Coffee cup science Observations

A shocking coffee connection

There have been some fantastic thunderstorms in London lately. Perhaps nothing to rival thunderstorms in the tropics but for this region of the world they were quite impressive. One lightning storm in particular came very close. Thank goodness for lightning conductors! Perhaps the connection between lightning storms and coffee is not obvious. But maybe this is because you mop up your coffee spillages too quickly.

Reynolds, rain, waves, pond, raining
There are so many coffee-physics connections with rain and weather. It’s worth looking out for more.

The link is in the mess and the maths. It turns out that the maths describing water evaporating out of a drying coffee droplet is the same, in one crucial detail, as the maths describing the electric fields around a lightning conductor. If we want to see why this may be, we need to get a little bit messy and spill some coffee.

The question is how do coffee rings form? We know that to start with the solids in the coffee are distributed fairly evenly throughout the drink. It is the same when you spill it, initially a spilled drop of coffee looks like, well, coffee. But if you wait as this spilled coffee dries, you will find that a ring starts to form around the edge of the drop. How? How does a uniform coffee distribution when the drop is first spilled become a ring of coffee solids around the edge of the dried drop?

coffee ring, ink jet printing, organic electronics
Why does it form a ring?

A number of different aspects of physics feed into this problem but the one that is relevant to the lightning conductors concerns how the water in the drop evaporates. If you think about how a water molecule escapes (evaporates from) the droplet, it is not going to go shooting off like a rocket blasted out from the drop. Instead it will take a step out the drop then encounter a molecule in the air and get deflected to a slightly different path and again, and again, and so on. It follows the same sort of “random walk” that we know that the bits of dust on a coffee surface follow (and the same sort of random walk that provides a link between coffee and the movements of the financial stock exchange but that is a whole other topic).

Now think about the shape of that spilled coffee drop. If a water molecule were to evaporate from the top of the dome of the drop, it has a certain probability of escaping but it also, because its path is random, has a certain probability of re-entering the droplet. A water molecule at the edge of the droplet however will have a lower probability of re-entering the droplet purely on the basis that there isn’t so much of the droplet around it. Over many molecules and many ‘escape attempts’, this lower probability of re-absorption will translate to a higher flux of water molecules evaporating from the droplet at the edges. The water will evaporate ‘more quickly’ from the edge of the droplet than from the top of it.

artemisdraws, evaporating droplet
As the water molecules leave the droplet, they are more likely to escape if they are at the edge than if they are at the top. Image © @artemisworks

When this is written mathematically, the rate of evaporating water is related to the contact angle between the drop and the surface. The shallower the angle, the higher the rate of evaporation or equivalently, the greater the ‘flux’. It is this mathematical expression that is the same as for the lightning conductor if, rather than refer to an evaporating water flux we refer to an electric field. So the more pointy the conductor, the greater the field concentration around it. A shocking example of the idea that everything is connected.

Of course, there is much more to the coffee ring than this with physics that relates coffee rings to bacterial colonies, burning cigarette papers and soap boats. If you are interested, you can read more about how coffee rings form (including why a higher evaporation rate helps lead to a coffee ring effect) here. If on the other hand you want some well justified thinking time, go spill some coffee and watch as the coffee dries.

General Home experiments Observations Science history

A lawyer, an accountant and and emperor walk into a cafe…

Strata, geology
This is not a resonance in a coffee cup but the concentric circle pattern is similar to a resonance that you could frequently see.

Have you ever noticed concentric rings on the surface of your coffee, forming as the table under the coffee cup vibrates slightly? Perhaps you have seen more complicated patterns. You may have observed, as you have played with your coffee, that some patterns are more stable than others. The one that is formed from concentric circles is fairly easy to form and to see. A more complex one looks like a chequer board, you may perhaps of seen others. These patterns are what are known as ‘resonances’ on the surface of the coffee and they are the consequence of standing waves being set up on the coffee surface. Many people who have gone through an undergraduate physics degree will immediately be reminded of Chladni figures and there is a good reason for this. Ernst Chladni (1756 – 1827) was a pioneer in investigating such resonances, one of the reasons that he has been described as “the father of experimental acoustics”.

And yet Chladni was not a physicist in the way that we now think of the term. In fact, by training he was a lawyer, a consequence of following his father’s rather insistent ‘advice’. Obediently, Chladni had trained in law and had started working as a lawyer in 1782 when his father died. Chladni appears to have taken this event as an opportunity to start to investigate the scientific problems that he was actually interested in and so re-invented himself as an acoustician testing the theories of music developed by people like Bernoulli and Euler¹.

transmission lines, electrical noise
Like strings on a guitar. Resonances on a string can be used to make musical notes.

Did Chladni drink coffee in eighteenth century coffee houses while admiring the resonances in the cup? Sadly what comes down to us in history is not his coffee habit but his experiments with sand covered metal plates secured onto wooden rods. Chladni caused resonances on these plates by rubbing them with a violin bow. By exciting resonances similar to those you can see on the surface of your coffee, Chladni was able to test theories about the sounds made by curved metal surfaces (e.g. bells). Indeed, these experiments became so important to understanding acoustic theory that Chladni started a European tour demonstrating his plates and their relevance to designing musical instruments. It was presumably through one of these tours that he met an Emperor of the time, Napoleon Bonaparte.

But despite this great experimental progress, the mathematics used to understand these resonance patterns, was developed by another physicist with a non-typical career path, Friedrich Bessel (1784-1846). Bessel had trained as an accountant but with the good fortune of timing, he had apprenticed into an exports company. At this time, such companies would have been interested in the problem of longitude and so Bessel gained an opportunity to indulge his interest in astronomy. As a consequence of this work, particularly his work on the orbit of Halley’s comet, Bessel secured a job in an astronomical observatory and it was there that he started the work that would eventually lead us to be able to describe, mathematically, the resonances on the surface of your coffee.

Did Bessel drink coffee? Had he seen Chladni demonstrate his plates? We don’t know the answer to those questions and in many ways it is not relevant because Bessel’s mathematics did not concern such resonances at all. Instead, almost to underline the idea that everything is connected, particularly with physics and coffee, Bessel was working on the problem of how to calculate the gravitational attraction between multiple objects.

Kettle drum at Amoret
The note made by a drum is a function of the size and shape (therefore resonance pattern) of the drum and also the gas filling the drum. Would this drum-table sound the same if banged on Venus as on Earth?

Perhaps you remember from school Newton’s famous description of the gravitational attraction between two bodies as being F = GMm/r² (where F is the force, G the gravitational constant, M and m the masses of the two bodies and r the distance between them). That’s all very good but what if there were three bodies, or four, or…

It was this problem that Bessel was working on and by so doing he solved the problem of Chladni’s patterns. The maths that describes the many body problem also describes the way that these resonances form. Those patterns in your coffee are described by the same maths as allows us to calculate complex gravitational problems.

And so perhaps it is not quite correct to title this post as a lawyer, an accountant and an emperor walk into a café, but it would be fair to say that each time you catch those resonances in your coffee cup, the  influence and interests of these investigators of nature are infused within the brew.

You can find a sketch of Chladni entertaining Bonaparte with his metal plates here.

¹Harmonius Triads, Physicists, musicians and instrument makers in nineteenth century Germany, MIT Press, 2006