General Observations

Coffee (beans) in the blood?

Brazil nut effect
A green bean ‘floating’ in coffee grounds. When you pour your beans into your grinder, do they behave like a liquid flow or do they have their own type of ‘granular’ flow?

When you first learn about liquids, solids and gases, you may learn about the fact that a solid keeps its shape whereas a liquid flows. A solid is rigid and can be moved as one block whereas a liquid will spread and change shape. Solids can be stacked up like bricks though this is not true of liquids.

A slightly unfair question is then put to you. What about sand? (Or, in the context of this website, what about coffee beans?). A pile of beans will initially stack but as the pile builds, avalanches will occur to prevent the tower being too vertical. When you pour your beans into your grinder hopper, the beans will level out, in much the same way as the eventual coffee will in the cup. Do the collection of coffee beans move more as if they are a liquid or a solid?

Clearly to some extent the question is wrong, the beans represent their own class of structure but perhaps a better way of asking the question would be, how do a collection of coffee beans flow? It is a question with consequences beyond the coffee hopper. From pharmaceuticals to civil engineering projects and beyond, understanding how granular materials flow is an important topic.

Beans on a plate. The aspect ratio of the coffee bean is similar to that of the particles used in a new study to analyse granular flow.

And yet it has apparently been difficult to analyse this problem owing to the difficulty in tracking individual coffee beans (tablets or particles of cement) as they are pushed in one direction or another. A start was made nearly 20 years ago when a team at the University of Chicago used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI, yes, the same MRI as you get in hospitals) to image individual mustard and poppy seeds as they flowed between two cylinders. The imaging allowed researchers to track the position and velocity and packing density of the seeds as they moved around the cylinders. Then, last year a new study used X-ray tomography to watch individual particles in a rectangular box as they were subjected to being pushed at various pressures in different directions. This, more recent study used plastic ellipses with a minor axis of 6.35mm and an aspect ratio of 1.5. Sadly, not real coffee beans but a fairly large plastic equivalent. While the aspect ratio will of course vary from varietal to varietal and even bean to bean, the coffee beans in my hopper at the moment have an aspect ratio of 1.3 (and a minor axis of 4.5mm) which makes them pretty close to the plastic used in the study.

Brew&Bread, latte art Sun, KL latte art
The structures in milk allow the milk to be ‘frothed’ and so enable latte art. They also make milk an example of a complex fluid.

By tracking each bean, the study discovered that such granular collections moved as if they were “complex fluids”. Which is all very well but does makes you wonder, what is a complex fluid? Is coffee a complex fluid?

Does the definition help? The definition on the Physics (APS) website says that: complex fluids “can be considered homogeneous at the macroscopic (or bulk) scale, but are disordered at the “microscopic” scale, and possess structure at an intermediate scale.”. What does that mean? Well, it seems to mean that complex fluids contain things that are larger than the molecules that make up the liquid and so affect how the fluid flows. Milk has long chains of proteins and fats (which give it the foam like qualities when it is frothed in a cappuccino) and so is a complex fluid. Chocolate and blood are other complex fluids as are emulsions and gels. Pure water would not be a complex fluid and my guess is that coffee (which contains water molecules and various molecules associated with the coffee itself) is also not a complex fluid. Were you to have a latte or a cortado though, the milk would transform your coffee into a complex fluid. Although I much prefer to keep my coffee simple, it would seem that there is more to the saying “you have coffee in your blood” than it would at first appear, particularly as regards the coffee beans. It may be time for some experimental tests of coffee bean (and coffee or latte liquid) flow….

General Home experiments Observations Science history slow Tea

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.

Coffee cup science General Home experiments Observations slow

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.


General Sustainability/environmental Tea

Would you like plastic in that?

Straws with viscous liquid (milkshake) in them
Do you need that straw?

Plastic Free July starts in just a few days time. Each year this initiative encourages us to eliminate, or at least reduce, our use of single use plastic throughout the month of July. It is a great way to increase our awareness of our plastic use by attempting not to use any.

There are numerous reasons that we may want to reduce our plastic consumption. In addition to the problems of litter associated with plastic waste, there are problems for wildlife caused by ingesting our rubbish. Even if we dispose of it responsibly, plastic takes a long time to degrade. It is thought provoking to consider that the take-away cup that we discarded yesterday may still be lying in some landfill site years after we have forgotten about drinking that coffee. So what can be done about it and what are the specific issues for coffee drinkers?

air valve, plastic, environmental coffee packaging
Air valves and metallised plastic are common packaging materials for freshly roasted coffee, but can we avoid them?

One way to start to reduce our dependence on single use plastic is to understand how much we actually use on a day by day basis. Registering for a plastic free July is one way of doing this. As a result of attempting a Plastic Free July last year, I have found some plastic-free habits that have stuck with me all year. Loose leaf tea is one such improvement (teabags can also contain plastic). Although initially it seemed a bit of a pain to use a basket to brew the tea, as I kept with the habit I found it easy to compost the tea leaves after making a brew and the tea tastes better too. Things like shampoo bars and tooth ‘paste’ tablets (from Lush) have also been better and longer lasting than similar products packaged in plastic bottles.  Although some plastic habits are hard to break, living as plastic free as possible for one month did deepen my awareness of the plastic that I take for granted.

But perhaps living plastic free for a month is too daunting? An alternative challenge sadly emphasises just how linked coffee drinking can be to single-use plastic consumption. The Top 4 challenge asks you to eliminate, just for July, the target take-away items. Of these 4, at least 2 (and arguably 3) are linked to coffee drinking or cafés. The top 4 are plastic bags, bottles, take-away coffee cups and straws. Could you avoid these for just one month? Take the challenge.

blue tits, mint water, mint infusion, mint leaves in water
Enjoying a glass of water in a cafe can be better than running with a bottle of water anyway.

If you are ready to go plastic-free in your coffee habits, here’s a list of where we frequently encounter single-use plastic while drinking in cafés or even at home, together with suggestions of how to avoid the plastic where appropriate. Please let me know in the comments section below if you can think of further examples (and how you are avoiding them either in July or more permanently).

  • Disposable take-away coffee cups – get and use a re-usable one. You can find a helpful comparison of different types of re-usable coffee cups on Brian’s Coffee Spot.
  • Tea bags – yes they can contain plastic, see more information here. To avoid them, get hold of a metal tea basket, or even a tea pot and strainer and start investigating loose leaf tea.
  • Water bottles/soft drinks bottles – if in a café, why not enjoy the moment by staying with a glass of water rather than grabbing a bottle? If you are in a hurry though, a flask (such as klean-kanteen) is a great investment. In some parts of London (and perhaps elsewhere?) chilled tap water is available on tap for use in re-usable bottles
  • Air valves on your roasted coffee bag – do you really need these? The Nottingham based coffee roaster, Roasting House, did a taste test on freshly roasted coffee packaged with and without air valves, you can read their results here. If the coffee roaster that you normally purchase coffee from insists on using air-valves, why not write to them to request that they reconsider their packaging or try a more environmentally conscious roasting company to see how their coffee compares?
  • Coffee packaging – What type of material did the last bag of coffee that you purchased come in? Chances are it was metallised plastic, why not find a roaster with alternative packaging? Who knows, you may find another great coffee roaster to add to the ones that you buy from.
  • Straws – why would you use these anyway?
  • Milk bottles – Some companies still supply milk in glass bottles, otherwise you could consider non-dairy milks that can be home-made such as oat or almond. Some cafés also offer home-made non-dairy milks which would be a way of going plastic free while enjoying a latte in a café.
  • Cakes/sandwiches packaging – in larger chains these may come in packaging. However, if they are coming in packaging then they are not likely to be that fresh, find somewhere else with better cakes or sandwiches or make your own!
  • Spoons/cutlery
  • Packaging for sugar etc – ditching the sugar is supposed to be good for you anyway. If you cannot resist sweetening your coffee, try to find a sugar that is packaged in paper rather than plastic.
  • Washing up liquid – switching to a re-fillable washing up liquid reduces (but does not eliminate entirely) plastic waste.

Good luck if you take the challenge. There are still a few days left to plan how you can reduce the plastic in your life before the start of Plastic Free July 2017. Please do let me know how your attempts to be plastic free go and whether you find, as I did last year, that you enjoy your tea (or even coffee) more when you do so.



Coffee review Observations Science history slow Sustainability/environmental Tea

Seeing the light at Cable Co, Kensal Rise

coffee in Kensal Rise, Cable Co
Cable Co, coffee in Kensal Rise

It was fairly late on a February afternoon that we came upon Cable Co on Chamberlayne Road, (opposite Kensal Rise station). With a fairly ‘industrial’ type look, there are plenty of tables at the edge (and in the window) of the café at which to enjoy your coffee. There are also plenty of coffees on offer. Although I had an Americano, I noticed (too late) that pour-overs were available. Coffee is roasted by Climpson and Sons. As it was late in the day, the remaining cakes in the display case all looked to be nutty (or at least likely to be nutty) and so, sadly, I had to wait until I got home for my slice of cake. It was good coffee though, even without the cake, but in a bit of novelty the coffee came ‘deconstructed’, so I got to add the amount of water that I preferred, a nice touch.

Golden light from the setting sun streamed in through the windows (which is a navigation clue & tells you which side of the road this café is on). The effect of the Sun was to bathe the café in light and to silhouette our fellow coffee imbibers making the café take on a film-like atmosphere. The light had another effect though. The steam rising from both the jug of water and my espresso became far more visible than it would normally have been. I watched as the steam clouds formed vortices and turbulent patterns, one fluid (steam) moving through another (air). It was very difficult to catch this in a photograph, a fact that I took in support of my idea that it is impossible to catch the beautiful, beauty is necessarily transient (but my companion in these reviews took as evidence in favour of their idea that I really ought to use a “proper”, manual, camera and not my iPhone).

Steam, scattering, colour
Steam rising from hot water, seen at Cable Co, Kensal Rise

Still, those turbulent rising patterns of steam were visible and that implies that light was being scattered from the droplets of water in the steam. The size of the droplets influences the colour that we perceive when we view the steam clouds. If the clouds appear white, it is because the droplets that are scattering the sunlight have a diameter roughly equal to (or greater than) the wavelength of visible light. The wavelength of light varies between about 400 nm (violet) to 700 nm (red) which means that these water droplets have to be at least 700 nm across. To put this in perspective, the smallest particles of coffee in an espresso grind are about 10 μm diameter which is 14 x bigger than the droplets in the steam cloud.

Of course, how water droplets scatter light above a steaming coffee has implications for our understanding of why the clouds in the sky appear white (and why the sky is blue). Someone who did a lot of early work in understanding the way that light scattered off water droplets in air was John Tyndall (1820-1893). Tyndall was an experimentalist as well as a famous communicator of science. He regularly gave lectures at the Royal Institution that included demonstrations of the experiments that he himself was working on¹. One of these involved scattering light from water droplets (and therefore demonstrating why he thought the sky was blue).

Interior of Cable co
Light streaming into the cafe.

The idea is that sunlight scatters from water droplets differently depending on the diameter of the droplet. When the water droplets are approximately the diameter of the wavelength of red light, 700 nm, there is very little wavelength dependence to the light scattering. Practically this means that the droplets will appear white. If on the other hand, the droplets are much smaller than the wavelength of light, the light scattering starts to be wavelength dependent. So as the droplet gets smaller, blue light (short wavelength) gets scattered a lot by the droplets, while red light (long wavelength) is not scattered so much. This means that if you are looking at a cloud of steam formed by these small droplets at an angle between the sunlight and yourself (say, 90º), the cloud will appear to have a blue tinge. If on the other hand you look straight through the cloud at the sunlight coming in, it will have a red-hue because the blue light will have been scattered out of the cloud leaving only the red colours to come through.

The experiment can be easily demonstrated at home by using very dilute milk in water (see video here or further explanation here). If you put a few drops of milk in a glass of water and then look at the colour of the milky-water as a function of angle, you should see it change from red to blue as you move the glass relative to the light source. The connection with the blue sky seems clear, small particles (in-fact, they can be as small as molecules) scatter blue light preferentially and so, apart from at sunrise and sunset, the sky will appear blue. As Tyndall wrote:

“This experiment is representative, and it illustrates a general principle…. that particles of infinitesimal size, without any colour of their own, and irrespective of the optical properties exhibited by the substances in a massive state, are competent to produce the colour of the sky.”²

Cable Co is at 4 Bridge House, Chamberlayne Road, NW10 3NR

¹A Vision of Modern Science, John Tyndall and the role of the scientist in Victorian culture, U. DeYoung, Palgrage MacMillan, 2011

²Quoted in John Tyndall, Essays on a Natural Philosopher, Ed. WH. Brock, ND. McMillan, RC. Mollan, Royal Dublin Society, 1981


General Home experiments Observations Tea

Bouncing Coffee

floating, bouncing drops
Water droplets ‘floating’ on a bath of water (actually they bounce rather than float).

Perhaps you remember the video about how to ‘float’ coffee droplets on water posted on the Daily Grind a few weeks ago? The video featured an experiment that you could do at home in which droplets of water (or coffee, or even, if you were feeling adventurous, tea) could be made to stay as spherical droplets on the surface of a shallow dish of water for minutes at a time. Of course there were a few tricks: The water had soap added to it (10ml of soap to 100ml of water) and the shallow dish was on a loudspeaker which was playing music at the time. The whole experiment was very pretty. But hopefully as well as appreciating the aesthetics, you were asking ‘how’ and ‘why’? Why does the addition of soap mean that these globules of liquid appear to float on the liquid surface? And is the rumour you have heard about a connection with quantum physics true?

Well it turns out that people have known about these floating droplets for over a hundred years but why they behave as they do is still being investigated. It is another case of cutting-edge science appearing in your coffee cup*. So it’s worth taking a look at what is going on and why we needed to add soap and vibration for the droplets to remain stable on the water surface.

lilies on water, rain on a pond, droplets
When it rains, the rain drops don’t float on the pond

It seems to appeal to common sense and to everyday experience that if we drop a droplet onto a bath of water, the droplet will merge with the water and become part of the bath. After all, when we bring two drops that we have dripped on a table close to each other, at a certain distance between the two drops, they appear to touch and then rapidly merge into one big droplet (try it). And when it rains onto a pond, we don’t see lots of spherical droplets hovering over the surface of the pond! We know that it is the attractive van der Waals forces that bring the two drops together and then the effects of surface tension that minimise the surface area of the drops so that they become one big drop. So how is it that we can get a droplet to remain, as a droplet, on the surface of a bath of water?

How to bounce water droplets on a water surface

It could be said that the answer can be pulled out of thin air: Before the drops can merge, the air that separates them has to escape from the area between the droplet and the water bath. If the droplet can somehow be made to bounce back upwards before the air separating the droplet from the bath becomes thin enough for the two liquids to combine, the air could be made into a cushion to keep pushing the droplet upwards. This is why the experiment needs to be done with a vibrating dish of water, each time the surface vibrates upwards it is providing the drop with an acceleration upwards that overcomes gravity, like a miniature trampoline: The droplet is not floating, it is bouncing.

So why soap? We all know that the addition of soap decreases the surface tension of the water. But that is not why the addition of soap helps to stabilise the drops in this instance. No, soap has another effect and that is to increase the surface viscosity (and surface elasticity) of the water. Think about the air between the droplet and the dish. As the droplet bounces down (ie. the distance between droplet and water becomes a minimum), the air gets squeezed out of the layer between the droplet and the bath. On the other hand, as the droplet reaches its peak height, air will rush into the gap between the drop and the bath. If the liquid is not very viscous (eg. water), as the air rushes in (or gets squeezed out), it will combine with the liquid and form a turbulent layer on the surface of the droplet. If the viscosity is increased, the air cannot ‘entrain’ the liquid as the droplet bounces and so the drop keeps its shape more easily and is more stable. Soap increases the surface viscosity of the droplet and so helps with this effect. However soap also increases the surface elasticity and makes it harder for the air to flow out of the layer separating the drop from the bath. It is because soap does multiple things to the water (or coffee) that more recent studies have focussed on liquids with controllable viscosity but minimal surfactant effects, i.e. silicone oils. It is just that if you want it to work with coffee, it is easier to add the soap to get the experiment to work.

An “un-cut” video of coffee on water shows how tricky it can be to actually get these drops to be stable on the surface of the water.

Which leaves the quantum link. The experiment shown in the videos show single droplets (or droplet patterns) stabilised by vibrations caused by music. If instead of music you use fixed frequencies to excite resonances through the speakers, it is possible to get the droplet to resonate in a controlled way and, at a certain point, it will move. As the droplet moves, it appears to be guided by the vibrations of the liquid underneath the drop, it is a particle guided by a ‘pilot wave’. It turns out that such walking droplets show behaviour reminiscent of the ‘wave particle duality‘ found in quantum physics where particles (such as electrons and other sub-atomic particles) can be described both as particles and as waves. You can find a video describing the similarities between these bouncing droplets and quantum effects here.


* Ok, so you may not want to add soap to your coffee to see this effect but actually I first observed it in a milky tea. Adding milk to the coffee/tea would increase its viscosity which makes the observation of the bouncing droplets more likely. The ‘milk’ used in the video was actually soya milk which did not appear to increase the viscosity sufficiently to allow the droplets to bounce on the surface without soap.

Coffee cup science Observations slow

Coffee & Contrails (I)

contrail, sunset
A set of criss-crossing contrails taken in the evening.

If you gaze up at the sky on a clear day, you will often see a few contrails tracing their way across the blue. Formed as a result of water in the atmosphere condensing onto exhaust particles from aeroplanes, contrails are a regular feature of the skies in our modern life. There are at least two ways that I can think of, in which the physics of the contrail is connected to the physics of the coffee cup, so, there will be two Daily Grind articles about them. This first one, about the physics of how we see them, and a second post (scheduled for 10th June) about interesting effects that we can see in them.

Perhaps now would be a good point to go and make a cup of coffee before coming back to this post. Make sure that you notice how the steam clouds form above the kettle spout as the water boils. Do you see the steam at the spout itself, or just a few centimetres above it? With the cup next to you, notice the steam rising above it. Does the steam seem more obvious on some days than others? For example, the coffee always seems to me to steam more on cold damp days in winter than on warm-ish days in late spring. Both of these observations (about where and when we see the steam clouds) are mirrored in the contrails, it’s time to take a closer look at the coffee.

V60 from Leyas
The clouds above a coffee cup are a rough indicator of the relative humidity.

The difference in the day to day visibility of the steam above the coffee cup is an indicator of the relative humidity of the atmosphere. If we prepare our cup of coffee on a day when the relative humidity is already high, adding that extra bit of water vapour from the cup leads to clouds of steam above the mug, as the water condenses into droplets of liquid water and forms clouds. If our coffee was instead prepared on a day with low relative humidity, the water vapour above the coffee cup is less likely to condense into clouds. Contrails are formed high in the atmosphere when the relative humidity is quite high. Exhaust particles from the engines of the plane offer a surface onto which the water in the surrounding (humid) atmosphere can condense to form clouds. We know that it is mostly the atmospheric moisture that is forming the contrails (rather than water from the exhaust itself) because of research done by NASA. In research flights, the amount of water vapour leaving the aeroplane engine was 1.7 grammes per metre of travel while the mass of water in the contrail was estimated to be between 20.7 and 41.2 kilograms per metre. This means that contrails can give a clue as to the weather: on dry days, contrails will not form because the water in the atmosphere is likely to remain a gas and therefore invisible to us, it is only when the air is already quite humid that contrails are likely to form and persist.

glass of milk, sky, Mie scattering
A glass of (diluted) milk can provide clues as to the colours of the clouds in the sky as well as the sky itself

Then there is the question of why we see them at all. Contrails appear as white clouds trailing behind the plane. We see them as white because of an optical effect caused by the size of the condensed droplets of water (actually ice) in the contrail. Objects appear as having different colours either as a result of light absorption by chemicals in the object (leaves are green because of chlorophyll) or as a result of light scattering from the object. A water droplet is colourless and so the colour we see coming from the droplet must be purely a consequence of light scattering rather than a light absorption effect. Clouds appear white because the water droplets within the cloud are as large, or larger than, the wavelength of visible light (0.7 μm). Droplets this size will scatter all wavelengths of visible light and so appear white. If the droplets were much smaller than the wavelength of light they would scatter different wavelengths by different amounts. It is because the atmosphere is full of such tiny particles (and molecules) that blue light is scattered more than red light in the atmosphere and so the sky appears blue to us from our vantage point on the Earth’s surface. Milk is composed of large fat droplets (which will scatter a white light) and smaller molecules which will preferentially scatter blue light, just as the sky. This is why you can mimic the colours of the sky in a glass of milk. It is because the water droplets have formed a few cm above the kettle spout that you can see them scattering the light. For exactly the same reason, the contrails in the sky appear as white clouds.

A hot air balloon in a sky full of contrails

Contrails can persist in the sky for anything from a few minutes to a few days. Just like clouds, contrails affect the way that light (and heat) is reflected from the Sun or back towards the Earth. However, unlike normal clouds they are entirely man-made, another factor that could have an unknown effect on our climate. A few years ago, a volcano eruption in Iceland caused the closure of UK airspace (as well as the airspace of much of Europe). I remember being in the queue to buy a cup of coffee in the physics department and hearing the excited conversation of two atmospheric physicists behind me. For the first time they were able to study some particular atmospheric effects without the influence of any contrails. In effect they could start to understand the influence of contrails by this unique opportunity of taking measurements during their absence. What was a major pain in the neck for so many travellers in 2010 meant a lot of extra (but presumably very interesting) work for them.

Coffee & Contrails (II) is about the structures you can sometimes see within the contrail. If you can think of any other connections between coffee and contrails (or coffee and clouds) why not let us know in the comments section below.

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.