Coffee cup science Observations

A shocking coffee connection

There have been some fantastic thunderstorms in London lately. Perhaps nothing to rival thunderstorms in the tropics but for this region of the world they were quite impressive. One lightning storm in particular came very close. Thank goodness for lightning conductors! Perhaps the connection between lightning storms and coffee is not obvious. But maybe this is because you mop up your coffee spillages too quickly.

Reynolds, rain, waves, pond, raining
There are so many coffee-physics connections with rain and weather. It’s worth looking out for more.

The link is in the mess and the maths. It turns out that the maths describing water evaporating out of a drying coffee droplet is the same, in one crucial detail, as the maths describing the electric fields around a lightning conductor. If we want to see why this may be, we need to get a little bit messy and spill some coffee.

The question is how do coffee rings form? We know that to start with the solids in the coffee are distributed fairly evenly throughout the drink. It is the same when you spill it, initially a spilled drop of coffee looks like, well, coffee. But if you wait as this spilled coffee dries, you will find that a ring starts to form around the edge of the drop. How? How does a uniform coffee distribution when the drop is first spilled become a ring of coffee solids around the edge of the dried drop?

coffee ring, ink jet printing, organic electronics
Why does it form a ring?

A number of different aspects of physics feed into this problem but the one that is relevant to the lightning conductors concerns how the water in the drop evaporates. If you think about how a water molecule escapes (evaporates from) the droplet, it is not going to go shooting off like a rocket blasted out from the drop. Instead it will take a step out the drop then encounter a molecule in the air and get deflected to a slightly different path and again, and again, and so on. It follows the same sort of “random walk” that we know that the bits of dust on a coffee surface follow (and the same sort of random walk that provides a link between coffee and the movements of the financial stock exchange but that is a whole other topic).

Now think about the shape of that spilled coffee drop. If a water molecule were to evaporate from the top of the dome of the drop, it has a certain probability of escaping but it also, because its path is random, has a certain probability of re-entering the droplet. A water molecule at the edge of the droplet however will have a lower probability of re-entering the droplet purely on the basis that there isn’t so much of the droplet around it. Over many molecules and many ‘escape attempts’, this lower probability of re-absorption will translate to a higher flux of water molecules evaporating from the droplet at the edges. The water will evaporate ‘more quickly’ from the edge of the droplet than from the top of it.

artemisdraws, evaporating droplet
As the water molecules leave the droplet, they are more likely to escape if they are at the edge than if they are at the top. Image © @artemisworks

When this is written mathematically, the rate of evaporating water is related to the contact angle between the drop and the surface. The shallower the angle, the higher the rate of evaporation or equivalently, the greater the ‘flux’. It is this mathematical expression that is the same as for the lightning conductor if, rather than refer to an evaporating water flux we refer to an electric field. So the more pointy the conductor, the greater the field concentration around it. A shocking example of the idea that everything is connected.

Of course, there is much more to the coffee ring than this with physics that relates coffee rings to bacterial colonies, burning cigarette papers and soap boats. If you are interested, you can read more about how coffee rings form (including why a higher evaporation rate helps lead to a coffee ring effect) here. If on the other hand you want some well justified thinking time, go spill some coffee and watch as the coffee dries.

Coffee review Observations Tea

Light and gravity at Tab x Tab, Westbourne Grove

drinks in ceramic mugs, Westbourne Grove
A soya hot chocolate and my black coffee at Tab x Tab

Earlier this summer, a new café opening on Westbourne Grove attracted a lot of attention. “Tab x Tab” quickly received reviews from Brian’s Coffee Spot (who noted the unusual espresso machine), Bean There at and Doubleskinnymacchiato. Bean There at also suggested that there should be plenty to ponder at Tab x Tab when I finally got the chance to get there. And so, a trip to this café had been on the agenda for a fair while.

Wandering into the café, it seemed exactly as described by the reviews: clean, sharp interiors in a modern building. It was fairly crowded when we arrived just after lunch and so we ordered before taking a seat at the bar (two of the few seats left). I had a long black while my fellow imbiber had a soya hot chocolate. The drinks arrived in those distinctive mugs mentioned by doubleskinnymacchiato (and pictured above). As we had just had lunch, on this occasion we didn’t check the edibles on offer but with plenty of other reviews of the coffee and the cake, I’m sure that you’ll find recommendations there (I understand the avocado on toast with cashew nut is well worth trying).

Graphite, double layer graphene, stacked hexagons
Plant on two slates at Tab x Tab, Westbourne Grove

Sitting down to enjoy our drinks, the first thing to notice was that Bean There at was absolutely right. Despite the slightly minimal and elegant decoration, there were plenty of things dotted around that were slightly quirky. Firstly there was the plant that had been placed on two hexagons of slate that had been ever so slightly displaced from each other, presumably for aesthetic effect. Could this link to graphene and graphite with their strong intra-layer bonding and weak interlayer bonding (so the hexagons of carbon in graphite slide over each other)?

Then there was the selection of items for sale that also provided food for thought. Books and other items from the School of Life, something to think about as you stop with your coffee perhaps. In the other direction, on the counter top, a couple of Venus Fly Traps were waiting for their lunch. There is so much we have yet to learn about the symbiotic relationships between plants and animals and especially between plants and fungi. As we looked further around the café, there was something else a little odd. Just as the name “Tab” was written both the correct way and upside down in the window, so the plants in the hanging baskets were hanging upside down.

which will win, gravity or light
Plants hanging upside down in the window at Tab x Tab

This seemed a bit strange in itself. Plants have a tendency to move upwards towards the light. This behaviour of plants (and trees in particular) provides one way to identify which way is south when walking in the country without a compass¹. It is odd to see a plant growing downwards and suggests that the plants in the window are regularly rotated so that they don’t try to reach up. As Simone Weil wrote “Two forces rule the universe: light and gravity”². Which would win in the end? To be fair, Weil was not referring to the light that streamed through the windows in Tab x Tab giving the plants the force they need to move upwards. Nonetheless, whether one is thinking literally or analogously, it is an interesting question what pulls us down, what brings us up?

There is a story that Newton arrived upon his idea of universal gravitation by contemplating a falling apple. Considering that the plants were approximately 2m above the floor level, and using the fact that the acceleration due to gravity, g,  is 10 m/s², if the plants were to fall from their hanging position, they would take:

s = ½gt²

t = 0.6 seconds

to fall and smash to the ground*. While this brings to mind Newton’s experiments dropping pigs bladders filled with liquid mercury from the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, it is worth instead thinking more about the universal nature of the gravitational force. This is of course what made Newton’s idea of gravity different from the theories that had preceded it. People had known that if an apple fell from a tree (or a plant fell from its hanging basket) it would fall to Earth. What was key to Newton’s idea was that what applied to the apple, applied to all other masses too. The same maths that could be used to calculate how fast a plant dropped, could be applied to the Moon. So, if this was the case, could we calculate the orbital distance of the Moon in the time it took us to enjoy a coffee at Tab x Tab? We know that the Moon’s orbital period is τ = 27.3 days (2.36 x 10^6 seconds) so assuming that the gravitational force acting on the Moon is balanced by the centripetal force, we can equate the two:

Gravity: F = GMm/r²

Centripetal: F = mv²/r

Where, G is the gravitational constant (6.67 x 10^11 Nm²/kg²), M is the mass of the Earth (5.97 x 10^24 Kg), m is the mass of the Moon and r the moon’s orbital distance (which is what we want to calculate). If we assume that the Moon travels in a circular orbit (not quite true but not a bad first approximation), then we know the speed, v, of the moon in terms of the orbit period, it is just:

v = 2πr/τ

A bit of re-arrangement and some plugging in of values leads to a back-of-the-envelope value for the Moon’s orbital distance of 383 000 Km. A value that does not compare badly at all with the average distance of the Moon given by NASA as 384 400 Km.

Perhaps if we’d stayed for an additional flat white we could have refined the calculation somewhat and so obtained a value closer to reality. Nevertheless, the fact that the force that is pulling the plant down at Tab x Tab is the same as is pulling the Moon around the Earth, and that we can quickly check this (and get an approximately correct answer to our calculation), is one of those ‘wow’ moments in physics. Realising the universality, and elegance, of certain mathematical relations. So perhaps it is entirely appropriate that this thought train of mathematical elegance was prompted by the quirky but aesthetic elegance you will find at Tab x Tab.

Tab Tab can be found at 14-16 Westbourne Grove, W2 5RH

¹ The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs, Tristan Gooley, Hodder & Stoughton, 2014

² Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil, Routledge (1995 vsn)

*Although you could use a more accurate value for g, the error on the estimate of the height of the plants makes such precision potentially misleading. The value 0.6 seconds is absolutely a back-of-the-envelope, calculation.

cafe with good nut knowledge Coffee review Science history

Hanging out at J+A Cafe, Clerkenwell

Exterior of J and A cafe (the bar is on the other side of the passageway)
Exterior of J and A cafe (the bar is on the other side of the passageway)

Tucked down a little alley, in the back streets of Clerkenwell is the J+A Cafe. Not just a cafe, but also a bar, J+A is a satisfying place to find, particularly if you happen to find it serendipitously. As you head down the alley, the café is on your right whereas the bar opens up on your left. The café is simply furnished, with bare brick walls adorned with a few impressionist paintings. There are plenty of seats at which to enjoy good coffee and home-made cake. Their website suggests that J+A specialise in Irish baking and so we dutifully had a slice of Guinness and chocolate cake with our coffees. Importantly, the dreaded “does it contain nuts?” question was met with a knowledgable answer and without the ‘frightened bunny face’ that I often encounter when I ask this question. J+A definitely gets a tick in the ‘cafe’s with good nut knowledge’ box on my website.

Lights were suspended from the ceiling, connected by wiring that was allowed to hang down, a section of electrical wire held at both ends and freely hanging. While I’m sure that this was done for aesthetic reasons (and certainly it works on that level), such hanging wires are in fact far more than merely pleasing to the eye. Such hanging wires were a mathematical puzzle just four centuries ago. Indeed, these simple hanging wires form curves that are so important they get their own name; they are catenary curves, from catena, the Latin for chain.

lights at J and A coffee Clerkenwell
Between each lamp, the electrical cord formed a catenary curve.

Galileo had thought that a wire hanging under its own weight and suspended at its two end points formed a parabola. A fairly simple curve that is easy to describe mathematically. It was natural for Galileo to assume that these catenary curves were really parabolic. He had earlier shown that objects that fell with gravity followed parabolic paths, and after all, the hanging wires did look almost parabolic. It fell to Joachim Jungius to show that the curve was not parabolic and then to Huygens, Bernoulli and Leibniz to derive the equations determining the form of the curve. Although the differences between the parabola and the catenary curves are subtle, they have profound consequences.

When a chain, or a wire, is suspended and allowed to hang under its own weight, it forms a catenary. Flipping this around, quite literally, a catenary arch will be self-supporting. This means that a vault made of a series of catenaries or a dome that is made into the shape of a catenary will be self-supporting with no need for buttresses. This property of the catenary curve was used by Antonio Gaudi in his designs of the Casa Mila in Barcelona and also by Christopher Wren. The famous dome of St Pauls is not a catenary, but it is not one dome either. It is in fact 3 domes stacked together. The outer dome is spherical (which is weak from a structural point of view) while the inner dome is a catenary. The dome between these two was designed, using the mathematics of the day, to support the impressive outer dome (more info here and here). Wren, was not just an architect, he was also a keen mathematician, there is maths, physics and beauty throughout many architectural designs.

Mathematics in the city reflected in the lights of J+A.

J+A is at 1+4 Sutton Lane, London EC1M 5PU