kitchen table science

Predicting the weather with a cup of coffee?

What do the bubbles on the surface of your coffee tell you about the weather?

weather, bubbles, coffee, coffee physics, weather prediction, meteorology

There is a lot of physics going on with the bubbles on this coffee, but can they be used to predict the weather?

You have just poured a cup of freshly brewed coffee into your favourite mug and watched as bubbles on the surface collect in the middle of the cup. It occurs to you that it is going to be a good day, but is that because you are enjoying your coffee or because of the position of the bubbles?

There are a large number of sayings about the weather in the English language. Some of the sayings have a basis in fact, for example the famous “red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning“. Others though seem to verge on the superstitious (“If in autumn cows lie on their right sides the winter will be severe; if on their left sides, it will be mild”), or unlikely (“As August, so the next February”).  In 1869, Richard Inwards published a collection of sayings about the weather. “Weather Lore” has since undergone several new editions and remains in print although Inwards himself died in 1937. Amongst the sayings contained in the book is one about coffee:

When the bubbles of coffee collect in the centre of the cup, expect fair weather. When they adhere to the cup forming a ring, expect rain. If they separate without assuming any fixed position, expect changeable weather.

A quick search on the internet shows that this example of weather lore is still circulated, there is even a ‘theory‘ as to why it should be true. But is it true or is it just an old wives’ tale? Although I have consumed a lot of coffee I have never undertaken enough of a statistical study to find out if there could be an element of truth in this particular saying. The number of bubbles on the surface of the coffee is going to depend, amongst other things, on the type of coffee, the freshness of the roast and the speed at which you poured it. While the position of the bubbles will depend on how you poured the coffee into the mug, the surface tension in the coffee and the temperature. It would appear that there are too many variables to easily do a study and furthermore that the mechanism by which coffee could work as a weather indicator is unclear. It is tempting to write off this particular ‘lore’ as just another superstition but before we do that, it is worth revisiting another old wives tale which involves Kepler, Galileo, the Moon and the tides.

tides, old wives legends, Kepler, Galileo, Lindisfarne, bubbles in coffee

The pilgrim path between Lindisfarne and the mainland that emerges at low tide is marked by sticks. But what causes the tides?

Back in the mid-17th century, Newton’s theory of universal gravitation had not yet been published. It was increasingly clear that the Earth orbited around the Sun and that the Moon orbited around the Earth, but why exactly did they do that? Gilbert’s 1600 work De Magnete (about electricity and magnetism) had revealed what seemed to be an “action at a distance”. Yet the scientific thought of the day, still considerably influenced by Aristotelianism, believed that an object could only exert a force on another object if it was somehow in contact with it. There was no room for the heavenly bodies to exert a force on things that were found on the Earth. Indeed, when Kepler suggested that the Moon somehow influenced the tides on the Earth (as we now know that it does), Galileo reproached him for believing “old wives’ tales”: We should not have to rely on some ‘magical attraction’ between the moon and the water to explain the tides!

The point of this anecdote is not to suggest that a cup of coffee can indeed predict the weather. The point is that sometimes we should be a little bit more circumspect before stating categorically that something is true or false when that statement is based, in reality, purely on what we believe we know about the world. We should always be open to asking questions about what we see in our daily life and how it relates to the world around us. It will of course be hard to do a proper statistical study of whether the bubbles go to the edge or stay in the centre depending on the weather (whilst keeping everything constant). Still, there are a lot of people who drink a lot of coffee and this seems to me to offer a good excuse to drink more, so perhaps you have some comments to make on this? Can a cup of coffee predict the weather? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

 

Weather legends taken from “Weather Lore”, Richard Inwards, Revised & Edited by EL Hawke, Rider and Company publishers, 1950

Galileo/Kepler anecdote from “History and Philosophy of Science”, LWH Hull, Longmans, Green and Co. 1959

Coffee bean degassing

coffee, Roast House

Coffee from the Roasting House, one light roasted one dark roasted. They were roasted within an hour of each other.

How long do freshly roasted coffee beans take to  degas? Should you let the beans lose the carbon dioxide inside them for 24h, 72h, one week, more? Do dark roasted beans degas for fewer days than light roasted beans? As readers of Bean Thinking will hopefully know, one of the aims of Bean Thinking is to bring science, and particularly experimental science, onto everybody’s coffee tables. Is there an experiment (or experiments) that you can do to measure the amount, and duration, of degassing with equipment that you will have in your kitchen?

To help me in my coffee bean degassing experiments, I got in contact with the very helpful people at Roasting House. Based in Nottingham (UK) they will deliver freshly roasted beans to you by bicycle if you live in the Nottingham area or, for the rest of us, by Royal Mail. Together with the cycling aspect of their business, they also have a commitment to supporting those people who produce the coffee. It is important I think, not just that coffee tastes good, but that everybody involved in the coffee process (from grower to consumer inclusive) gets a good deal. Lastly, and very importantly for the degassing experiment, Roasting House offer their beans roasted to the degree that you specify. While they helpfully recommend a particular style of roasting for each bean (dark roast for one bean type, a lighter roast for another), they do give you the option of choosing which you would prefer.

They are also very knowledgeable about their coffee. As I was discussing the degassing issue with them, they suggested a coffee (Daterra, Bourbon Yellow) that they thought would degas quite a lot. Not just that, but the coffee concerned would taste great as both a dark and a light roast (I do drink the coffee after all). All in all, this experiment could not have been done without the help and input from Roasting House and I am very grateful to them for their support in my little project. So, onto the experiment.

The Experiment:

water acidification via coffee beans

Red cabbage liquid approx 96h after roasting and then being sealed in a jar with coffee beans. Note the colours.

To discover the time period over which the beans degas, I decided to utilise an effect that (for reasons unconnected to coffee beans) is currently having an alarming environmental effect: the acidification of water by carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide dissolves in water to form carbonic acid. With the rising atmospheric levels of CO2, this is leading to ocean acidification, which is another factor in the “global weirding” phenomenon. For the degassing experiment however, if the roasted beans are sealed in a jar with some water, appreciable CO2 degassing will lead to the water becoming acidic, something that is easily measurable.

Experiment 1 – Red Cabbage, Do the coffee beans really degas CO2?

red cabbage, acidity, indicator, natural indicator, coffee bean degassing

The colours of the red cabbage liquid on tissue. Control sample is on the left, light roast in the middle, dark roast on the right

An acidity indicator that you may well have in your kitchen is red cabbage. Liquid extracted from red cabbage is initially purple but will turn blue in the presence of an alkali or red if it is exposed to an acid. For the experiment, three (identical) jars were prepared each containing 60 ml of red cabbage indicator and three (identical) shot glasses. Each shot glass contained either 10g of dark roast, 10g of light roast or nothing (as a control). The coffee beans were kept dry and out of the water by placing them in the shot glasses. The jars were closed, sealed with sellotape and then left. On opening the jars, (approximately 96h after roasting) the two that had contained the coffee beans had turned red (indicating acidity) while the control jar remained purple – see pictures. It is a pretty way of showing the acidification of the water by carbon dioxide and confirms that the beans are degassing. To establish the duration of degassing, it would be necessary to refresh the red cabbage liquid and measure for a further period of time.

Experiment 2 – testing the pH more systematically.

I headed off to a pet shop to get a pH indicator used by people who keep fish (Nutrafin Test). As with experiment 1, the coffee (10g) was sealed in jars (with 30 ml of water) together with a control. When the jars were first opened (at the same time as the red cabbage jars), the jars containing the coffee showed really low (acidic) pH values (approx 6.0 – 6.5). The control water was neutral or slightly alkali (approx 7.5). The water in each jar was then emptied, the jar rinsed and the water replaced with 30 ml of fresh water which was then sealed in the jar, again for 48h. The picture below shows the evolution of the pH with time (measured as hours after roasting) for the jars containing both roasts. The jar containing the dark roast showed a reduced acidity by 192h (8 days) after roasting (the test tube in the picture is greener), compared with about 288h (12 days) for the light roast. Even after this amount of time however, the water was still becoming slightly more acidic than the control, indicating that the beans were still degassing a little.

pH testing, coffee bean degassing

Testing the pH of the water exposed to the coffee bean degassing. The light roasted beans are on the top row, the dark roast on the bottom row. The ‘hours’ is the number of hours after roasting. The pH is measured by comparing the colour of the liquid in the tube to the colour chart.

Experiment 3 – using a bubble system to ‘catch’ the CO2

A third experiment to try to ‘catch’ the CO2 degassing from the beans (in an adaptation of this experiment) sadly did not work on either occasion that I tried it. If you try it and get it to work with with equipment that you can find around the house, please let me know via the comments section below.

Conclusions:

The coffee tried here, Daterra, Bourbon Yellow, degassed significantly for 6 days after the roasting date. The time over which the beans degassed, was dependent on the roast type, with the dark roast degassing for less time, consistent with the thoughts expressed here. Degassing certainly continued for many days after the critical ’72’ hours. Even 10 days after roasting, some degassing was still occurring. To be pedantic about things, the gas was not identified in these experiments. However, the acidification of the water in proximity with the coffee beans is consistent with the gas being CO2.

Please do try this at home and send me your results and pictures. Let me know what you find out, whether you use red cabbage or a bubble system that works. One thing that these experiments did not do at all of course was monitor how the beans tasted over a similar time frame to the degassing experiment. Perhaps you have thoughts on this. Please send your comments via the form below, comments are moderated but will (hopefully) be approved pretty quickly after you submit them.

Thanks again to Roasting House for being very efficient about sending me freshly roasted coffee and also to Tyla for helping to independently test the red cabbage experiment.

The hot chocolate effect

hot chocolate effect, Raphas

A ready prepared hot chocolate

This is an effect that reveals how sound travels in liquids. It enables us to understand the milk steaming process involved in making lattes and yet, it can be studied in your kitchen. It has an alternative name, “The instant coffee effect”, but we won’t mention that on this website any further. To study it you will need,

1) a mug (cylindrical is preferable),
2) some hot chocolate powder (no, instant coffee really will not do even if it does work)
3) a teaspoon
4) a wooden chopstick (optional, you can use your knuckle)

Make the hot chocolate as you usually would and stir. Then, remove the spoon and repeatedly tap on the bottom of the mug with the wooden chopstick (you could instead use your knuckle). Over the course of about a minute, you will hear the note made by the chopstick rise (not having a musical ear, I will have to trust that this can be by as much as three octaves).

resonator, mouth organ

The length of the pipes in this mouth organ determine the note heard. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum

What is happening? Well, just like an organ pipe, the hot chocolate mug acts as a resonator. As the bottom surface of the hot chocolate is fixed in the mug and the top surface is open to the air, the lowest frequency of sound wave that the hot chocolate resonator sustains is a quarter wavelength. The note that you hear depends not just on the wavelength, but also on the speed of sound in the hot chocolate, and it is this last bit that is changing. When you put in the water and stir, you introduce air bubbles into the drink. With time (and with tapping the bottom surface), the air bubbles leave the hot chocolate. The speed of sound in a hot chocolate/air bubble mixture is lower than the speed of sound in hot chocolate without air bubbles. Consequently, the frequency of the note you hear is higher in the hot chocolate without bubbles than in the former case.

Let’s use this to make a prediction about what happens when a barista steams milk ready for a latte. At first, the steam wand introduces air and bubbles into the mixture but it is not yet warming the milk considerably. From above, we expect that the speed of sound will decrease as the bubbles are introduced. This will have the effect of making the ‘note’ that you hear on steaming the milk, lower. At the same time the resonator size is increasing (as the new bubbles push the liquid up the sides of the pitcher). This too will act to decrease the note that is heard as you steam (though the froth will also act to damp the vibration, we’ll neglect this effect for the first approximation). At a certain point, the steam wand will start to heat the milk. The speed of sound increases with the temperature of the milk and so the note will get higher as the milk gets warmer.

So this is my prediction, musically inclined baristas can tell me if there is any truth in this:

1) On initially putting the steam wand into the cold milk, the tone of the note heard as the milk is steamed, will decrease.
2) This decrease will continue for some time until the milk starts to get warm when the note increases again.
3) Towards the end of the process, the note heard on steaming the milk will continue to increase until you stop frothing.
4) It should be possible, by listening to the milk being steamed, to know when the milk is ready for your latte just by listening to it (if you are experienced and always use similar amounts of milk per latte drink).

So, let me know if this is right and, if it is wrong, why not let me know what you think is happening instead. I’d be interested to know your insights into the hot chocolate effect in a milk pitcher.

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 Gardensafari.net for the photos. The photos from Garden Safari are © www.gardensafari.net