Coffee cup science General Observations Science history slow

Drip coffee

The universe is in a cup of coffee. But how many connections to different bits of physics can you find in the time it takes you to prepare a V60? We explore some of those links below while considering brewing a pour-over, what more do you see in your brew?

1. The Coffee Grinder:

coffee at VCR Bangsar
Preparing a V60 pour over coffee. How many connections can you find?

The beans pile on top of each other in the hopper. As the beans are ground, the bean pile shrinks along slipping layers. Immediately reminiscent of avalanches and landslides, understanding how granular materials (rocks & coffee beans) flow over each other is important for geology and safety. Meanwhile, the grinding itself produces a mound of coffee of slightly varying grain size. Shaking it would produce the brazil nut effect, which you can see on you breakfast table but is also important to understand the dynamics of earthquakes.

Staying at the grinding stage, if you weigh your coffee according to a brew guide, it is interesting to note that the kilogram is the one remaining fundamental unit that is measured with reference to a physical object.

2. Rinsing the filter paper:

V60 chromatography chemistry kitchen
A few hours after brewing pour over, a dark rim of dissolved coffee can be seen at the top of the filter paper. Chromatography in action.

While rinsing the filter we see the process of chromatography starting. Now critical for analytical chemistry (such as establishing each of the components of a medicine), this technique started with watching solutes ascend a filter paper in a solvent.

Filtration also has its connections. The recent discovery of a Roman-era stone sarcophagus in the Borough area of London involved filtering the excavated soil found within the sarcophagus to ensure that nothing was lost during excavation. On the other hand, using the filtered product enabled a recent study to concentrate coffee dissolved in chloroform in order to detect small amounts of rogue robusta in coffee products sold as 100% arabica.

3. Bloom:

bloom on a v60
From coffee to the atmosphere. There’s physics in that filter coffee.

A drop falling on a granular bed (rain on sand, water on ground coffee) causes different shaped craters depending on the speed of the drop and the compactness of the granular bed. A lovely piece of physics and of relevance to impact craters and the pharmaceuticals industry. But it is the bloom that we watch for when starting to brew the coffee. That point where the grinds seem to expand and bubble with a fantastic release of aroma. It is thought that the earth’s early atmosphere (and the atmosphere around other worlds) could have been helped to form by similar processes of outgassing from rocks in the interior of the earth. The carbon cycle also involves the outgassing of carbon dioxide from mid-ocean ridges and the volcanoes on the earth.

As the water falls and the aroma rises, we’re reminded too of petrichor, the smell of rain. How we detect smell is a whole other section of physics. Petrichor is composed of aerosols released when the rain droplet hits the ground. Similar aerosols are produced when rain impacts seawater and produces a splash. These aerosols have been linked to cloud formation. Without aerosols we would have significantly fewer clouds.

4. Percolation:

A close up of some milk rings formed when dripping milk into water. Similar vortex rings will be produced every time you make a pour over coffee.

Percolation is (almost) everywhere. From the way that water filters through coffee grounds to make our coffee to the way electricity is conducted and even to how diseases are transmitted. A mathematically very interesting phenomenon with links to areas we’d never first consider such as modelling the movements of the stock exchange and understanding the beauty of a fractal such as a romanesco broccoli.

But then there’s more. The way water filters through coffee is similar to the way that rain flows through the soil or we obtain water through aquifers. Known as Darcy’s law, there are extensive links to geology.

Nor is it just geology and earth based science that is linked to this part of our coffee making. The drips falling into the pot of coffee are forming vortex rings behind them. Much like smoke rings, they can be found all around us, from volcanic eruptions, through to supernovae explosions and even in dolphin play.

5. In the mug:

Rayleigh Benard cells in clouds
Convection cells in the clouds. Found on a somewhat smaller scale in your coffee.
Image shows clouds above the Pacific. Image NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

Yet it is when it gets to the mug that we can really spend time contemplating our coffee. The turbulence produced by the hot coffee in a cool mug prompts the question: why does stirring your coffee cool it down but stirring the solar wind heats it up?

The convection cells in the cooling coffee are seen in the clouds of “mackerel” skies and in the rock structure of other planets. The steam informs us of cloud formation while the condensation on the side of the cup is suggestive of the formation of dew and therefore, through a scientific observation over 200 years ago, to the greenhouse effect. The coffee cools according to the same physics as any other cooling body, including the universe itself. Which is one reason that Lord Kelvin could not believe that the earth was old enough for Darwin’s theory of evolution to have occurred. (Kelvin was working before it was known that the Sun was heated by nuclear fusion. Working on the basis of the physics he knew, he calculated how long the Sun would take to cool down for alternative mechanisms of heating the Sun. Eventually he concluded that the Sun was too young for the millions of years required for Darwin’s theory to be correct. It was the basis of a public spat between these two prominent scientists and a major challenge to Darwin’s theory at the time).


Of course there is much more. Many other links that take your coffee to the fundamental physics describing our world and our universe. Which ones have you pondered while you have dwelt on your brew?

General Home experiments Observations Science history Tea

Coffee and Pluto

Three billion miles away, on an object formerly known as the planet Pluto (now sadly demoted to the dwarf planet Pluto), there exists a plain of polygonal cells 10-40 km across, extending over a region of about 1200 km diameter. Last year, the New Horizons mission photographed this region and these strange shapes (see photo) as the probe flew past Pluto and its moon Charon. But what could have caused them, and perhaps more importantly for this website, can we see the same thing closer to home and specifically in a cup of coffee? Well, the answer to those questions are yes and probably, so what on Earth is happening on Pluto?

Plutonian polygons
What is causing these strange polygons on the surface of Pluto. Image © NASA

Pluto moves in an highly elliptical orbit with an average distance to the Sun of 5.9 billion km (3.7 billion miles). Each Pluto year is 248 Earth years but one day on Pluto is only 6½ Earth days. As it is so far from the Sun, it is very cold on Pluto’s surface, somewhere between -238 to -218 ºC. The polygons that were photographed by New Horizons are in the ‘Sputnik Planum’ basin where the temperatures are at the lower end of that scale, somewhere around -238 ºC. At this temperature, nitrogen gas (which makes up 78% of the Earth’s own atmosphere) has not just liquified, it has solidified; turned into nitrogen ice. These polygons are made of solid nitrogen.

But solid nitrogen is a very odd type of solid and in fact, at the temperatures on Pluto’s surface, solid nitrogen is expected to flow with a very high viscosity (like an extremely gloopy liquid). And it is this fact that is the clue to the origin of the odd polygons (and the link to fluids like coffee). Pluto is not just a cold dead rock circling the Sun, but instead it has a warm interior, heated by the radioactive decay of elements in the rocks making up Pluto. This means that the base of the nitrogen ice in the Sputnik Planum basin is being heated and, as two groups writing earlier this summer in Nature showed, this leads to the nitrogen ice in the basin forming convection currents. The warmer nitrogen ‘ice’ at the bottom of the basin flows towards the surface forming convection patterns. It is these nitrogen convection cells that appear as the polygons on the surface of Pluto.

Rayleigh Benard cells in clouds
Rayleigh-Benard cells in cloud structures above the Pacific showing both closed and open cell structures. Image © NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

Of course, convection occurs in coffee too, we can see it when we add milk to the coffee and watch the patterns form or by observing the dancing caustics in a cup of tea. So why is it that we see stable polygons of nitrogen on the surface of Pluto but not coffee polygons on the surface of our coffee? The first point to note is the time-scale. Although the polygons on Pluto are moving, they are doing so much more slowly than the liquid movement in a cup of tea or coffee, at a rate of only a few cm per year. But secondly, the type of convection may be different. Although both of the papers in Nature attributed the polygons on Pluto to convection, they differed in the type of convection that they considered was happening. McKinnon et al., suggest that the viscosity of the nitrogen on Pluto is much greater on the surface of the basin than in the warmer interior and so the surface flows far more slowly. This leads to cells that are much wider than they are deep. We would not expect such a drastic change in the viscosity of the coffee between the (cool) top and (warm) bottom of the cup! In contrast, Trowbridge et al., think that the cells are Rayleigh-Bénard convection cells,  circular convection cells that form such that the cells are as wide as they are deep. This sort of convection is seen in a coffee cup as well as in the sky on cloudy days: On the Earth, clouds often form at the top (or bottom) of Rayleigh-Benard cells, where hot humid air meets cold dry air (more info here). But to form cells that you can see in your coffee (such as are on the surface of Pluto) you would need the coffee to be in a fairly thin layer and heated from below. You would also need some way of visualising the cells, either with an infra-red camera or with powder suspended in the liquid, it would be hard I think to see it in coffee alone. However, you can see these cells in cooking oil as this video shows:

As well as providing the link to the coffee, the different types of convection on the surface of Pluto hypothesised by Trowbridge and McKinnon have consequences for our understanding of the geology of Pluto. If the cells are formed through Rayleigh-Bénard convection (Trowbridge), the basin has to be as deep as the cells are wide (meaning the basin has to be 10-40km deep with nitrogen ice). If McKinnon is correct on the other hand, the basin only needs to be 3-6 km deep. It is easy to imagine that an impact crater could cause a shallow crater such as that needed for McKinnon’s mechanism. A deeper crater would create another puzzle.

If you do manage to heat coffee (or tea) from below and form some lovely Rayleigh-Bénard cells while doing so I’d love to see the photos or video. Please do contact me either by email, Facebook or Twitter. Otherwise, if you just enjoy watching the patterns form on your coffee, it’s worth remembering that there could be an entire cosmos in that cup.

General Observations slow Tea

Tea Gazing

Milky Way, stars, astrophotography
The Milky Way as viewed from Nebraska. Image © Howard Edin (

A recent opinion piece about last week’s announcement of the detection of gravitational waves at LIGO drew my attention to a quote from Einstein:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.

Einstein was not the only scientist to have expressed such sentiments. Many scientists have considered a sense of wonder to be integral to their practice of science. For many this has involved gazing at the heavens on a clear night and contemplating the vastness, and the beauty, of the universe. Contemplating the twinkling stars suggests the universe outside our Solar System. Watching as the stars twinkle gives us clues as to our own planet’s atmosphere. Of course, it is not just scientists who have expressed such thoughts. Immanuel Kant wrote:

“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.“*

light patterns on the bottom of a tea cup
Dancing threads of light at the bottom of the tea cup.

The other evening I prepared a lovely, delicate, loose leaf jasmine tea in a teapot. I then, perhaps carelessly, perhaps fortuitously, poured the hot tea into a cold tea cup. Immediately threads of light danced across the bottom of the cup. The kitchen lights above the tea cup were refracted through hot and not-quite-so-hot regions of the tea before being reflected from the bottom of the cup. The refractive index of water changes as a function of the water’s temperature and so the light gets bent by varying amounts depending on the temperature of the tea that it travels through. Effectively the hotter and cooler regions of the tea act as a collection of many different lenses to the light travelling through the tea. These lenses produce the dancing threads of light at the bottom of the cup. The contact between the hot tea and the cold cup amplified the convection currents in the tea cup and so made these threads of light particularly visible, and particularly active, that evening. It is a very similar effect that causes the twinkling of the stars. Rather than hot tea, the light from the distant stars is refracted by the turbulent atmosphere, travelling through moving pockets of relatively warm air and relative cool air. The star light dances just a little, with the turbulence of the atmosphere, this way and that on its way to our eyes.

Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.Ҡ

Marcus Aurelius of course didn’t have tea. Watch the dancing lights in the tea cup and see yourself sitting with it, resting a while and then watching while dwelling on the beauty in your cup.

*Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason

†Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Home experiments Observations slow

Patterns in a tea cup

light patterns on the bottom of a tea cup
Looking into my peppermint tea. Dancing filaments of light are just visible

Have I been unfair to tea drinkers? It has been pointed out to me on more than one occasion recently that tea is also a good source of science in a cup. So, last week, I drank a large amount of tea and started gazing into my (peppermint) tea cup. I watched as dancing lines of light played on the bottom of the cup. Never staying in one position for long, the filaments moved around, snaking across the tea cup. You can possibly see them in the picture on the right, although you would get a better view of them if you watched them dance yourself in a cup of freshly made tea. Similar lines can often be seen at the bottom of the swimming pool. Such lines of light must be caused by something in the water (or tea) bending the light from the surface into concentrated patches on the bottom. But are the two effects, though visually similar, caused by the same thing? And, what can this possibly have to do with forensic science and drug dealers?

straw, water, glass
When light travels from one medium to another (e.g. air to water) it gets bent by refraction

When light passes from air into a transparent medium (eg. into tea) it gets ‘bent’, in a process called refraction. This is why a spoon (or straw) put into a glass of water looks bent when viewed from the side (see picture). The amount that the light bends is dependent on the angle at which it hits the tea surface and by the density of the tea. The fact that you have to be able to see the bottom of the cup to see this effect, makes tea ideal for viewing it. (If your coffee is transparent enough to view these dancing lines of light, you may well want to check that you are brewing it correctly).

I’m not an optics person but it strikes me that there are at least two easy ways for these light patterns to form. Firstly, small waves on the surface of the water/tea will cause the light hitting the waves to be refracted by different angles as they go through the water. The patterns that form on the bottom of the pool/cup will therefore move with the waves. It is easy to see how such waves could form in a swimming pool, it is not so easy to imagine them in a tea cup. A second way to form these patterns is if the light is refracted through regions of different density, such as slightly hotter and slightly cooler tea. Such regions will occur in a tea cup because the tea is being cooled at the surface by contact with cool air and so there will be a continuous convection process in the cup. Warm water is less dense than cold water* and so will refract light slightly less than cold water will. Consequently, as the slightly cooler and slightly warmer regions of tea bend the light by slightly different amounts you should see patterns forming on the bottom of the cup as different amounts of light get to the bottom at each point.

So we have two possible causes for the light patterns on the bottom of a tea cup. How could we distinguish between them? Perhaps it would be an idea to get two identical cups, one filled with cold water, one with hot water (or a clear tea such as peppermint). Which shows the dancing filaments? Both of them, neither of them? Another experiment could be to observe the filaments in a cup of hot tea and then wait for the tea to cool. Do the light patterns fade as the tea cools?

tea pot science
Not always coffee. Tea can be interesting too.

The link to forensic science comes from the fact that light passing through transparent substances of different density will be ‘bent’ by different amounts. Imagine a drug dealer has been caught with some illegal substance wrapped in cling film. Although it looks to us like any other piece of cling film, that piece of film has been made in a specific factory at a specific time. This means that the roll of cling film that this piece was taken from will share variations in thickness and density with the cling film wrap. A type of cling film ‘finger print’. The density variation in the cling film can be photographed with a technique called the Schlieren photograph which exploits the fact that the light is refracted by varying amounts as it passes through these varying densities. If the police can get hold of the cling film in the suspected drug dealers home, this too can be imaged. If the ‘finger prints’ (changes in density etc.) of the two samples of cling film match, the suspect may be in significant trouble. The motto of this: Ensure that you have a decoy roll of cling film to hand before wrapping anything or, what is probably much better, spend time contemplating your tea in a café instead.

What do you think causes these patterns? What do your experiments reveal? Comments always welcome, please leave them in the box below.


* Between 0-4ºC the density of water decreases with decreasing temperature. For the purposes of this blog article it is assumed that you are drinking normal tea at around 60ºC rather than ice tea.

Coffee review Home experiments Observations Science history

Joe’s espresso cafe bar, Victoria

radiant heat, heat loss, heat conduction, infra red, Joe's espresso cafe bar
The slightly ajar door at Joe’s espresso cafe

A few weeks ago I happened to be near Joe’s espresso café bar on the corner of Medway St. and Horseferry Road, with around twenty minutes to spare. Joe’s is an old-style independent café, very focused on their lunch menu and take away coffees. Nonetheless, there is a decent sized seating area in a room adjacent to the ‘bar’ where you can sit with your coffee and watch the world go by on Horseferry Road. It is always nice to come across a friendly café that allows you to sit quietly and people-watch. As I sat and watched the taxis pass by, I became aware of the fact that it had got quite cold. The people who had just left the cafe had left the door to the room slightly open; the cold was ‘getting in‘. Now I know, heat goes out, cold does not come in but sitting there in that café that is not how it felt. Then it struck me, rather than cause me to grumble, the slightly open door should remind me  of the experiments of Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786).

Scheele was a brilliant chemist but one who performed experiments that would make our university health and safety departments jump up and down spitting blood. Recognised for discovering oxygen in the air (Priestley discovered it a few years later but published first), manganese and chlorine, Scheele also investigated arsenic and cyanide based compounds. It is thought that some of these experiments (he described the taste of cyanide) contributed to his early death in May 1786 at the age of 43. Fortunately, none of this has a connection to Joe’s espresso café. What links Scheele with Joe’s, is Scheele’s discovery of ‘radiant heat’ as he was sitting in front of his stove one day.

Open fire, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, Radiant heat, infra red, convection
Sitting in front of a fire we can observe several different ways that heat moves.

Scheele’s house was presumably very cold in winter. He describes how he could sit in front of his stove with the door slightly ajar and feel its heat directly and yet, as he exhaled, the water vapour in his breath condensed into a cloud in the air. The heat from the stove was evidently heating Scheele, but not the air between Scheele and the stove. He additionally noted that this heat travelled in straight lines, horizontally towards him, as if it were light and without producing the refraction of visible light associated with air movement above a hot stove. Nor was a candle flame, placed between Scheele and the stove, affected by the passage of the heat. Clearly this ‘horizontal’ heat was different from the convective heat above the stove. Scheele called this ‘horizontal form’ of heat, ‘radiant heat’.

A few years later, the astronomer and discoverer of Uranus, William Herschel (1738-1822) was investigating glass-filter materials so that he could better observe the Sun. Using a prism to separate white light into its familiar rainbow spectrum, Herschel measured the temperature of the various parts of the spectrum. Surprisingly, the temperature recorded by the thermometer increased as the thermometer was moved from the violet end to the red end of the spectrum and then kept on rising into the invisible region next to the red. We now recognise Herschel’s observation of infra-red light as responsible for the radiant heat seen by Scheele, though a few more experiments were required at the time before this was confirmed.

sunlight induced chemical reactions, milk
Often milk is now supplied in semi-opaque bottles. Why do you think this is?

Further work by William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828) and, independently Ritter (1776-1810) & Beckmann not only confirmed Herschel’s infra-red/radiant heat observations but also showed that, at the other end of the spectrum was another invisible ‘light’ that produced chemical reactions. Indeed, milk is often sold in semi-opaque plastic containers because of the fact that the taste and nutritional content of the milk are affected by such sunlight induced chemical reactions.

So, it seems to me that, in addition to an interesting story with which to idle away 20 minutes in a café, this set of thoughts offers a variety of experiments that we could try at home. If we are out, we could try to discern the different ways that heat is transferred from one body to another (as Scheele). If we had a prism, we could perhaps repeat Herschel’s experiment very easily with a cheap (but sensitive) thermocouple and, if we were really ambitious hook it up to a Raspberry Pi so that we could map the temperature as a function of wavelength. Finally, we could investigate how light affects chemical reactions by seeing how milk degrades when stored in the dark, direct sunlight or under different wavelengths. If you do any of these experiments please let me know what you discover in the comments section below. In the meanwhile, take time to enjoy your coffee, perhaps noticing how the hot mug is warming your hands.

Books that you may like to read and that were helpful for this piece:

“From Watt to Clausius”, DSL Cardwell, Heinemann Education Books Ltd, 1971

“On Food and Cooking: The science and lore of the kitchen” H McGee, Unwin Hyman Ltd 1986

Apologies to university H&S departments, you guys do a great job (mostly!) in trying to help to prevent us dying from our own experiments too prematurely.