anti bubbles

Coffee and cream baubles – not just for Christmas

floating, bouncing drops

Drops of water can be stable on the water’s surface for many minutes if you put the water on a loudspeaker, more info on how to create these at home here.

You may have noticed them before: balls of liquid dancing on the surface of your coffee (or tea) that seem to last for ages before being absorbed into the drink? Perhaps you have added milk to your coffee and noticed that it took some time before the milk entered into the brew?

It turns out, there’s some very interesting physics that is happening whenever you add milk to your tea or when you are preparing a pour-over. It can link coffee to wine and to quantum mechanics. It is worth taking a closer look at these drops.

You may remember that you could use a loud speaker to make droplets of coffee bounce on a cup of the same. The vibrations in the cup meant that the air between the droplet and the drink never got squeezed out of the space between them. So, rather than coalesce, the drop jumped up and down on the coffee surface before finally disappearing under. This type of bouncing bauble has been shown to behave in similar ways to quantum particles in wave-particle duality. An analogue of quantum physics in the macroscopic droplets on the surface of your drink.

But that type of bauble required the use of a loud speaker (or some similar way of generating vibrations on the surface of the coffee). What if you could ‘bounce’ a drop of coffee on a cup of coffee without any external props like speakers? Well, it turns out that you can. In November 2017 a group of researchers showed how a temperature difference between a drop falling into a drink and the drink itself could result in the drop appearing to float on the surface of the drink for many seconds. The obvious example was cold milk into a cup of coffee (or tea). But I think that it may also happen in a V60 when you prepare a pour over, more on that below.

science in a V60

Bubbles of liquid dancing on the surface of a brewing coffee.

The idea is quite simple. If there is a temperature difference between the drop and the coffee, when the drop approaches the coffee, there will be thermal gradients across the drop/cup system. Surface tension is temperature dependent: the higher the temperature, the weaker the surface tension. Differences in surface tension across the surface of a liquid result in compensating liquid flows (one of the best places to see this is in a glass of wine, but there’s also a great party-trick experiment you can do to demonstrate it which is here). So, because there is a temperature difference across the surface area of the droplet (owing to the difference between the droplet and the cup), there will be liquid flows set up within the drop. These flows are like circulating vortices which draw the surrounding air into the gap between the drop and the cup and so prevent the existing air between the drop and the cup from escaping. If the air has nowhere to escape to, the drop can’t merge with the drink, in fact it ‘levitates’ for a number of seconds.

The authors suggest that this is a reason that you can often see rain drops staying on the top of puddles or ponds before being subsumed into the water, or why you can see the cream (or milk) stay as globules on the surface of your coffee (or tea). And so I wonder, could this also be the explanation for an odd phenomenon that I sometimes notice while brewing coffee in my V60. Perhaps you have seen this too? After some time, the new drops of filtered coffee impacting on the surface skit along to the edge of the jug. They stay as balls of coffee on the coffee’s surface for quite some time before becoming part of the brew. You can see a photo of some of these droplets above. Initially I thought that this was because the surface of the coffee had started to vibrate with the impacting droplets. But it is also possible that it could be this temperature effect. As the (brewed) coffee in the jug would be cooler than the water dripping into it from the filter, there would be a temperature difference between the droplet and the coffee but the reverse of the milk-coffee situation. The drop would be warmer than the coffee it’s dripping into. The authors of the study suggested that it was the magnitude of the temperature difference that was the key, not the sign of the temperature difference. So that would fit with the V60 observations seen previously. However how would you show which effect (vibration or temperature difference) is responsible for the behaviour?

Enjoy playing with your tea, coffee and V60s. Do let me know the results of your experiments. Is it a vibration thing or does the temperature difference have to be there to begin with? Let me know what you think is going on.

I am also grateful to Amoret Coffee for alerting me to this story in the first place through Twitter. If you come across some interesting coffee-science, please let me know, either here in the comments section (moderated, please be patient), or on Twitter or Facebook.




Coffee, chaos and computing

Have you ever noticed drops of coffee skipping across the surface of your coffee as you have been preparing a V60? Or watched as globules of tea dance on the resonating surface of a take-away dragged across a table top? The dancing drops can be seen in this video of coffee being prepared in a V60:

These droplets are the result of some fascinating physics. Although we have encountered them on the Daily Grind before (here and here), the more physicists study them, the more surprises they throw up. While the droplets can be considered particles, they are guided around the coffee pot by the surface waves they create as they bounce. In a sense they are a macroscopic example of wave-particle coexistence. There is a significant temptation to explore whether they have relevance for the concept in quantum physics of wave-particle duality. But another aspect of this wave-particle coexistence has recently been shown to produce a different and unexpected connection. A connection between chaos and computing. And as you can create these droplets in coffee, perhaps we could say a connection between coffee, chaos and computing.

floating, bouncing drops

Drops of water can be stable on the water’s surface for much longer than 1 minute if you put the water on a loudspeaker, more info on how to create these at home here.

It is fairly simple to create these surface droplets in coffee at home. The secret to getting stable droplets on the surface is to create a vibration, a wave, on the surface of the coffee liquid. The droplets that then form on (or are introduced to) the surface ‘bounce’ on this wave. If you wanted to create surface droplets reliably at home, you would put your coffee on a loud speaker. I suspect that the reason that they appear in a V60 is that the first drops set up a standing wave on the surface of the coffee that acts to support later drops as they encounter the surface. If anyone has a different theory, please do let me know.

But how is it possible that these bouncing droplets connect chaos theory and computing? It is a consequence of the way that the globules of coffee on the surface interact with the waves that guide them around the coffee. Consider for one moment a particle bouncing around a confined space (the traditional example is of a ball on a billiards table). On an ordinary table, the billiard ball will behave quite predictably, start it off aimed roughly at the side of the table and it will bounce in an easily describable way. But if you make the ends curved or put circular objects in the middle of the table for the ball to bounce off, small differences in initial direction can result in large differences in the final path of the ball (for more details and an animation see here). The billiard ball behaves chaotically, and the initial path cannot be found from the final position, there is no way to re-trace the path of the ball, it is not “time-reversible”.

science in a V60

A still from the video above showing three drops of coffee on the surface.

The droplet bouncing on the liquid surface appears to move chaotically, just as the billiard ball on a circular table. However, unlike the billiard ball, the droplet is not a mere particle, but a particle linked to a self-generated surface wave. Each time the droplet bounces on the surface, it creates a small wave, like ripples on a pond. The path taken by the droplet is a complex interaction between this self-generated wave, the vibration keeping the droplet bouncing and the droplet itself. This means that if you are able to shift the phase of the bounce by 180º (meaning, that rather than bounce on an upward motion of the surface, the drop bounces on a downward motion or vice versa), the bouncing droplet not only reverses the direction it travels in, it retraces its path. Rather than behave as the chaotic billiard ball, the path taken by the seemingly chaotic globule of coffee can be exactly reversed.

Which is where the link with computing comes in. It is as if each “bounce” of the droplet “writes” information on the surface of the coffee in the form of a wave. The subsequent bounces “read” the information while the reversal of the direction of the bouncing droplet “erases” the stored information by creating a surface wave opposite to the initial one. The authors of the recent paper suggest that “in that sense [the walking droplet can] be termed as a wave Turing machine”, giving the final link to computing.

Whether or not this turns out to be useful for computing is, to me, almost irrelevant. What is interesting is that such a simple phenomenon, that anyone who makes pour-over coffee should have seen fairly often, is linked to such complex, and fundamental physics. If you would like to read more, there is a great summary article here while the actual paper is here.