Coffee review Observations Science history

Quantum physics from your (re-usable) cup at Lost Sheep, Canterbury

Coffee in Canterbury, keep cup
Finding the sheep. Lost Sheep coffee in Canterbury. Note the lighting.

I have long been looking forward to trying the Lost Sheep coffee pod in Canterbury. How would the reality compare to the friendly and knowledgable impression they give on social media? Being mostly a take-away outlet, what was their attitude to the disposable coffee cup problem? We had ensured that we had packed our keep-cups when we left London so that we could enjoy a coffee without having to use a disposable cup. Little did we know.

The sheep was visible as we approached the Lost Sheep coffee pod from the direction of the High Street. Adjacent to the pod, people were drinking their coffee while standing at the chip-board standing-bar nearby. In front of us in the queue, another customer was buying what appeared to be his usual coffee in his re-usable cup. The conversation between the customer and barista showing that cafés that help build communities do not have to come in standard formats. ‘Pods’ can work as well as cafés inside buildings (though the Lost Sheep has one of those too over in Ashford). The queue ahead of us enabled us to take more time to study the environment of the Lost Sheep.

Interestingly, a set of ceramic cups were placed above the espresso machine. Although we saw none in use, presumably this means that should you wish to enjoy your coffee at the bars, you can do so, even if you have forgotten your reusable. What a great feature for a take-away coffee place. The friendliness of this café was apparent as I presented my keep-cup for my long black. Commenting on the design of the cup (glass with a cork handling ring, perfect in size for the coffees I mostly drink), we continued to enjoy a short conversation about keep-cups and how nice the size was for the coffee. The coffee was amazingly fruity, a sweet, full bodied brew roasted locally in Whitstable. It was great to be able to enjoy this interesting coffee while wandering as a tourist in my old home-town.

Coffee Canterbury Sheep
Behind the sheep. At least it is easy to spot from all angles.

Before leaving the Sheep though, we did notice the lighting. A yellow hue from the lights immediately above the espresso machine with a whiter, harsher light from the luminescent strip light at the edge of the pod (a dull sunlight surrounding the rest of the outdoor space on this cloudy day). Coals are red hot, the Sun appears more yellow, how does colour vary with temperature? And how does this link to an old story that links quantum physics (very quickly) to your coffee cup.

How things absorb and emit light and electromagnetic radiation has been a subject of study really since white light was split into its different colours and then it was found that there was ‘invisible’ light beyond the blue and far from the red. It was known in the nineteenth century that things (which physicists tend to like to call ‘bodies’ for reasons that become clearer later) that absorbed all the light incident on them re-emitted the light unequally. As they absorbed all the incident light, they could be called a ‘black bodies’. People knew that the radiated light from a black body formed a spectrum that depended upon the temperature of the body. For most things that we encounter on earth, such as the coffee cup, their temperature means that they will emit more strongly in the infra-red, we can feel the heat coming off of them but we can’t see it. But as things get hotter they start to glow ‘red-hot’ and then if we heated them still further, they would glow with different colours.

The stars show this with the colour of the star being an indicator of the temperature of the star. Stars that are very hot shine blue, those that are cooler (but still thousands of degrees Celsius) appear to us as more white. Although these stars are emitting light at all frequencies, they show a characteristic peak in emissions for one frequency. The corresponding “black body spectrum” was very well known in the nineteenth century but the problem was that classical physics just could not explain it. Attempts were made to describe the curve but when it came down to it, if the energy (ie radiation) was described using classical physics, the shape of the curve could not be explained. While classical physics predicted the shape of the curve very well at long wavelengths (reds, infra-reds), there was a failure at shorter wavelengths. And not just a failure, it was a catastrophe: the theory predicted that an infinite amount of energy would be emitted at the low wavelengths. Clearly this is wrong, nothing can emit an infinite amount of energy and so for this reason, the problem was described as the “ultra-violet catastrophe“.

Sun, heat, nuclear fusion
The Sun is our nearest star and source of heat. But what links coffee to the Sun? It turns out a great many things of which this is just one. Image © NSO/AURA/NSF

A solution came when Max Planck changed the assumptions about how energy was emitted or absorbed. Rather than the continuous emission that was expected in classical physics, Planck reasoned that energy was emitted in discrete packets and that, crucially, these “quanta” were dependent on the frequency of the light being emitted. Planck’s formulation allowed for a mathematical description of the curve. Finally the shape of the black body spectrum could be explained, but it came at quite a cost; it came at the expense of classical physics. To use Planck’s formula meant abandoning some aspects of classical physics in favour of a new quantum model and it meant leaving the absolutes of classical mechanics and entering into a new statistical world. This change didn’t come easily even to Planck who had been motivated to study physics by the absolute answers that the theory of thermodynamics seemed to provide. He wrote, regarding his own black body theory:

“… the whole procedure was an act of despair because a theoretical interpretation had to be found at any price, no matter how high that might be”

In some ways, that feeling that you experience while warming your hands on a cup of steaming coffee while basking in the late afternoon sunshine is an intrinsically quantum experience. Neither the infra-red heat of your cup nor the colour spectrum of the sun could be explained using purely classical physics. So while taking time to appreciate the heat of your coffee, perhaps it’s worth remembering that this feeling that you are experiencing comes as a result of the same physics as determines the hot glow of stars and the cold microwave glow of the universe. The coffee heating your hands is indicating that the world is stranger than you may think, a quantum world being revealed to you all the while you sip your coffee.

Lost Sheep coffee is in St George’s Lane, CT1 2SY


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.