looking at a glass of milk can illustrate the reasons that the sky is blue. Even the mere act of stirring coffee can be related the Heathrow minute (link, link2).

Hence Bean thinking, which hopefully will become a space where curious individuals can come and discuss interesting phenomena that they notice in the day to day. If this can be done with a cup of coffee, all the better. The point is to slow down and start noticing. Each Wednesday I will update the Bean thinking blog, the “Daily Grind” with things that I have noticed or that I find interesting. Who knows, if anyone starts to read this and shares their observations perhaps the Daily Grind can also include these. As this website develops, I may add a forum, but for the moment, please let me know what you think about the concept and what you observe around you in the comments section below.


Coming soon…

The Daily Grind will be the blog of BeanThinking.  Coming soon, please check back in a couple of weeks.