droplets

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.

 

Something brewing in my V60

kettle, V60, spout, pourover, v60 preparation

The new V60 “power kettle”

It was my birthday a short while ago and someone who knows me well got me a perfect present: a kettle specially adapted for making pour-over V60 style coffees. Until this point I had been struggling with a normal kettle with it’s large spout but now, I can dream that I pour like a barista. Of course, it is important to try out your birthday present as soon as you receive it. And then try it again, and again, just to make sure that it does really make a difference to your coffee. So it is fair to say, that recently I have been enjoying some very good coffees prepared with a variety of lovely beans from Roasting House and my new V60/V60 kettle combination.

Spending the time to prepare a good coffee seems to make it even more enjoyable (though it turns out that whether you agree with this partly depends on why you are drinking coffee). Grinding the beans, rinsing the filter, warming the pot, the whole process taken slowly adds to the experience. But then, while watching the coffee drip through the filter one day, I saw a coffee drop dance over the surface of the coffee. Then another one, and another, a whole load of dancing droplets (video below). Perhaps some readers of Bean Thinking may remember a few months back a similar story of bouncing droplets on soapy water. In that case, fairly large drops of water (up to about 1cm wide) were made to ‘float’ on the surface of a dish of water that had been placed on a loudspeaker.

Sadly, for that initial experiment the coffee had been made undrinkable by adding soap to it. The soap had the effect of increasing the surface viscosity of the droplets which meant that the drop could bounce back from the vibrating water surface before it recombined with the liquid. Adding soap to the coffee meant that these liquid drops could ‘float’ (they actually bounce) on the water for many minutes or even longer (for more of the physics behind this click here).

science in a V60

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

On the face of it, there are some similarities between the drops dancing on the coffee in my V60 and these bouncing droplets. As each drop falls from the filter, it creates a vibration on the surface of the coffee. The vibration wave is then reflected back at the edges of the V60 and when the next drop falls from the filter it is ‘bounced’ back up by the vibration of the coffee.

But there are also significant differences. Firstly, as mentioned, there was no soap added to this coffee (I was brewing it to drink it!). This means that the viscosity of the drops should be similar to that of ordinary water. Although water drops can be made to bounce, the reduced viscosity means that this is less likely. Secondly, the water is hot. This acts to reduce the viscosity still further (think of honey on hot toast). Perhaps other effects (such as an evaporation flux or similar) could be having an effect, but it is noticeable that although the drops “live” long enough to be caught on camera, they are not very stable. Could it be that the vibrations caused by the droplets hitting the coffee are indeed enough to bounce the incoming droplets back up but that, unlike the soapy-water, these “anti-bubbles” do not survive for very long? Or is something deeper at play? I admit that I do not know. So, over to you out there. If you are taking time to make coffee in a V60, why not keep an eye out for these bouncing droplets and then do some experiments with them. Do you think that the bounce vibration is enough to sustain the bouncing droplet – does the speed of pour make a difference? Is it associated with the heat of the coffee? I’d be interested to hear what you think.

(The original soapy-coffee bouncing droplet video).

If you see anything interesting or odd in your coffee, why not let me know, either here in the comments section below, e-mail, or over on Twitter or on Facebook.