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 ©