On dew, greenhouses & IR thermometers: Coffee & Science at Amoret

starting with a coffee
Always good to start with a coffee. The evening started with two coffees (from Ethiopia and El Salvador). What will be the effects of climate change on the coffee industry?

January 2020 was the 6th warmest on record in the UK, with a mean temperature 2C higher than the 1981-2010 average. Early in February it was announced that Antartica had recorded the highest temperature ever recorded there of 18.3C, beating the previous record of 17.5C in March 2015. The atmospheric concentration of CO2 in January 2020 was measured to be 413 ppm following the trend that has seen the atmospheric CO2 concentration increase more than 10% from just the year 2000. That the polar regions would warm faster than other parts of the planet had long been a prediction of global warming based on increased CO2 emissions. Nonetheless, to see the figures reported quite so starkly was startling.

Each month brings new headlines and more concerns about whether we are responding fast enough to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2C. And yet, the greenhouse effect was proposed back in 1824; the idea that carbon dioxide (and water vapour) were greenhouse gases suggested during the 1850s (1,2) and it was back in 1895 that Arrhenius predicted that doubling the atmospheric levels of CO2 (relative to 1890s levels) would result in a global temperature increase of 5-8C.

So given that it is such an established theory, why are we still arguing about it? And, more importantly perhaps, what has this to do with coffee?

It is, in many ways, an ideal connection for the theme for one of the Coffee & Science evenings that we’ve been holding at Amoret Coffee in Notting Hill. And so it was that a group of us got together over coffee to discuss the greenhouse effect and its links to coffee.

coffee bowl pour over
The first connections can be seen with the condensation. How does dew form, and why does it suggest that space is cold?

The first coffee-greenhouse connection is in the condensation. When you make a pour over, or even if you pour your coffee into a cold mug, you will notice the condensation forming on the colder glass (or ceramic) surfaces as the steam evaporates. We know that the droplets form because the temperature of the surface is below that at which water vapour will re-condense into liquid. Technically, this temperature is known as the dew point. And it is partly to dew that we owe our understanding of the greenhouse effect.

Back in 1814, William Charles Wells made a series of detailed observations about how, where and when dew formed. He was able to show that more dew formed on clear (or not terribly cloudy) nights and on surfaces that were exposed to the sky; they were space facing. Which brings us to a second coffee connection: just as your coffee cup warms you by radiating its heat (in the infra red) to your hands, so all objects with heat radiate their energy out. Wells realised that this meant that space was cold because, just as a coffee cup if it is not being heated and not surrounded by reflecting material (think about the inside of a thermos flask) will radiate its heat and get cold* so the surfaces of the earth, if there is no energy coming in from space and no surfaces above them to reflect their heat back at them, will also get cold.

If space is cold, you can calculate what the temperature of the Earth should be if the energy it is losing is balanced by the energy it gains from the Sun and when you do this, it turns out that the mean temperature of the Earth should be -18C or about 30C lower than that observed**.

Earth from space, South America, coffee
One common home.
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

This leads to the idea that there is a natural greenhouse effect whereby gases in the Earth’s atmosphere form a layer which lets through a large amount of the energy from the Sun but lets a lot less energy escape back through it from the Earth (owing to the lower frequency of the radiation being emitted by the Earth compared with that coming in from the Sun). This ‘natural’ greenhouse effect results in a warming of the Earth to a delicate balance and to the temperatures that we experience on Earth***. Fairly clearly, if this delicate balance is disturbed by adding extra greenhouse gases to the atmosphere it will lead to a warming effect (as Arrhenius predicted back in 1895), the question is how much and how fast?

We were very fortunate to be joined for the evening by Dr Robin Lamboll of the Grantham Institute of Imperial College London. Robin explained the latest science and understanding of the effects of climate change and of adding increased CO2 into the atmosphere. Particularly highlighting how an increase in CO2 leads to an increase in water vapour (owing to the initial temperature increase produced by the CO2) which is itself a greenhouse gas, and so the warming effects of a small amount of CO2 can be amplified by this mechanism.

At this point the conversation diverged away from coffee, not just because Robin is a tea drinker (!) but we moved onto the effects of sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere, local vs global temperature effects and the science of Eunice Newton Foote. We discussed what we know, and what we are just starting to understand, such as how what happens in one part of the world may lead to consequences in other parts of the world (weather wise). We also got to a discussion of albedo and the reflection of heat by ice via playing with a couple of infra red thermometers that we had to hand and the different ways that human eyes and shrimp eyes detect colour. How is this connected to climate change and coffee? I’m afraid that there is a connection but the path to it is a little circuitous for a write up. It’s the sort of thing that pops up when you have a number of people of different backgrounds all contributing to the discussion. This is what, from my point of view, makes these evenings so interesting (and on a personal level induces such pre-event nerves): the fact that the conversation can go in so many directions, with such different contributions from the attendees, that each evening takes on a different character, with a different set of connections and a new set of things to think about. I hope that others feel the same way!

“An Essay on Dew”, Wells book of 1815 summarising his observations on dew. An excellent piece of observational science.

Our next Coffee & Science evening is scheduled for March 2020. Please do sign up to the events list or keep an eye on the Facebook events page to learn details as they are announced. Thanks again to Dr Robin Lamboll for coming along in January. I look forward to seeing both familiar faces and some new people in March.

Bean Thinking’s Evenings of Coffee & Science @ Amoret Coffee are held approximately every 2 months from 5.30 until about 8pm at Amoret Coffee in Notting Hill. More details can be found here.

*Two caveats here: firstly the coffee will also get cold through convection and conduction, the connection is illustrative rather than precise – though were you to put your coffee into a vacuum it would cool via radiative cooling only. Secondly, Wells himself never made the coffee connection but instead considered the latest physics theories about heat.

**In “Introduction to Atmospheric Physics”, David Andrews, (2000)

***For details about how we can know what the temperatures have been over such a time period and the effects of other cyclical temperature variations on the climate, it’s worth reading “The Ice Chronicles” P Mayewski & F White, (2002)

Coffee cup science Observations Sustainability/environmental

Stirring up some climate science

Everything is connected. At least, that is part of the premise of Bean Thinking, where the physics of a coffee cup is used to explore the physics of the wider world. So it was great to stumble upon a new connection that I had not previously appreciated¹.

vortices in coffee
Like the vortices behind a spoon dragged through coffee….

The connection is between climate science and that wonderful pastime of pulling a spoon through coffee and watching the vortices form behind it. Yet the research that revealed this connection was not looking for links between coffee and the atmosphere. Instead the researchers were interested in something seemingly (and hopefully) very far from a coffee cup: rogue waves.

Rogue waves are rare and extremely large waves that have been the subject of mariners tales for many years. Nonetheless, it is only relatively recently that they have become the subject of scientific research, partly because they are so rare and so outside our usual experience that they were thought to be the stuff of myth rather than of science. So it is only now that we are developing an understanding of how it can be that, in amongst a number of smaller waves, a massive wave of 20m height can suddenly appear, apparently out of nowhere. One of the groups looking at this problem investigated the effect of a particular sort of (known) instability on a series of waves in water. However, unlike other research groups, this particular study included the effect of the air above the water as well as the waves themselves.

Small waves seen from Lindisfarne
Rogue waves seem to come out of nowhere. A rogue wave can be 2 or 3 times the height of the other waves in the water at the time. How and why do they form?

Although this sounds a simple idea, modelling water waves in air is actually extremely complex. To do so, the authors of the study had to use a computer simulation of the air-water interface. It is not the sort of problem that can be solved analytically, instead the computer has to crunch through the numerical solutions. In order to start to see what was going on with the rogue waves, the authors had to simulate multiple waves of different amplitudes. Each simulation took weeks to perform. Given that this was only a few years ago (the study was published in 2013), you can start to see why people had previously been approximating water waves as waves in water (without worrying too much about the air interface).

Now here is where the link with coffee comes in. The group modelled waves as a function of steepness and found that, above a critical steepness, the wave breaking caused significant interaction between the air and the water layers. In addition to the bubbles that form when waves break, the movement of the air over the breaking wave formed into a vortex which, when it interacted with the back of the wave created an opposite vortex: a vortex dipole “much like the vortices that form behind a spoon dragged through a cup of coffee“.

Rayleigh Benard cells in clouds
The water droplets that form clouds are often ‘seeded’ by particles of salt or dust, such as the aerosols distributed by the vortices in this wave study. Image shows clouds above the Pacific. Image NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

Just as with the vortices in the coffee cup, vortices were forming in the air behind the wave crest (which acted as the spoon) and travelled upwards through the atmosphere and away from the waves. As each wave broke, a train of vortex dipoles were produced that twirled off into the sky. Imagine a coffee bath and multiple spoons rather than a coffee cup. The authors suggested that these vortices could carry aerosols from the sea (salt, water droplets etc) into the atmosphere. Travelling within the vortices, these tiny particles could travel far further and far higher than we may have expected otherwise. Such aerosols can be critical for cloud formation and so the effect of these breaking waves could be important for climate modelling.

While an undergraduate, I had an opportunity to study a course in atmospheric physics. I remember the lecturer lamenting that while we (as a community, but not really as the students sitting in the lecture theatre at that time) understood atmospheric modelling quite well and that we understood how to model the oceans fairly well, we got problems when we tried to put the two sets of models together. It was clear that something wasn’t quite right. Years later, it seems that at least past of the reason for that is linked to those vortices that you see as you pull your spoon through your coffee cup.

Everything is connected indeed.

A summary of the study can be found here. The abstract (and link to the pdf) of the published paper can be found here. If you do not have access to the journal through a library, an early, but free, version of the paper is here – note though that this version may not include the amendments included after peer review.


¹A quote attributed to Jean-Baptiste Biot (1774-1862), is perhaps relevant here “Nothing is so easy to see than what has been found yesterday, and nothing more difficult than what will be found tomorrow.”

Home experiments

The hot chocolate effect

hot chocolate effect, Raphas
A ready prepared hot chocolate

This is an effect that reveals how sound travels in liquids. It enables us to understand the milk steaming process involved in making lattes and yet, it can be studied in your kitchen. It has an alternative name, “The instant coffee effect”, but we won’t mention that on this website any further. To study it you will need,

1) a mug (cylindrical is preferable),
2) some hot chocolate powder (no, instant coffee really will not do even if it does work)
3) a teaspoon
4) a wooden chopstick (optional, you can use your knuckle)

Make the hot chocolate as you usually would and stir. Then, remove the spoon and repeatedly tap on the bottom of the mug with the wooden chopstick (you could instead use your knuckle). Over the course of about a minute, you will hear the note made by the chopstick rise (not having a musical ear, I will have to trust that this can be by as much as three octaves).

resonator, mouth organ
The length of the pipes in this mouth organ determine the note heard. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum

What is happening? Well, just like an organ pipe, the hot chocolate mug acts as a resonator. As the bottom surface of the hot chocolate is fixed in the mug and the top surface is open to the air, the lowest frequency of sound wave that the hot chocolate resonator sustains is a quarter wavelength. The note that you hear depends not just on the wavelength, but also on the speed of sound in the hot chocolate, and it is this last bit that is changing. When you put in the water and stir, you introduce air bubbles into the drink. With time (and with tapping the bottom surface), the air bubbles leave the hot chocolate. The speed of sound in a hot chocolate/air bubble mixture is lower than the speed of sound in hot chocolate without air bubbles. Consequently, the frequency of the note you hear is higher in the hot chocolate without bubbles than in the former case.

Let’s use this to make a prediction about what happens when a barista steams milk ready for a latte. At first, the steam wand introduces air and bubbles into the mixture but it is not yet warming the milk considerably. From above, we expect that the speed of sound will decrease as the bubbles are introduced. This will have the effect of making the ‘note’ that you hear on steaming the milk, lower. At the same time the resonator size is increasing (as the new bubbles push the liquid up the sides of the pitcher). This too will act to decrease the note that is heard as you steam (though the froth will also act to damp the vibration, we’ll neglect this effect for the first approximation). At a certain point, the steam wand will start to heat the milk. The speed of sound increases with the temperature of the milk and so the note will get higher as the milk gets warmer.

So this is my prediction, musically inclined baristas can tell me if there is any truth in this:

1) On initially putting the steam wand into the cold milk, the tone of the note heard as the milk is steamed, will decrease.
2) This decrease will continue for some time until the milk starts to get warm when the note increases again.
3) Towards the end of the process, the note heard on steaming the milk will continue to increase until you stop frothing.
4) It should be possible, by listening to the milk being steamed, to know when the milk is ready for your latte just by listening to it (if you are experienced and always use similar amounts of milk per latte drink).

So, let me know if this is right and, if it is wrong, why not let me know what you think is happening instead. I’d be interested to know your insights into the hot chocolate effect in a milk pitcher.

Home experiments Observations

Levitating water

V60 from Leyas
Time to look more closely at the surface of your black coffee.

Have you ever sat watching the steam that forms above a hot Americano? Beneath the swirling steam clouds you can occasionally see patterns of a white mist that seem to hover just above the dark brew. Bean Thinking is about taking time to notice what occurs in a coffee cup and yet I admit, I had seen these mists and thought that it was something that was just associated with the evaporation of the water and that “someone”, “somewhere” had probably explained it. So it was entirely right that I was recently taken to task (collectively with others who have observed this phenomenon and taken the same attitude) for this assumption by the authors of this paper who wrote “The phenomenon that we studied here can be observed everyday and should have been noticed by many scientists, yet very few people appear to have imagined such fascinating phenomena happening in a teacup., espresso grind
The water particles in the white mist are a similar size to the smallest particles in an espresso grind. Photo courtesy of, (CC Attribution, No Derivs). The coin shown is a US nickel of diameter 21.21 mm

The authors of the study show that the white mists (these “fascinating phenomena”) are, in fact, layers of water drops that have a typical diameter of around 10 μm (which is roughly the size of the smallest particles in an espresso grind). Although the white mists exist above tea and even hot water as well as coffee, they are probably easiest to see against the black surface of the Americano.

More surprising than the fairly uniform distribution of water droplet size though is the fact that the authors of this study showed that the droplets were levitating above the coffee. Each water droplet was somehow literally hovering above the surface of the coffee at a height of between 10 – 100 μm (which is, coincidentally, roughly the particle size distribution in an espresso grind).

white mists, slow science
You can (just about) see the white mists over the surface of this cup of tea (which is a still from the video below)

One of the questions that the authors of the paper have not yet managed to answer is what is causing this levitation? Could it be the pressure of the hot coffee evaporating that keeps these particles held aloft? This would explain the observation that the mists form patterns similar to those caused by (heat) convection currents. Alternatively perhaps the droplets are charged and are kept away from the coffee by electrostatic repulsion, an explanation that is suggested by the behaviour of the droplets when near a statically charged object (eg. hair comb, balloon, try it). Perhaps the levitation is caused by the droplets spinning and inducing an air cushion under them? Why not design some experiments and try to find out. It would be great if we can drink hot black coffee in the name of science. Let me know the results of your observations in the comments section below. In the meanwhile, here is a video of the white mists in tea, enjoy your coffee:

You can read the study at: Umeki et al., Scientific Reports, 5, 8046, (2015)


Coffee cup science General

Copper latte

Brew&Bread, latte art Sun, KL latte art
Taken at Brew & Bread, One City Mall, Subang, KL, Malaysia

Pop into any cafe and order a latte and chances are you’re going to see some great latte art. With the number of good baristas around competing to produce the best and most consistent latte art, it is easy to see some good art while waking up of a morning. Brew & Bread is a cafe with a couple of outlets in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. One of their customers sent me these images of their latte art (via Bean thinking on Facebook), which I think are among the finest examples I have seen of latte art being served, as a matter of course, at cafés. Apparently the people at Brew & Bread take their latte art very seriously, so if you find yourself in One City Mall, Subang or Kota Kemuning in Kuala Lumpur, do take the opportunity to pop in.

Not being a barista I can only guess at the skill that it takes to produce such great images as those at Brew & Bread. As a scientist though I can see some connections between latte art and copper mining. Or rather, the link between good latte art and bad copper mining (and vice versa). How? It’s all about the bubbles.

The small bubbles in the foam on the left trap coffee between them. The larger bubbles in the foam on the right allow coffee particles (and water) to leak and don't trap them so well.
The small bubbles in the foam on the left trap coffee between them. The larger bubbles in the foam on the right allow coffee particles to drain by gravity and don’t trap them so well.

Now, I am on dangerous ground here because I have no experience in making latte art, nor really in steaming milk, so I hope that any baristas out there will leap in and leave comments if I have something awry in my description of how latte art is sustained. However, from various videos and how-to’s available online it seems that a key component for good latte art is making the milk into a micro-foam; a ‘velvety’ structure of tiny bubbles. From a physics perspective this makes sense. As the milk is first introduced into the espresso it picks up the crema on the espresso and captures the coffee-liquid mixture between the surfaces of the bubbles of the froth. A large number of very small bubbles will trap the coffee liquid and particles around the bubbles very well (see diagram). If the milk has too many large bubbles, not only will the mouth-feel get affected, the coffee itself is not held and trapped so well within the bubbles. When the art is about to be created, the barista slows the rate of pouring such that the coffee does not get pulled up with the milk and instead the milk foam is allowed to float on top of the espresso where it remains white. It is this contrast between the trapped coffee in the fast-poured milk and the pure milk of the more slowly poured milk that leads to the contrasts of what is known as latte art.

beer foam, bubble size
The bubbles get larger as they move higher up in a foam column. Shown here in a narrow glass of Corsendonk Agnus (beer)

Now consider copper mining. It is an unfortunate fact that we as a society are very reliant on mined products including copper. Copper is the backbone of our electricity network meaning that if you are reading this at all, you are relying on copper that has been mined somewhere in the world. Mining is a fact of our modern way of life. The question is how to reduce its environmental impact to a minimum. One way to minimise the environmental aspect of mining would be to ensure that it is as efficient as possible. Copper is often found in two forms, a relatively easy to extract oxide and the sulphides of copper which are harder to extract. The ‘froth flotation’ technique has been developed to maximise the extraction of these sulphides by using a foaming vat in a process that is the exact opposite of latte art. The copper sulphide rocks are ground until they are very small (around 0.05mm diameter) whereupon they are reacted with chemicals that make them hydrophobic (resistant to bonding with water). Other particles and rocks, that are mined together with the copper sulphides, do not react with the chemicals and so are less hydrophobic. The resulting ‘grind’ is mixed into a slurry and then introduced into a chamber which is aerated to form bubbles. As they are hydrophobic, the copper sulphide particles attach themselves to the newly formed bubbles to reduce their contact with water. The bubbles are then carried up through the chamber, taking the copper with them. The small bubbles at the bottom of the vat trap a lot of water and waste material between them. As the bubbles move upwards through the vat, they get larger (by combining with each other) and, whereas the copper sulphides, which are chemically attached to the bubbles remain with the larger bubbles, the liquid and waste material drains out towards the bottom of the tank. The copper products can then just be skimmed off the top of the vat. Unlike latte art, larger bubbles are useful in froth flotation in order that particles do not get trapped between the bubbles. What is good for the copper mining is bad for the latte art and vice versa. The more we know about the bubbles in foams (in both latte art and froth flotation) the more efficient and the more aesthetically beautiful our world can be.

Another from Brew & Bread
Art for Christmas, another piece of great latte art from Brew & Bread

I would be very interested to know your thoughts on why a microfoam is needed for good latte art or indeed, any aspect of latte making. Please do feel free to share any good photos of latte art (or cafe recommendations) either here in the comments section or on Bean thinking’s Facebook page. There will be another latte art article in the New Year so new photographs (or cafe recommendations) would be greatly appreciated.

With special thanks to Oh Ying Ying for the photographs from Brew&Bread.

Coffee cup science Observations

The attractive power of coffee

Just imagine, you are trying to fill 3 espresso cups at once but all you have is a portafilter with two spouts and a balloon? Ok, that sounds unlikely. The experiment that I’m going to describe however will allow you to bend a stream of coffee with a balloon. Moreover, in order to work it relies on sub-atomic particles. What a party trick; investigating sub-atomic physics while filling two cups with one stream of coffee. It could be mind bending, instead it is coffee bending.

What happens?

When you rub an inflated balloon on your (dry) hair, electrons are transferred from your hair to the rubber balloon. Electrons are, of course, sub-atomic particles and, together with protons and neutrons, they build up atoms. As these electrons carry an electric charge, the balloon becomes the source of a static electric field.

Thanks to Artemisdraws for the schematic
The electric field from the balloon aligns the water molecules such that the coffee gets attracted towards the balloon.

Water molecules are composed of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen each. They are electrically neutral. However water is also a strongly polar molecule, meaning that when it is subjected to an electric field, the molecules will tend to align such that they are more positively charged closer to the negatively charged balloon and more negatively charged further away from the balloon. This charge distribution means that the stream of water gets attracted towards the balloon. The amount that the coffee stream bends is dependent on the strength of the electric field from the balloon and the mass of the stream which is still being pulled down by gravity.

The video suggests using cold brew coffee when you test this at home. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, if the balloon gets too close to the coffee stream, it can get splashed. There is a chance that this may burst the balloon. Secondly, and more fundamentally, the water molecules are more agitated at higher energies (temperatures). This means that thermal agitation weakens the average dipole moment of the water thereby weakening the attraction between the coffee stream and the balloon. In this effect as in its taste, cold brew is a stronger drink than your ordinary hot filter.

Let me know if you try this and how you get on. It would be particularly interesting to see any attempts made on bending coffee from an espresso machine. My thanks, as always, to artemisdraws for the helpful schematic shown here.

Coffee cup science Coffee review General

Helium in your coffee?

C-C bond, Esters N16
The sign board at Esters. Note the zig zag underline

As a website based on the physics inside a coffee cup, it was only a matter of time before I visited Esters in Stoke Newington. The name has significance to anyone interested in the physics (or chemistry) of coffee and the signboard outside the shop confirmed it. Under the name, there is a zig zag underline that represents part of a molecular structure. The end of each straight line signifies a carbon atom which is bonded to its neighbouring carbon atom by either a single (one line) or a double (two lines) bond. Inside you can enjoy (as I did) single estate coffees that can be prepared (if there are 2 or 3 of you) in a Chemex, appropriately enough. As I left Esters, I wandered through a local park where, near the entrance to the park, were two helium balloons caught in a tree. One had deflated, the other floated, dejectedly, just beneath the branches. Such a timely observation! The story of the discovery of helium connects the signboard at Esters, a cup of coffee and helium itself, how could that be? You’ll just have to keep reading to find out.

neon sign, light emission
The colours of “neon signs” depend on the particular gas (eg. neon) in the tubes

Helium is the second most plentiful element in the universe but on earth it is relatively rare. It was therefore not discovered on earth but, instead, by looking at the Sun. Its ‘discovery’ in the Sun was due to the way in which atoms interact with light. The atoms in each element emit (or absorb) light at specific frequencies. These frequencies correspond to different colours. It is this property of atoms that creates colours such as the distinctive hue of neon lights. In 1868 two astronomers were observing the same solar eclipse. Independently of each other, they noticed a distinct emission of light from the Sun at a wavelength of 587.49 nanometres (yellow-ish). This emission line corresponded to no element that had been found on earth and so one of them, Norman Lockyer suggested naming this new element helium, after ‘Helios’ the Greek god of the Sun. Helium was not found on earth for another 27 years when William Ramsay isolated it from a uranium based compound. The gas that Ramsay extracted, absorbed and emitted light at the same frequency as the two astronomers had observed for the element in the Sun. Helium had been found on earth.

Think of energy levels as rungs on a ladder. Image credit ©
Think of energy levels as rungs on a ladder. Image credit ©

Atoms absorb (and emit) light because of the way that the electrons in the atoms are arranged around the atomic nucleus. The electrons exist in discrete energy states that we can imagine as rungs on a ladder.  Electrons move between the states by absorbing, or emitting, light at specific energies (corresponding to a step up, or a step down on the ladder). As the energy of light depends on its frequency, the colour of an element depends on the spacing of the rungs of this atomic ladder, which is different for different elements. The energy ladder of helium atoms means that helium emits light at 587.49 nanometres. In organic molecules (ie. all the molecules that make up you and I and coffee), it is often the double carbon bonds that provide the energy ‘step’ in the visible range of light. Depending on the number of carbon atoms that are double bonded and the number in the molecule that are not, the energy step is tweaked slightly so that it will absorb in the red region in some materials and in the blue in others. We have our link between the sign at Esters and the observations of the astronomers.

However the explanation above depends on knowing some properties of electrons in atoms and some details of quantum mechanics. Neither electrons (discovered in 1897) nor quantum mechanics were known to the discoverers of helium. How did the astronomers recognise that their observation of a particular colour of light meant that they had identified a new element? Part of the answer must be based on experience. Experimentalists had already found out that different materials absorbed (and emitted) light at different but specific, frequencies. The other part of the answer brings us to our link with coffee.

A milk ring in water. Once it was thought that atoms might look like this.
A milk ring in water. Once it was thought that atoms might look like this (but a lot smaller).

In the video Coffee Smoke rings, we can make rings of milk travel through coffee or water. These rings are vortices which are closed up on themselves to form a doughnut shape. Mathematically, the vortex ring is a completely stable structure, it never decays. You could argue that the reason that it decays in the video is because we live in a non-ideal world with non-ideal liquids (milk and water). Returning to the mathematical world, each vortex ring will vibrate at specific, (resonance) frequencies dependent on its diameter, just like a bell rings with a note dependent on the size of the bell. So, even without knowing about electrons or quantum mechanics, it becomes conceivable that the atoms that go to make up a substance have specific resonance frequencies. If you imagine that atoms are in fact extremely small vortex rings (of the kind you find in a coffee cup), the model even has a predictive power. In 1867 William Thomson proposed such a “vortex atom” model and suggested that the distinct vibrations of the rings led to energy levels, like the ladders of later quantum mechanics and exactly of the sort that were observed by the astronomers. By considering that a sodium atom was made out of two inter-locked vortex rings, the light emission of sodium could even be accounted for. It was therefore entirely conceivable that elements would have distinct fingerprints as the astronomers had observed for this new element, helium.

We have therefore found the connection between the signboard at Esters, milk rings in a coffee cup and the discovery of helium. You would be forgiven for thinking that part of the connection is purely historical, after all, our current models of the atom do not rely on vortex rings at all. However, there is a relatively new theory called “string theory”. More fundamental than atoms, string theory proposes that there exist ‘strings’ that may be closed on themselves and that have specific vibrations that depend on their size and geometry. Sound familiar? Perhaps the connection with the milk rings lives on.

Coffee cup science General

Does nature hate a vacuum?

The problem tea pot
The problem teapot

A few weeks ago, while having lunch with colleagues, one of them was complaining about his problems with his morning tea. So desperate he was to get his cup, he kept tipping the teapot to steeper and steeper angles in an attempt to increase the rate of pouring. Unfortunately, when he did so, the flow out of the spout became chaotic and, rather than having a nice cup of tea, he had a mess on the table. Another colleague suggested (sensibly) that it was a problem with the air-hole at the top of the teapot, not enough air was getting into the pot to enable the tea to flow smoothly out. In fact, my colleague’s tea pot problem turned out to have a different cause that will be featured in the Daily Grind in a few weeks. However, it did get me thinking about the purpose of the air hole in take-away coffee cups.

On the lid of a take-away cup are two holes. One, for drinking from while in a rush to get from A to B, the other, a very small air inlet hole that allows the coffee to flow nicely from the drinking hole. The requirement for such an air inlet has been known for millenia, however it was not understood why it was needed. Traditionally it was explained by saying that “nature abhors a vacuum”, the idea being that the coffee could not leave the cup because if it did so it would leave a vacuum which nature ‘does not allow’.

Take-away cup, plastic lid, equalisation of air pressure
The lid of a take-away cup has two holes. One for drinking from, the other to let air in.

An immediate problem with such an argument is that it implies that coffee has a will; nature ‘does not want’ a vacuum. Indeed for Rene Descartes (of “I think therefore I am” fame) this was a key problem with the traditional explanation. Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650, although for twenty years before that he had lived in Holland. For Europeans, the Dutch were fairly fast off the mark in terms of the introduction of coffee into their society. They had managed to get hold of a coffee plant in 1616 but only started properly growing coffee for themselves (in Ceylon!) in 1658, a few years after Descartes’ death. It is therefore unlikely that Descartes ever had the opportunity to try much coffee. Instead, when Descartes thought about the importance of air holes, the example that he used was a wine cask. In ‘The World‘, written in about 1632 he states “When the wine in a cask does not flow from the bottom opening because the top is completely closed, it is improper to say, as they ordinarily do, that this takes place through ‘fear of a vacuum’. We are well aware that the wine has no mind to fear anything; and even if it did, I do not know for what reason it could be apprehensive of this vacuum…”

Oranda, fish, Descartes water fish example, air pressure equalisation
The space behind a swimming fish is immediately filled with water as the fish moves forward.

For Descartes, the reason that an air hole was needed in the wine cask was not because nature hated a vacuum but because, on the contrary, nature was completely ‘full’ of matter. Whether that matter was wine, air or the material that made up the barrel, the world was full of ‘stuff’, meaning that if wine came out of the cask the air that it displaced had to go somewhere. Having nowhere else in the universe to go, this displaced air would have to go into the region of the cask that the wine had just vacated. Descartes compared this movement of air into the top of the cask to the displacement of water by fish as they swam through water. We may not notice the water in front of the fish moving to the back as the fish swims through the water but we know that the water must fill the empty space left by the moving fish. In the same way we do not perceive the air to flow from the outlet of the wine cask to the top of the barrel, but we know that it must (because, Descartes thought, it had nowhere else that it could go).

This explanation had far reaching consequences for Descartes world view. He could explain gravity and the motion of the planets as a consequence of the planets moving in a giant vortex of a substance around the Sun. The image of the solar system as a giant cup of coffee being stirred is one that the Daily Grind is sure to return to at some point. For the moment though, we need to step back and think. We know that the universe is not ‘full’ in the sense meant by Descartes and so this part of his explanation must be wrong, but why is it that blocking the air inlet hole stops the flow of water out of the cup?

coffee cup science, coffeecupscience, everydayphysics
Whether coffee leaves the cup or not depends on a balance of forces

Think about the schematic shown here. Gravity is pulling on the mass of coffee in the cup through the drinking hole. Air pressure is acting against this pull, pushing the coffee back into the cup (if you ever wanted a demonstration of how powerful air pressure can be, try sealing an empty water bottle before coming down a mountain or at the start of the descent in a plane). There is also air pressure inside the cup acting downwards on the coffee. With the air hole open, this air pressure is fairly equal to that outside of the cup. The inside air pressure cancels the outside air pressure, gravity wins and the coffee comes out. Imagine now closing the air hole. No air can get into the cup so, after a little coffee leaves, the air pressure inside the cup drops to less than the air pressure outside of the cup. This time, the air pressure outside the cup pushes the coffee back into the cup more than gravity pulls it out and the coffee stays in the cup. Can we test this explanation? One way to test the theory would be to somehow change the pressure inside the cup. Using two identical cups (which I got from the very friendly people with good coffee at Iris and June), the video below shows two experiments. In the first, both cups are filled with the same amount of cold ‘coffee’ (no coffee is ever wasted in these videos, dregs are recycled). The second experiment shows one cup holding cold coffee, one holding steaming coffee. Why might these experiments support the theory that it is air pressure that keeps the coffee in? Perhaps you can think of better experiments, or improvements to this one, let me know in the comments section below, but most of all, enjoy your coffee while you do so.

(note that the cups had got a bit water damaged through practise runs before filming. Note also that for this experiment to be meaningful, you would need to repeat the measurements many times so that you can build up a statistical picture, but that would make the video quite boring).


A note of thanks

review, referee, thanksThe world of scientific research is supported by a vast volunteer network. Yes, scientists get paid to research their subject but in order to let the wider community know about their results, they have to publish it. To filter out the good papers from the bad or mediocre, working scientists volunteer to review papers submitted for publication. Each ‘reviewing’ scientist is anonymous to the authors of the paper, though the authors are not (yet?) anonymous to the reviewers.

At its best, the scientists reviewing the paper help the authors of the submitted manuscript to refine their papers, suggesting thoughts, other experiments or methods of phrasing that may better capture what the authors had intended. The review process is not just essential for filtering the good from the bad, it is extremely helpful for working scientists to have the input of someone, not involved with their research, commenting on it and trying to improve it. Although it is far from perfect, the review process is indispensable.

Which brings me onto Bean thinking. As a working scientist, I have got very used to the benefits that ‘peer’ review can bring. Therefore, over the past month, I asked 8 physicists and 8 non-physicists to review Bean thinking. These sixteen people were asked to critically read Bean thinking and let me know what they think. Unlike the scientific review process, it wasn’t anonymous, I knew who they were. But I also chose them because I respected each of their opinions and thought that each of these sixteen people would truly tell me what they thought. In this way, I hoped that Bean thinking could be refined to make it more engaging and entertaining while remaining scientifically rigorous. These sixteen got nothing tangible in return for their help which is why they are getting a mention on this page.

You know who you are, I know who you are. I am very grateful to all of you who took the time to read over and comment on Bean thinking. I have tried to take on board as many of your comments as possible (note the number of new photos on the pages!). Obviously, there are some comments that I haven’t been able to incorporate and any errors in the science (of which I hope there aren’t many) remain mine. Nonetheless, I am very grateful to you sixteen (and a few others who came in along the way). I hope you continue to visit Bean thinking, let me know what you think and join the discussion. And to all visitors, please leave any thoughts about the new look Bean thinking including any ideas for experiments that could be included in “Coffee cup science” in  the comments section below.

Coffee cup science Observations

Musical Coffee

Tasting notes from Finca San Cayetano coffee
Tasting notes from Hasbean’s Finca San Cayetano coffee

A few weeks ago, I chanced upon an article “Listening to Stars Twinkle” (link) via Mr Gluckin on Twitter. At very nearly the same time, I received in the post, a new coffee from Hasbean (link) which suggested an entertaining coffee (see pic).  A perfect time to have some fun with coffee, I think.

The article was about ‘stellar seismology’: Understanding the inside of a star by watching sound travel through it. We know from daily experience that the way sound travels through air depends on the temperature of the atmosphere.  Sounds can appear to travel further on cold evenings than on warm nights for example (for an explanation of this effect click here). Conventional seismology on earth uses the same principles. By measuring how sound is deflected as it travels through the earth, geologists can work out the type of rock in the interior of the earth (and whether the rock is solid or molten).

Burmese bell, resonating bells, stars
A bell rings with a note that depends on the composition (bronze) and shape of the bell. © Trustees of the British Museum

Unlike these earthly examples though, ‘listening’ to a star is not so easy.  We cannot hear stars vibrate as sound travels through them. We can only view them from a distance.  It is therefore very fortunate that the surface of a star will start to move noticeably as the sound travelling through the star hits one of the star’s ‘resonances’. Just as a bell has a tone depending on its shape and what it is made of, so a star has a series of ‘notes’ that depend on the composition and temperature of the star. These ‘notes’ are the star’s resonances and we can find out what they are by watching the different patterns on the star’s surface. Each resonance has a distinct, signature pattern which is dependent on the ‘tone’ of the resonance, much like the patterns you can see on the surface of a coffee by dragging a take-away cup across a table. The temperature and composition of the interior of the star determine the ‘notes’ of the resonances and so, by looking at the surface vibrate we can work out what is inside a star.

Can we illustrate this with a cup of coffee?  Of course we had fun trying.

In the video, the hot coffee is poured into a take-away cup that I have previously made into a loud speaker.  In the next few days I will upload details of the making of the speaker onto the Daily Grind. Hooking up the speaker to my phone, I could easily play music through the cup (and through the coffee).  But by connecting the cup-speaker to the phone with a tone generator app installed (free and downloadable from the app store for iPhones and probably similar for Android phones) I could generate single ‘notes’ through the speaker from 1Hz to 20 kHz.  Our ears are only sensitive to frequencies from approximately 20 Hz-20 kHz so below 20 Hz we cannot hear the notes being played.

home made loud speaker, coffee cup, kitchen table physics
The coffee cup speaker in an improved design

Nonetheless between 12 and 13 Hz, the surface of the coffee started to show a lot of movement. Although the distinct patterns of a resonance could not be seen (perhaps the speaker, lighting or other experimental conditions needed optimising), we can clearly see the coffee resonate as the surface is vibrating so strongly at these frequencies. As the tone was changed to down to 10Hz or up to 14Hz, the vibrations faded. The ‘resonance’ of the hot coffee filled cup-speaker was 12-13 Hz.  If the cup were to be filled with yoghurt or only half filled, we would expect the ‘note’ at which the surface vibrated to change. Indeed, in this latter case, I could no longer find the resonance anywhere near 12-13 Hz.

‘Listening’ to the coffee by watching its surface means that we can, in principle, work out the properties of the coffee, its temperature, density etc.  And it is in this way that we ‘listen’ to stars ‘twinkle’ so as to understand our universe more.  So thank you MrGluckin and Hasbean for providing an entertaining couple of weeks for me!  Please try this at home and let me know what you discover in the comments section below.

Important Disclaimer: No coffee was wasted in this experiment! I had already finished drinking the contents of the cafetiere and just used the old grounds to provide the ‘coffee’ in the video.

Extra thanks: Becky Ramotowski and for the photos. The photos from Garden Safari are ©