Home experiments Observations slow Tea

Coffee baubles

resonating coffee
Not the best image of a resonating coffee but you hopefully get the idea

Most people, at some point in their lives, must have pushed a take-away coffee cup across a table and watched as patterns form on the liquid surface. Sometimes these patterns seem to stand still, we’d say that they form ‘resonances’. On even rarer occasions, on dragging your cup across the surface, you may have seen coffee droplets jump out of the coffee and then dance on the coffee surface for a couple of seconds as the liquid vibrates.

Today’s Daily Grind investigates these ‘floating droplets’ with an experiment in time for Christmas: Decorate your coffee with coffee baubles.

To make these droplets form on your coffee in a controllable way you will need a few bits of equipment:

  1. A couple of loud-speakers with the woofers exposed
  2. Some sort of liquid soap (washing up liquid, hand soap, soap for hand washing clothes etc)
  3. Some water (or coffee but you will do horrible things to it)
  4. A shallow dish (I used the bottom of an old yoghurt pot)
  5. A “dropper”, a pipette or syringe would be ideal, a straw will probably work.

You can do this completely systematically, in which case you’ll also need a signal generator to provide a fixed frequency output to the speakers (I used “ScorpionZZZ’s Lab, Signal Generator Lite for iPhone). Or you can just go straight to the fun bit which is to make these droplets dance to music. It’s Christmas so it’s entirely up to you!

floating drops, resonances, speakers, kitchen top science
Balance a shallow dish on the woofer of a speaker. A roll of sellotape can be used to couple the vibrations of the speaker to the dish if necessary.

Balance your speakers on a flat surface and put the shallow dish so that it sits in good contact with the woofer. Because my dish was ever so slightly larger than the vibrating bit of the speaker, I ‘coupled’ the speaker to the dish with a roll of sellotape. Mix 10ml of soap with 100ml of water (this does not have to be exact but you may want to investigate just how much/little soap you can get away with). If you are using coffee rather than water, you will need to mix 10ml soap with 100ml coffee.

Pour about half the soapy-water into the dish and then turn the speakers on. If you are using a signal generator, watch what happens as you sweep the frequency from 10-200 Hz. Now, either choose a frequency which shows a nice resonance pattern on the water, or start playing the music through the speakers. Music with a good beat will work well (I watched drops dance to Tiesto, Blondie, and Josh Woodward’s “coffee”).

Drip a drop of the remaining soapy-water onto the resonating surface. A video of my playing with these droplets can be seen above. Although not all the drops will float, it is fairly easy to start to form patterns of flowers or rows of droplets and then it’s worth just playing.  How big a droplet can be made to float without collapsing? How many minutes can you get a drop to last before it sinks? What happens if you combine a drop of black (soapy) coffee with a drop of milky (soapy) coffee?

Have fun, and please do share your videos and photos of your experiments with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Disclaimers & Credits:

No coffee was wasted in the making of this video. A very good coffee from Roasting House was thoroughly enjoyed before the remnants were diluted and mixed with soap.

Inspiration & experimental details taken from Jearl Walker’s great article “The Amateur Scientist” in Scientific American, p. 151 (1978).


Coffee cup science General Observations slow Tea

What haloes and crowns reveal about your coffee

Coffee Corona
Look carefully around the reflected white light. Do you see the rainbow like pattern?

Several weeks ago I had been enjoying some very good black coffee at OJO in Bangsar, KL. As is fairly typical for me, I had been trying to observe the white mists that form just above the coffee. White mists are fascinating, tissue-like clouds that you can often see hovering above the coffee. They form, tear suddenly and then reform into a slightly different pattern. As I was photographing my coffee, I noticed what seemed to be interference patterns on the mists (see picture), just like oil on water, a rainbow-like shimmering over the coffee surface. Yet that explanation did not make sense; interference patterns form because the layer of oil on water has approximately the same thickness as the wavelength of visible light (see more info here). The water droplets that make up the white mists are a good 15 times thicker than the wavelength of light. It is not possible that these mists are producing interference effects, it has to be something else.

Then, last week and back in London, I was walking towards the setting Sun one evening when I saw what looked like a rainbow in a cloud. What caused this and how was it related to what I had seen earlier in my coffee? A short trip to the library later and it was confirmed. What I had seen in the clouds was most likely a Sun-dog. Formed by the refraction of sunlight by ice crystals in the atmosphere, Sun-dogs manifest as bright regions of rainbow. The Sun-dog appeared in cirrus clouds because these are made from the sort of ice crystals that produce brilliant Sun-dogs. These ice crystals are flat and hexagonal so they refract sunlight exactly as does a prism. Just like a prism, red light and blue light will be refracted by differing amounts and so they will appear at different places in the sky. The minimum angle of refraction produces the most intense colouration and, for hexagonal platelets of ice, this occurs at 22º away from the light source.

Sun-dog, Sun dog
A Sun-dog in the clouds to the right of the setting Sun

I do not find degrees a particularly helpful way of thinking about distance but what helped me is that, in terms of the sky, if you hold your outstretched hand out at arms length, the distance from your thumb to the tip of your finger is, approximately, 22º. Hence, if you see a halo around the Sun at about that distance, it is most likely a refraction effect due to ice crystals in the sky and if you see an intense rainbow roughly parallel to the elevation of the Sun, it is very likely to be a Sun-dog.

What does this tell us about the colours in the mists above the coffee? Well, clearly the mists are not made of ice crystals but neither is the ‘rainbow’ colouring as far as 22º from the light source (a light bulb reflected in the coffee). Also, the rainbow is less vivid and, if you look closely, inverted from the rainbow in the clouds. In the cloud, the inner edge of the arc was red and the outer edge blue, in the coffee, the outer edge is more reddish, while the inner is more blue-ish. This is another clue. On the same evening as I had seen the Sun-dog, there was a full moon and around the Moon was a glowing ring, tinged slightly reddish on the outside. The ring was far closer to the Moon than the Sun-dog had been to the Sun. This Moon-ring, and the coffee colouring are the same effect, they are examples of ‘corona’ (literally crown) and they are caused by diffraction of light rather than refraction.

straw, water, glass
It is refraction that makes the straw appear broken in this glass of water.

Refraction we are all quite familiar with, it is the bending of a straw in a glass of water as you look through the glass. Diffraction is a little more tricky, but it is a consequence of how the light moves past an object. It can be understood by thinking about how water waves pass objects in a stream (or by playing with the simulation here). The amount that the wave is diffracted depends on both the size of the object and the wavelength of the wave. As blue light has a much shorter wavelength than red light, the blue will be diffracted by a different amount to the red. If the objects diffracting the light are of a similar size (as water droplets in white mists are going to be) a spectrum, or a rainbow of colour will appear around the light source. The more uniform the droplet size, the more vivid the spectrum in the corona. The thin cloud around the Moon that evening was made up of many different sized droplets and so the rainbow effect was very subtle. In contrast, around the reflection of the light bulb in the coffee, the water droplets in the white mist are a fairly similar size and so the spectrum is more vividly seen.

Seeing rainbow effects in the sky (or in the coffee) therefore gives us many clues as to what is in the sky or indeed, levitating above the coffee. Please do send me any pictures you have of coronae around light source reflections in your coffee, or indeed sun dogs if you are fortunate enough to see them*.

* Sun dogs are in fact apparently fairly common, it is more that we have to be attentive to see them.

General Home experiments Observations Science history Tea Uncategorized

Predicting the weather with a cup of coffee?

What do the bubbles on the surface of your coffee tell you about the weather?

weather, bubbles, coffee, coffee physics, weather prediction, meteorology
There is a lot of physics going on with the bubbles on this coffee, but can they be used to predict the weather?

You have just poured a cup of freshly brewed coffee into your favourite mug and watched as bubbles on the surface collect in the middle of the cup. It occurs to you that it is going to be a good day, but is that because you are enjoying your coffee or because of the position of the bubbles?

There are a large number of sayings about the weather in the English language. Some of the sayings have a basis in fact, for example the famous “red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning“. Others though seem to verge on the superstitious (“If in autumn cows lie on their right sides the winter will be severe; if on their left sides, it will be mild”), or unlikely (“As August, so the next February”).  In 1869, Richard Inwards published a collection of sayings about the weather. “Weather Lore” has since undergone several new editions and remains in print although Inwards himself died in 1937. Amongst the sayings contained in the book is one about coffee:

When the bubbles of coffee collect in the centre of the cup, expect fair weather. When they adhere to the cup forming a ring, expect rain. If they separate without assuming any fixed position, expect changeable weather.

A quick search on the internet shows that this example of weather lore is still circulated, there is even a ‘theory‘ as to why it should be true. But is it true or is it just an old wives’ tale? Although I have consumed a lot of coffee I have never undertaken enough of a statistical study to find out if there could be an element of truth in this particular saying. The number of bubbles on the surface of the coffee is going to depend, amongst other things, on the type of coffee, the freshness of the roast and the speed at which you poured it. While the position of the bubbles will depend on how you poured the coffee into the mug, the surface tension in the coffee and the temperature. It would appear that there are too many variables to easily do a study and furthermore that the mechanism by which coffee could work as a weather indicator is unclear. It is tempting to write off this particular ‘lore’ as just another superstition but before we do that, it is worth revisiting another old wives tale which involves Kepler, Galileo, the Moon and the tides.

tides, old wives legends, Kepler, Galileo, Lindisfarne, bubbles in coffee
The pilgrim path between Lindisfarne and the mainland that emerges at low tide is marked by sticks. But what causes the tides?

Back in the mid-17th century, Newton’s theory of universal gravitation had not yet been published. It was increasingly clear that the Earth orbited around the Sun and that the Moon orbited around the Earth, but why exactly did they do that? Gilbert’s 1600 work De Magnete (about electricity and magnetism) had revealed what seemed to be an “action at a distance”. Yet the scientific thought of the day, still considerably influenced by Aristotelianism, believed that an object could only exert a force on another object if it was somehow in contact with it. There was no room for the heavenly bodies to exert a force on things that were found on the Earth. Indeed, when Kepler suggested that the Moon somehow influenced the tides on the Earth (as we now know that it does), Galileo reproached him for believing “old wives’ tales”: We should not have to rely on some ‘magical attraction’ between the moon and the water to explain the tides!

The point of this anecdote is not to suggest that a cup of coffee can indeed predict the weather. The point is that sometimes we should be a little bit more circumspect before stating categorically that something is true or false when that statement is based, in reality, purely on what we believe we know about the world. We should always be open to asking questions about what we see in our daily life and how it relates to the world around us. It will of course be hard to do a proper statistical study of whether the bubbles go to the edge or stay in the centre depending on the weather (whilst keeping everything constant). Still, there are a lot of people who drink a lot of coffee and this seems to me to offer a good excuse to drink more, so perhaps you have some comments to make on this? Can a cup of coffee predict the weather? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.


Weather legends taken from “Weather Lore”, Richard Inwards, Revised & Edited by EL Hawke, Rider and Company publishers, 1950

Galileo/Kepler anecdote from “History and Philosophy of Science”, LWH Hull, Longmans, Green and Co. 1959

General Observations Tea

Dynamical similarity

vortices in coffee
A vortex … (Dragging a spoon through a cup of coffee)

Science involves designing experiments to test theories. I do not want to get distracted here by how a theory is defined or the precise ways in which a theory is tested by experiment. The point of this week’s Daily Grind is to look at the role of experiments in physics, where they can be used, where it is more difficult to use experiments to test hypotheses and, how this can be connected with coffee. Some physics can be relatively easily tested by observation or experiment: we can for example take photographs of distant no-longer-planets to test theories about the evolution of the solar system or measure the viscosity of a liquid as we add something to it. Yet there are some areas of physics where it is not immediately obvious how you would test any theory that you develop. One such area is atmospheric physics where the limitations of living on one planet with one atmosphere where many different things all happen at once, could potentially be a bit of a problem for doing experiments on the theories of atmospheric physics.

vortices, turbulence, coffee cup physics, coffee cup science
… is a vortex… (What happens if you put a coffee on a record player?)

Fortunately, there is a way in which atmospheric physicists can test their theories with experiment and, perhaps unsurprisingly for the Daily Grind, that way involves a cup of coffee (or tea). The route out is called “dynamical similarity” and it is a consequence of the fact that the same mathematics describes much of that which happens in a cup of tea as it does the atmosphere. It is true that a tea cup is a lot smaller than the atmosphere but a vortex in a tea cup is the same as a vortex in the atmosphere even if one is only a centimetre across while the other has a core size of many kilometres. The mathematics will be the same. This allows people to test hypotheses formed about the atmosphere in an environment that they can control and repeat.

A vortex in the atmosphere
… is a vortex.
(Typhoon Nangka, Image Credit: NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC. Caption by Kathryn Hansen)

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article in Physics World about the connections between coffee and physics. Shortly after it came out, I got an email from Paul Williams alerting me to an article that he had written in the journal Weather called “Storm in a tea cup“. It turns out that the subject of his research had been to study the impact on the weather of the interaction of two types of atmospheric waves: Rossby Waves and Inertia-gravity waves. The method that he had used to test this was, if not quite a tea cup, a bucket which he could rotate. Rossby waves and inertia-gravity waves are both present in the atmosphere and can be induced, albeit on a smaller scale, in a bucket. He was using the concept of dynamical similarity to explore what happens in our atmosphere. And the experiment was important. Before his experiments, it had been thought that the effect of the interaction of these two sorts of waves was minimal. His experiments revealed that this may not be the case, the inertia-gravity waves can significantly affect the Rossby waves. Given that Rossby waves are responsible for cold/warm fronts and weather phenomena in mid-latitude regions of the world (such as the UK) his results, and his cup of tea, were potentially very important.

I’m always very happy to hear about what others are doing with science in a tea cup or a coffee mug. Please share any thoughts in the comments section below.

Paul Williams “Storm in a tea cup” can be found in Weather, 59, (4), p.96 (2004) 

With apologies to Gertrude Stein.

Coffee review General Science history Tea

All in a Glaze at Straits Times Kopitiam

Straits Times KopiTiam, outsideDespite the name, “Straits Times Kopitiam” is in Aldgate, London. Kopitiam translates to “coffee shop” and they can be found throughout Singapore and Malaysia. It’s not just coffee though, Kopitiams traditionally sell a wide range of fantastic noodles & rice dishes which will be taken for breakfast or lunch while chatting with friends. A couple of large communal tables in this Aldgate kopitiam provide the space for sitting down and chatting with your neighbours, while the selection of food on offer is very western, with sandwiches and cakes replacing some of the more typical Asian dishes. Although this is a bit of a shame, it is perhaps understandable. Hopefully, as time goes on we will get more great SE Asian food here and it will become more economically viable to sell it. Still, the Straits Times Kopitiam is, just as its SE Asian namesakes, a place where you can sit and enjoy a drink in very friendly surroundings. As we were sitting there, various people came in to chat about the crayon drawings on the wall at the back while messages were suspended on bits of string around the sides of the cafe. Such touches add to its friendly, almost intimate, social atmosphere. You may not know who roasts the coffee here but where else could you get a Teh halia (a type of tea with ginger), a hot chocolate with chilli or, a Milo Dinosaur (if you like iced drinks it is probably better for you to try it rather than have me describe it)?

enamel mug, teh halia, Straits Times kopitiam
An enamel mug containing Teh halia

A feature common both to the Straits Times Kopitiam and many such places in SE Asia though is the cups, enamelware cups with a navy rim. Such cups were apparently ubiquitous until fairly recently when they faded from fashion, though they are now back in a type of retro-chic, Singapore style. The great advantage of metal cups was that they were cheap and easy to produce. So in a world before plastic, a metal mug was the way to go. That said, metal crockery and cookware can tend to rust, or look a bit ugly and so the cheap metal cups were often enamelled to produce the type of mugs that are now used in Straits Times Kopitiam.

The story of how the mugs are enamelled leads us to the story behind the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. How? Well, enamelling uses the fusing of a glass onto the metal by heating it to approximately 800 C. Glass can be quite transparent and colourless so what gives it the white and blue colouring of the mugs used in the Straits Times Kopitiam? The blue is fairly easy, it is caused by the addition of metal oxides such as cobalt, but the white? That is harder to pin down and although some investigation suggested that some chemical additives could be used to make the enamel more opaque, it was also suggested that the opacity of the white enamel is due to the crystallisation of the glass.

Giants Causeway, lava crystals
A view of the Giant’s Causeway, taken by Jim “code poet” and shared under Creative Commons attribution license. Original  file location:

When a substance is heated above its melting point and then cooled, crystals can grow in it, the size and shape of which depend on the heat treatment of the material, for example how fast you cool it from its melting point. For enamel the material is glass but this crystallisation process can also be seen in chocolate. The heat treatment makes the difference between the formation of long crystals that give chocolate a hard, crisp sheen and smaller crystals that make the chocolate more dull, which is why the technique of tempering chocolate is so tricky. James Keir (1735-1820) wrote a study in the Royal Society’s journal Philosophical Transactions that described how glass crystallised as it was cooled. In particular he noted that cooling the glass slowly from its molten state produced a white and opaque type of glass that was at the time being called Reaumur’s porcelain. By studying the shape, form and cause of these crystals in glass, Keir made a sudden extrapolation: could the regular shapes of the Giant’s Causeway or the pillars of Staffa be caused by crystallisation of molten lava? This is indeed the explanation that we now have of the Giant’s Causeway*. Rather than being put into place step by step by a road building giant, the slow cooling of molten lava produced the crystal structures that are now visible on the shoreline.

Concerned that it would be thought that the had overstated the connection from glass to molten lava and geological features, Keir wrote at the end of his paper:

No just objection can be drawn against this analogy from the magnitude of the former [lava] compared with the minuteness of the latter [glass]: for the difference of size between the small vitreous crystals and the stupendous basaltic columns, which support mountains, islands, and provinces, is no more than is proportionate to the difference usually observed between the little works of art and the magnificent operations of nature“.

Does any more need to be said?

Straits Times Kopitiam is at 66A Whitechapel High Street,

“On the crystallizations Observed on Glass. By James Keir, Esquire, of Stourbridge. Communicated by G. Fordyce, M.D.F.R.S” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond., 1776, 66, 530-542

* Note added 21 Oct 2015. It seems that we’re still debating how the Giant’s Causeway was formed. A recent article (here) suggests it is about how things crack as they cool rather than about how crystals form. However, the link to cooling glass and cooling ceramics remains. Keir was certainly on to something.

General Tea

On nuclear fusion and making tea

tea bag, tea cup, diffusion, turbulence
How not to prepare tea

Although largely a coffee drinker, occasionally I will order tea in a café. When I do so, one of my pet hates is being served a cup of hot water with an individually wrapped tea bag sitting on the saucer beside it. Quite apart from the unnecessary environmental cost of individually wrapping tea bags, there is the problem with the resultant cup of tea. Hot water poured onto tea (preferably in a pot) allows the tea to infuse by a mixture of turbulence, convection and diffusion as the hot water swirls around carrying the tea with it. A tea bag placed into hot water on the other hand relies on infusion by convection and diffusion only and so takes a lot longer to brew. Oddly enough, there is at this moment, a major scientific project being built in the south-west of France that has the opposite problem. The aim of the project is to generate electricity by nuclear fusion in extremely hot clouds of gas that are confined into the shape of a doughnut. To achieve this, they must reduce the turbulence within their doughnuts. Unlike the tea, nuclear fusion seems to require diffusion and convection to prevail over turbulence.

Supplying the growing energy demands of the planet is a major problem for us all. How can we simultaneously generate the electricity that we want while limiting our carbon dioxide emissions to levels that will cause minimal damage to our planet? Renewable energy is part of the solution, some have argued that nuclear fission could be another part of the solution (all of our current “nuclear” power plants run by nuclear fission). The “ITER” project in the Provence-Alpes-Côtes d’Azur region of France aims to demonstrate the feasibility of nuclear fusion to supply our energy needs instead.

Sun, heat, nuclear fusion
The Sun is powered by nuclear fusion. Could we generate electricity on Earth with a fusion generator? Image © NSO/AURA/NSF

Unlike nuclear fission which works by exploiting the decay of radioactive elements, nuclear fusion ‘fuses’ elements together to produce energy. Gazing up at the sky you can see thousands of nuclear fusion generators: Each star (including our Sun) produces light and heat, by nuclear fusion. First the stars fuse hydrogen into helium (as our Sun does now), then, as the star ages, the heavier elements combine until finally iron is formed in the core of the dying star. All the elements found on our planet and elsewhere in space have, ultimately been formed in the core of a star (or in reactions as the star dies in a final explosion). Every atom in us has been formed by such reactions in stars and so it is very true to say “from dust you came and to dust you will return”, the dust in question being star dust. If we can exploit it on Earth, nuclear fusion offers a method of providing energy with no long term radioactive by-products and limited carbon dioxide emissions. It is a possible, but very long term, route out of our quandary about energy generation.

doughnut tokamak
A photo to demonstrate “doughnut shaped” was probably unnecessary, but it did provide a good excuse for an unhealthy breakfast.

So why can’t we start using it immediately? A clue comes from the fact that the nuclear fusion reactors that we know of (stars) are very hot and relatively dense. It is not easy to smash two hydrogen atoms together such that they fuse, it requires them to have a lot of energy (ie. be very hot) and be quite close together. To build a nuclear fusion reactor requires us to heat a gas until it becomes a ‘plasma’ which means heating the gas to temperatures of around 150 million ºC. At this temperature we need to confine the plasma with very high magnetic fields so that it does not hit the walls of its container and it turns out that the best way to do this is to manipulate the plasma into a ring doughnut shape. This doughnut confinement, known as a ‘Tokamak’ has become the standard way of confining the plasma. At the moment, we cannot keep the plasmas hot enough for long enough (the current record is 6min30 sec confinement) for fusion to generate more energy than is required to form the plasma in the first place. One of the things limiting the lifetime of the plasma is the fact that the plasma cools down and one of the things that cools the plasma down is the turbulence in the plasma carrying the heat energy from the centre to the edge of the doughnut. Increasing the time it takes for the heat to escape from the centre of the doughnut to the outer edge is one of the challenges facing the ITER team. Just as with the pot of tea, were the cooling by diffusion and convection only, the plasma would take a lot longer to cool down. Understanding the turbulence inside the plasma is one of the challenges facing the team at ITER.

Our method of making tea can tell us a lot, not just about the problems for nuclear fusion generators, but also about diffusion and turbulence generally. It is worth pondering that brew a little more deeply next time you make your pot.