kitchen table experiments

A tense moment for a coffee…

capillary bridge

A bridge formed by water between a cup and a cafetière.

Each and every coffee represents an opportunity to uncover an unusual bit of science. Sometimes the connections between what happens in your cup and the wider world are fairly obvious (e.g. the steam above your coffee and cloud formation), but sometimes the connections seem a little more obscure. On occasion, your observations may lead to philosophical speculations or stories from history. Every coffee is an opportunity to discover something, if you just slow down and ponder enough.

It was with this in mind that I looked at my freshly made French Press coffee a few weeks ago. I had positioned my cup very close to the cafetière such that a small water bridge had formed between the cup and the cafetière (see photo). Such “capillary bridges” have been studied for a couple of centuries and yet there is still more work to do. Caused by the surface tension of the water, understanding the way these bridges form and the shape of the surfaces produced is important for fields such as printing and powder processing. Yet it is only in the last 150 years or so that we have started to understand what surface tension is. Moreover, much of the pioneering work on this subject was done by an amateur scientist who just noticed things (and then designed some very clever experiments to discover more).

Agnes Pockels (1862-1935) is now regarded as a surface science pioneer but in 1891 she was a complete unknown. Although she had wanted to study physics, she was prevented from going to university because she was female. Consequently, all her study of the subject had to be through her brother Friedrich’s books and letters. It is not known what prompted her investigations but from 1880 she had been experimenting with a device to measure the surface tension of water. The device used a sliding weight to measure the force required to pull a 6mm diameter wooden disk off of the surface of a trough of water.¹ The design of this device was so successful that, a few years later, Irvine Langmuir adapted it slightly in order to study the surface of oils. He went on to receive the Nobel Prize for his work in 1932. Yet it is a device that could also be built in your kitchen, exactly as Agnes Pockels did².

reflections, surface tension

The effects of surface tension can be seen in the light reflected from a coffee

Pockels measured the surface tension of water contaminated by oil, alcohol, sugar, wax, soda crystals and salt (amongst other things)¹. She discovered how the surface tension of the water could be affected by pulling the surface or introducing metal objects onto it. She discovered the “compensating flows” that occurred between regions of different surface tension (you can see a similar effect with this soap boat). Yet all of this remained hidden from the wider world because Pockels was unable to publish. Not having access to the contemporary literature about surface tension and moreover unknown, unqualified and female, no journal would look at her work let alone publish it. Nonetheless, she was clearly a brilliant experimentalist and capable physicist.

Things changed when Pockels read a paper by John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh) in about 1890. Rayleigh was quite the opposite of the unknown Pockels. As well as his work on sound, electricity and magnetism and the (co-) discovery of Argon, Rayleigh is known for his work on understanding why the sky is blue. (Which is another phenomenon that you can see while preparing your coffee if you drink your coffee with milk.) In his paper on surface tension, Rayleigh had come to similar conclusions as Pockels’ work but Pockels had gone further. Unable to publish herself, she instead wrote to Rayleigh, in German, detailing her experimental technique and results. Rayleigh responded by forwarding her letter to the scientific journal Nature together with an introductory paragraph:

“I shall be obliged if you can find space for the accompanying translation of an interesting letter which I have received from a German lady, who with very homely appliances has arrived at valuable results respecting the behaviour of contaminated water surfaces. The earlier part of Miss Pockels’ letter covers nearly the same ground as some of my own recent work, and in the main harmonizes with it. The later sections seem to me very suggestive, raising, if they do not fully answer, many important questions. I hope soon to find opportunity for repeating some of Miss Pockels’ experiments.”¹

Coffee Corona

You may have seen white mists form over the surface of your coffee (seen here by the rainbow effect around the light reflection). But what are they and how do they form? This is still not really known.

Rayleigh’s introduction and Agnes Pockels’ letter were published in Nature on 12 March 1891. The paper enabled Pockels to publish further results in both Science and Nature as well as in other journals. In 1932 she received an honorary doctorate in recognition of her work.

It seems that this coffee-science story has two main messages. The first is to emphasise how much we gain by ensuring everyone has access (and encouragement) to study physics (or indeed whatever subject they are motivated by). What would we have lost if Agnes Pockels had not had the books of her brother and made the decision to write to Rayleigh? But the second message is that Agnes Pockels managed all this, at least initially, by merely noticing what was going on in the liquids around her. Being curious she designed and built a piece of equipment that enabled her to measure what she was intrigued by and by taking a systematic series of data she discovered physics that was unknown to the wider community at the time. So the question is, what do you notice when you look at your coffee? How does it work, what can you discover?

Please do share any interesting physics that you see in (or around) your coffee either here in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter. Tea comments would also be welcome, but whatever you do, slow down and notice it.


¹Rayleigh, Nature 1891, 43, 437-439, 12 March 1891 (full text here)

²Reference to the kitchen is here.

On rings, knots, myths and coffee

vortices in coffee

Vortices behind a spoon dragged through coffee.

Dragging a spoon through coffee (or tea) has got to remain one of the easiest ways to see, and play with, vortices. Changing the way that you pull the spoon through the coffee, you can make the vortices travel at different speeds and watch as they bounce off the sides of the cup. This type of vortex can be seen whenever one object (such as the spoon) pulls through a fluid (such as the coffee). Examples could be the whirlwinds behind buses (and trains), the whirlpools around the pillars of bridges in rivers and the high winds around chimneys that has led some chimneys to collapse.

Yet there is another type of vortex that you can make, and play with, in coffee. A type of vortex that has been associated with the legends of sailors, supernovae and atomic theory. If you add milk to your coffee, you may have been making these vortices each time you prepare your brew and yet, perhaps you’ve never noticed them. They are the vortex rings. Unlike the vortices behind a spoon, to see these vortex rings we do not pull one object through another one. Instead we push one fluid (such as milk) through another fluid (the coffee).

It is said that there used to be a sailor’s legend: If it was slightly choppy out at sea, the waves could be calmed by a rain shower. One person who heard this legend and decided to investigate whether there was any substance to it was Osborne Reynolds (1842-1912). Loading a tank with water and then floating a layer of dyed water on top of that, he dripped water into the tank and watched as the coloured fluid curled up in on itself forming doughnut shapes that then sank through the tank. The dripping water was creating vortex rings as it entered the tank. You can replicate his experiment in your cup of coffee, though it is easier to see it in a glass of water, (see the video below for a how-to).

Reynolds reasoned that the vortices took energy out of the waves on the surface of the water and so in that way calmed the choppy waves. As with Benjamin Franklin’s oil on water experiment, it’s another instance where a sailor’s myth led to an experimental discovery.

chimney, coffeecupscience, everydayphysics, coffee cup science, vortex

In high winds, vortices around chimneys can cause them to collapse. The spiral around the chimney helps to reduce these problem vortices.

Another physicist was interested in these vortex rings for an entirely different reason. William Thomson, better known as Lord Kelvin, proposed an early model of atoms that explained certain aspects of the developing field of atomic spectroscopy. Different elements were known to absorb (or emit) light at different frequencies (or equivalently energies). These energies acted as a ‘fingerprint’ that could be used to identify the elements. Indeed, helium, which was until that point unknown on Earth, was discovered by measuring the light emission from the Sun (Helios) and noting an unusual set of emission frequencies. Kelvin proposed that the elements behaved this way as each element was formed of atoms which were actually vortex rings in the ether. Different elements were made by different arrangements of vortex ring, perhaps two tied together or even three interlocking rings. The simplest atom may be merely a ring, a different element may have atoms made of figure of eights or of linked vortex rings. For more about Kelvin’s vortex atom theory click here.

Kelvin’s atomic theory fell by the way side but not before it contributed to ideas on the mathematics (and physics) of knots. And lest it be thought that this is just an interesting bit of physics history, the idea has had a bit of a resurgence recently. It has been proposed that peculiar magnetic structures that can be found in some materials (and which show potential as data storage devices), may work through being knotted in the same sort of vortex rings that Kelvin proposed and that Reynolds saw.

And that you can find in a cup of coffee, if you just add milk.