Lord Kelvin

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.


A ‘brief’ encounter at Coffee Affair

Coffee Affair, Queens Road Station

The exterior of Coffee Affair, yes it really is inside the station

It was a few weeks ago now that I dropped into Coffee Affair on a Saturday afternoon and met Michael (who runs Coffee Affair along with ‘Mags’). What can I say? This place is worth visiting for so many reasons. Firstly of course there is the coffee, so much care and attention to detail was taken when I ordered a pour over Burundi coffee from Round Hill Roastery. I was warned that my coffee would take some time to prepare before the filter was carefully rinsed and the coffee weighed and ground. The final coffee having been made with such attention that I started to understand why they had chosen the name ‘coffee affair’. It is clear that coffee is a passion.

Parquet floor at Coffee Affair

The floor at Coffee Affair.

Then there is the knowledge that Michael brings to the coffee and is happy to share. Thoughts about the best temperature to drink the coffee for example, or details about different brew methods (there is a lovely array of coffee brewing equipment on the wall of the cafe). One thing that really appealed to me though was the place. There are only a couple of tables and a bar but this emphasises the space that Coffee Affair inhabits: A preserved old ticket office. There are windows looking into the station with bars on them through which the tickets used to be sold. There is the oak table that has had years of ticket sellers leaning on it, presumably with a lamp next to their counter as it would have been a lot darker when it was used as a ticket office. Then there is the flooring, original parquet flooring that dates from the time that the station was built.

If you take a seat towards the back of Coffee Affair and look at the floor you can see where the floor has worn down just that little bit as ticket sellers from years ago shuffled at their counters while selling tickets. Like the toe of St Peter, the floor has been worn away by the number of people in contact with it over the years. Between the counters you can see where someone has tried to polish the parquet to minimise this ‘dip’ but has instead managed to produce lines in a slightly more polished floor. Thinking about the wear of the floor reminded me of Charles Darwin’s musings about the erosion of the Weald in the South East of England.

Goudhurst area

How long does it take for such landscapes to form?

In the first edition of Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species” (1859), Darwin included an estimate for the age of the Weald of Kent, the area between the chalk hills of the North and South Downs. Based on his observations of coastal erosion, Darwin calculated that the Weald must have been at least 300 million years old. This was perfectly long enough for the gradual evolutionary steps of natural selection to have occurred. As Darwin said “What an infinite number of generations, which the mind cannot grasp, must have succeeded each other in the long roll of years!”* Looking at the floor at the Coffee Affair, you can get a similar idea as to the number of generations that have stood at the ticket windows.

Darwin’s estimate of the age of the Weald led him into an argument with William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) about the age of the Earth (which you can read more about here). It was Kelvin’s argument about the age of the Earth that Darwin considered “the single most intractable point levelled against his theory during his lifetime”†. The argument was eventually settled in Darwin’s favour, once new physics had been discovered, but only after both Kelvin and Darwin had died. So I’ll leave Darwin the last words for today’s Daily Grind, relevant too for those who have the opportunity to study the floor at Coffee Affair: “He who most closely studies the action of the sea on our shores, will, I believe, be most deeply impressed with the slowness with which rocky coasts are worn away”.*


Coffee Affair is in the old ticket office at Queenstown Road Station, Battersea,

* Quotes from “On the origin of species”, Charles Darwin (Oxford World Classic’s edition, 2008)

†Quote taken from “Charles Darwin, The Power of Place”, Janet Browne, Princeton University Press, 2002