nature abhors a vacuum

Vacuum fillers

inverted Aeropress and coffee stain
The Aeropress on top of a mug, with a coffee spill. Clearly a badly performed inversion method brew.

The Aeropress is a lovely way to make a fairly quick cup of great coffee. Part filter, part immersion, it is a coffee brewer designed by an engineer. There are many ways to make coffee with an Aeropress but common to all is the ‘press’ towards the end where the plunger is pressed down onto the coffee pushing the liquid through the filter paper and into the mug. As you remove the Aeropress at the end, it can drip leading to coffee stains on the work surface. However there is a trick to prevent this. While watching James Hoffmann videos to improve my Aeropress technique, he mentioned that after pressing, he pulls the plunger back up a bit and this helps to prevent dripping. Genius. You can see his recommended Aeropress technique here.

The trick presumably works because the plunger has a rubber (or silicone) seal into the Aeropress base. This ensures that when you pull back the piston, there will be a slight vacuum created just behind the filter paper. As the air flows back into the space behind the filter it will primarily do so via the filter-end of the Aeropress (not the seal) and so any drips that were forming will be pushed back into the brewer. Rubber seals are not fantastically air-tight and will let air in eventually but for the few seconds that you need to take the Aeropress off of the mug and replace it upside down on the work surface this level of vacuum is sufficient.

So how air tight is a rubber seal? The seal in the Aeropress will not be very air tight at all. The seal created is purely through the rubber piston being pushed into the Aeropress body. However purpose-built rubber o-rings can support fairly respectable vacuums. Normal air pressure is 1 Bar or 1000 mBar. Using rubber o-rings that are clamped into place between separate parts of a vacuum chamber, it is perfectly possible to achieve vacuum levels of around 0.01 mBar**. For higher vacuum levels (or equivalently lower pressures), you would need to use a metal seal such as copper. As copper is slightly malleable, if you use it as a join between two parts of a vacuum chamber and clamp it together, you can create a very good (air-tight) seal. In this way you could pump the vacuum chamber to pressures of 10^-8 mBar or even lower. You would need this level of vacuum to make some of the components that are contained in your mobile phone or laptop, possibly even some of the components in the measuring scales you use to weigh the coffee. You would not need that sort of vacuum to make coffee itself.

How to brew a perfect cup? Would a bit of physics help with the clean-up?

The Aeropress is a fairly recent invention and yet similar problems, and solutions to Hoffmann’s trick would have been noticed in the past. And yet there is a common saying that “nature abhors a vacuum”, originally attributed to Aristotle. If we think that the explanation for the effect above seems sensible, how do we reconcile these two ideas? Descartes noted a similar problem in a wine keg. It is like the lid of a take-away coffee cup: for wine (or coffee) to flow out of a hole in a container, another hole is needed. Did the extra hole allow the wine to avoid the vacuum? Instead, Descartes explained it differently:

“When the wine in a cask does not flow from the bottom opening because the top is completely closed, it is improper to say, as they ordinarily do, that this takes place through ‘fear of a vacuum’. We are well aware that the wine has no mind to fear anything; and even if it did, I do not know for what reason it could be apprehensive of this vacuum…”*

The idea was that everything including space was absolutely filled with matter. So the extra hole in the wine keg allowed this extra matter to flow into the keg and the wine to flow out; if the Aeropress plunger is pulled back, matter would immediately flow back into the space created. The drops would be pushed back into the Aeropress and it would not drip. A very similar mechanism to the reason suggested for the behaviour above. It perhaps could cause us to question, what evidence do we have from our own daily lives about the existence of vacuums? How could we personally prove that they exist even as we rely on their existence for our consumer electronics?

Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’ An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 1768 Oil on canvas, 183 × 244 cm Presented by Edward Tyrrell, 1863 NG725

There is a famous painting from the eighteenth century that demonstrates the creation of a vacuum in a home-setting. In “An experiment on a bird in the air pump” (pictured), Joseph Wright depicts the moment that air is taken out of a vacuum chamber containing a bird. The bird collapses in the vacuum as the audience looks on. We know the vacuum exists because the bird no longer has air to breathe. At the moment that we encounter the picture the scientist demonstrating could either let air back into the chamber and allow the bird to live or continue reducing the air pressure at which point the bird will die. What will he choose? The audience display a variety of reactions from the indifference of the couple on the left to the impotent horror of the girls on the right. Only two of the audience seem to be paying attention, even the experimentalist appears to be performing, and not participating in, the experiment. It could be argued that the painting speaks to us of the scientific method and the idea of being detached, outside of and observing the natural world. Imagining ourselves “independent observers” of a situation we are participating in. We are all detached and looking on, both controlling the life of the bird as well as claiming indifference to its fate.

As this was written, COP26 was continuing in Glasgow. We are at a specific point in time, just as with the “experiment on a bird”. Are we going to continue as we are or will we intervene and allow life to recover? Do we tell ourselves that we are indifferent observers or are we co-inhabitants of a common home? These are perhaps not considerations for a website about the physics of coffee. They may be considerations to have while enjoying, or certainly contemplating, a coffee. Whether or not you use a trick from vacuum science to help you clear up.

*Descartes, “The World”, ~1632

**Basic Vacuum Technology, 2nd Ed. Chambers, Fitch and Halliday, Institute of Physics publishing, 1998

Telling the time with an Aeropress?

Aeropress bloom, coffee in an Aeropress

The first stage of making coffee with an Aeropress is to immerse the coffee grind in the water. Here, the plunger is at the bottom of the coffee.

On occasion, it takes a change in our routine for us to re-see our world in a slightly different way. And so it was that when there was an opportunity to borrow an Aeropress together with a hand grinder, I jumped at it. Each morning presented a meditative time for grinding the beans before the ritual of preparing the coffee by a different brew method. Each day became an opportunity to think about something new.

Perhaps it is not as immediately eye catching as the method of a slow pour of water from a swan necked kettle of a V60, and yet making coffee using the Aeropress offers a tremendously rich set of connections that we could ponder and contemplate if we would but notice them. And it starts with the seal. For those who may not be familiar with the Aeropress, a cylindrical ‘plunger’ with a seal tightly fits into a plastic cylinder (brew guide here). The first stage of making a coffee with the Aeropress is to use the cylinder to brew an ‘immersion’ type coffee, exactly as with the French Press (but here, the plunger is on the floor of the coffee maker). Then, after screwing a filter paper and plastic colander to the top of the cylinder and leaving the coffee to brew for a certain amount of time, the whole system is ‘inverted’ onto a mug where some coffee drips through the filter before the rest is forced out using the plunger to push the liquid through the coffee grind.

clepsydra creative commons license British Museum

A 4th century BC Ptolemaic clepsydra in the British Museum collection. Image © Trustees of the British Museum

Immediately perhaps your mind could jump to water clocks where water was allowed to drip out of two holes at the bottom of a device at a rate that allowed people to time certain intervals. It is even suggested that Galileo used such a “clepsydra” to time falling bodies (though I prefer the idea that he sang in order to time his pendulums). With many holes in the bottom of the device and an uneven coffee grind through which the water (coffee) flows, the Aeropress is perhaps not the best clock available to us now. However there is another connection between the Aeropress and the clepsydra that would take us to a whole new area of physics and speculation.

When the medieval thinker Adelard of Bath was considering the issue of whether nature could sustain a vacuum, he thought about the issue of the clepsydra¹. With two holes at the bottom and holes at the top for air, the clepsydra would drip the water through the clock at an even rate. Unless of course the holes at the top were blocked, in which case the water stopped dripping, (a similar thing can be observed when sealing the top of a straw). What kept the water in the jar when the top hole was blocked? What kept it from following its natural path of flowing downwards? (gravity was not understood at that point either). Adelard argued that it was not ‘magic’ that kept the water in when no air could go through, something else was at work.

What could be the explanation? Adelard argued that the universe was full of the four elements (air, water, fire, earth) which are “so closely bound together by natural affection, that just as none of them would exist without the other, so no place is empty of them. Hence it happens, that as soon as one of them leaves its position, another immediately takes its place… When, therefore, the entrance is closed to that which is to come in, it will be all in vain that you open an exit for the water, unless you give an entrance to the air….”²

inverted Aeropress and coffee stain

The Aeropress inverted onto a coffee cup before the plunger is pushed down. Complete with coffee stain behind the cup where the inversion process went awry.

Now, we would argue that whether the water flows down and out of the Aeropress, or not, depends on the balance of forces pushing the water down and those pushing it up. The forces pushing the water down and out of the clepsydra, or Aeropress, are gravity and the air pressure above the water in the cylinder. Pushing it up, it is only the air pressure from below. Ordinarily, the air pressure above and that below the water in the Aeropress are quite similar, gravity wins the tug of war and the water flows out. In an enclosed system however (if the holes at the top are blocked), were the water to flow out of the bottom, the air pressure above the coffee space would reduce. This makes sense because, if no new air gets in, the same amount of air that we had before now occupies a larger volume as the water has left it, the pressure exerted by that air will have to be less than before. A reduced air pressure means a reduced force on the water pushing it down through the filter and so the force pushing the water down can now be perfectly balanced by the force (from the surrounding air) pushing the water up: the water remains in the Aeropress. The only way we get the coffee out is to change the balance of forces on the water which means pushing down the plunger.

But perhaps it is worth stepping back and imagining what the consequences could be of having the idea that the universe was just full of something that had to be continuous. You may find it quite reasonable for example to consider that vortices would form behind and around the planets as they travelled in their circular orbits through this ‘something’*. Such vortices could explain some of the effects of gravity that we observe and so there would perhaps be no urgency to develop a gravitational theory such as the one we have. There would be other consequences, the world of vacuum physics and consequently of electronics would be significantly set back. In his lecture for the Carl Sagan Prize for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science, The Director of the Vatican Observatory, Br Guy Consolmagno SJ explored previous scientific ideas that were almost right, which “is to say wrong” (You can see his lecture “Discarded Worlds: Astronomical Worlds that were almost correct” here) If it is true that so many scientific theories lasted so long (because they were almost correct) but were in fact wrong, how many of our scientific ideas today are ‘almost correct’ too?

It makes you wonder how our preconceptions of the world affect our ability to investigate it. And for that matter, how our ability to contemplate the world is affected by our practise of doing so. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For that to be true, the beholder has to open their eyes, look, contemplate and be prepared to be shown wrong in their preconceptions.

What connections do you make to your coffee brew each morning? I’d love to know, here in the comments, on Twitter or over on Facebook.


* Does a connection between this and stirring your freshly brewed Aeropress coffee with a teaspoon trailing vortices stretch the connectivity a bit too far?

¹ “Much Ado about Nothing: Theories of space and vacuum from the Middle Ages to the Scientific Revolution”, Edward Grant, Cambridge University Press, (1981)

² Quoted from Adelard of Bath’s “Quaestiones Naturales” taken from Much Ado about nothing, page 67.