Blaise Pascal once wrote of the benefits of contemplating the vast, “infinite sphere”, of Nature before considering the opposite infinity, that of the minute¹. And although the subject of today’s Daily Grind involves neither infinitesimally small nor infinitely large, a consideration of biscuits and coffee can, I think lead to what Pascal described as “wonder” at the science of the very small and the fairly large.

The problem was that my biscuits went wrong. Fiddling about with the recipe had resulted in the biscuit dough expanding along the tray as the biscuits cooked. Each dough ball collapsed into a squashed mass of biscuit, each expanding until it was stopped by the tray-wall or the other biscuits in the tray. When the biscuits came out of the oven they were no longer biscuits in the plural but one big biscuit stretched across the tray. However looking at them more closely, it was clear that each biscuit had retained some of its identity and the super-biscuit was not really just one big biscuit but instead a 2D crystal of biscuits. The biscuits had formed a hexagonal lattice. For roughly circular elements (such as biscuits), this is the most efficient way to fill a space, as you may notice if you try to efficiently cut pie-circles out of pastry.

Of course, what we see in 2D has analogues in 3D (how do oranges stack in a box?) and what happens on the length scale of biscuits and oranges happens on smaller length scales too from coffee beans to atoms. Each atom stacking up like oranges in a box (or indeed coffee beans), to form regular, repeating structures known as crystal structures. To be described as a crystal, there has to be an atomic arrangement that repeats in a regular pattern. For oranges in a box, this could be what is known as “body centred cubic”, where the repeating unit is made up of 8 oranges that occupy the corners of a cube with one in the centre. Other repeating units could be hexagonal or tetragonal. It turns out that, in 3D, there are 14 possible such repeating units. Each of the crystals that you find in nature, from salt to sugar to chocolate and diamond can be described by one of these 14 basic crystal types. The type of crystal then determines the shape of the macroscopic object. Salt flakes that we sprinkle on our lunch for example are often cubic because of the underlying cubic structure on the atomic scale. Snowflakes have 6-fold symmetry because of the underlying hexagonal structure of ice.

It is possible to grow your own salt and sugar crystals. My initial experiments have not yet worked out well, but, if and when they do, expect a video (sped up of course!). In the meantime, perhaps we could take Pascal’s advice and wonder at the very (though not infinitesimally) small and biscuits. And if you’re wondering about where coffee comes into this? How better to contemplate your biscuit crystals than with a steaming mug of freshly brewed coffee?

¹Blaise Pascal, Pensées, XV 199