Have you ever noticed how, if you stir your latte*, when you pull out the spoon it’s piping hot, yet there is no steam rising from the latte itself? That’s because the milk foam on top is such a good thermal insulator thanks to all the tiny air bubbles trapped in it. Cool, isn’t it?
*I never noticed before today, when my friend Sara pointed it out, because I have NEVER before put a spoon in my latte. Because I am always observing double-diffusive mixing in my latte and would never do anything that might destroy the stratification. But this once it might have been worth it. The things we do for science… :-D
Sometimes sitting in a café for a work meeting with #lieblingskollegin Julia can lead to unexpected discoveries of oceanographic processes — in my latte! It’s those little things that inspire blog posts…
“Kitchen oceanography” brings the ocean to your house or class room!
Oceanography is often taught in a highly theoretical way without much reference to students’ real life experience. Of course a sound theoretical basis is needed to understand the complexity of the climate system, but sometimes a little “kitchen oceanography” — doing experiments on oceanographic topics with household items — goes a long way to raise interest in the kind of processes that are not easily observed in the real world. I’ve previously written a lot about simple experiments you can perform just using plastic cups, water, ice cubes, and a little salt. But sometimes it’s even easier: Sometimes your oceanography is being served to you in a cafe!
Oceanic processes can be observed in your coffee!
Have you ever looked at your latte and been fascinated by what is going on in there? Many times you don’t just see a homogenous color, but sometimes you see convection cells and sometimes even layers, like in the picture below.
Layers in a latte.
But do you have any ideas why sometimes your latte looks like this and other times it doesn’t?
When you prepare latte in the right way, many layers form
Layers forming in latte (and in the ocean or in engineering applications) are an active research field! In the article “laboratory layered latte” by Xue et al. (2017), the authors describe that the “injection velocity” of espresso into the warm milk has to be above a critical value in order for these pretty structures to form in a latte. They even provide a movie where you can watch the layers develop over a period of several minutes.
The homogeneous layers with sharp boundaries are caused by double-diffusive mixing
Double-diffusive mixing, which is causing the formation of these layers, is the coolest process in oceanography. In a nutshell, double diffusive mixing is caused by two properties influencing density having different rates of molecular diffusion. These different rates can change density in unexpected ways and an initially stable stratification (high density at the bottom, low density on top) can, over time, become statically unstable. And static instability leads to adjustment processes, where water parcels move in order to reach the position in the fluid where they are statically stable — the fluid mixes.
Layers in half a glass of latte.
But there are more fascinating things going on with the latte. Would you expect this stratification to remain as clearly visible as it is in the picture above even though the glass is now half empty? I did not! And then check out what happens when you move the glass: Internal waves can travel on the boundaries between layers!
You can use this in class to teach about mixing!
Mixing in the ocean is mostly observed by properties changing over time or in space, and even though (dye) tracer release experiments exist, they are typically happening on scales that provide information on the large-scale effects of mixing and not so much on the mixing itself. And they are difficult to bring inside the classroom! But this is where kitchen oceanography and experiments on double-diffusive mixing come in. If you need inspiration on how to do that, I’ve recently published an article on this (unfortunately only in German), but there are plenty of resources on this blog, too. Or shoot me an email and we’ll talk!
P.S.: Even though the coffee company is displayed prominently in the pictures above, they did not pay for my coffee (or anything else). But if they’d be interested and make me a good offer, I’d definitely write up some fun stuff on learning oceanography with coffee for them ;-)
My friends know me well. Especially A&I, which was proven again when they sent me the link to an article about two things that I am mildly obsessed with: Latte and double-diffusive mixing.
My obsession with latte is a fairly recent thing, but I have been known to blog about interesting convection pattern in it (for example here). The obsession with double-diffusive mixing, however, is well documented for more than the last 12 years (for example when I am writing experimental instructions, poems or scientific articles about it).
The double-diffusive process that I have been most concerned with is salt fingering, because it is oh-so-pretty, and also fool-proof to create for teaching purposes (when you know how to do it).
Diffusive layering I seem have to be a little frustrated with, at least in teaching (but reading back this post now, it turns out that that was entirely my own fault and not my students’. Oh well, you live and learn! Isn’t this exactly the kind of stuff that makes for great teaching portfolios? ;-)).
And it also turns out that I did the experiments themselves all wrong. According to the article “laboratory layered latte” by Xue et al. (2017). I should not have been trying to carefully stratify a tank in order to see diffusive layering. Instead, I should just have quickly poured the lower density fluid into the higher density one, and layers would have formed by themselves!
So there is one thing that you won’t see any time soon:
Yep. Me drinking latte from any kind of vessel that doesn’t let me look at the stratification! I don’t know how I could ever have fallen into the trap of missing out on observing fluid dynamics while having my early morning coffee in the office. Now I urgently need a nice glass mug!
And you should go check out the article, it’s a really nice read. My new ambition in life: Write a fluid dynamics research article that applies the FD to some really cool, yet mundane, every day thing. Are you in, Elin? :-)
Xue, Nan and Khodaparast, Sepideh and Zhu, Lailai and Nunes, Janine K. and Kim, Hyoungsoo and Stone, Howard A., Laboratory layered latte.Nature Communications 8(1), 2017