Brewing coffee and the environment

Coffee drinking is, I suppose, the curse of the educated class. But I suppose one should not forget coffee lovers who just like the taste, and I guess they could describe all kinds of people. I love the flavour, and the caffeine “buzz”, when it happens, is a distant second in what I consider a to be a good coffee experience. That being said, I am somewhat fussy in my choices of coffee.

A “gold” filter, not anywhere near as expensive as gold.

There has been a recent trend in single-serve coffee makers. I brew for myself, so that is about the kind of coffee maker I would likely buy. For the longest while, I used a “gold” (possibly brass) basket, which was fine, it lacked smoothness. I also experienced paper single-serve filters, such as those made by Melitta and others. However, I didn’t like the environmental idea of disposable filters (the reason for going to gold filters).

K-Cups (and all cups like them) are a bad idea on two fronts. K-Cups themselves are not recyclable, and enough of them have been sold by Keurig (the inventors of the system) alone by the start of this year to reach 401,000 kilometers when placed end-to-end. That’s far enough to reach the moon and still make it a quarter of the way back. This is a serious waste disposal problem for all of us. This is changing slowly, but newer concoctions of K-cups depend on the recycler (meaning you) disassembling the cups before disposal. It is unlikely that enough people will want to do that. But at any rate, the aggregate amount of money spent pound for pound is more than double that of high quality ground coffee sold in pound bags: nearly $50.00 per pound. This is true regardless of the make of the coffee pod.

The attraction of coffee pods for coffee afficionados, I would suppose, is that the amount of cleaning is greatly reduced compared with an espresso machine. In addition, Keurig machines and their ilk are much less expensive than espresso machines. They produce a better coffee than ordinary perk, since each airtight packet is packaged using what is called a “modified atomosphere” to keep the grounds fresh. A modified atmosphere is usually nitrogen infused into the packet to reduce oxidative degradation in a harmless way (our atmosphere is 70% nitrogen, so you breathe in huge gulps of it all the time).

I compare them with espresso machines, since they too make one cup of coffee at a time, but usually cost hundreds of dollars and take up more counter space than single brew coffee makers like Keurig.

The Flex Brew, taking up less space than a typical coffee maker or espresso machine.

I have seen some manufacturers now offering a K-cup compatable adaptor for ordinary ground coffee, usually offered as an optional add-on. Hamilton Beach has it as a basic feature of their “Flex-Brew” line. The latter also offers the option of doing away with K-cups altogether.

The single serve coffeemakers such as Hamilton Beach Flex Brew, feature a way to avoid K-cups and brew your own grind,  and come with a gold-ish metal filter much smaller than the illustration above, but it provides a sane way to reliably measure how much ground coffee to add compared with a Melitta filter. I have tried it, and am happy with the coffee flavour, as well as the idea that I can use any ground coffee I like, and am not limited to whatever it is K-cups have on offer, nor need I pay their exorbitant cost.

The beginnings of Chemistry IV

Antoine Lavoisier, the Father of Chemistry

Although the archives of chemical research draw upon work from ancient Babylon, Egypt, and especially Persia after Islam, modern chemistry flourished from the time of Antoine Lavoisier’s discovery of the law of conservation of mass, and his refutation of the phlogiston theory of combustion in 1783. (Phlogiston was supposed to be an imponderable substance liberated by flammable materials in burning.) Mikhail Lomonosov independently established a tradition of chemistry in Russia in the 18th century. Lomonosov also rejected the phlogiston theory, and anticipated the kinetic theory of gases. He regarded heat as a form of motion, and stated the idea of conservation of matter.

The vitalism debate and organic chemistry

After the nature of combustion (see oxygen) was settled, another dispute, about vitalism and the essential distinction between organic and inorganic substances, was revolutionized by Friedrich Wöhler’s accidental synthesis of urea from inorganic substances in 1828. Never before had an organic compound been synthesized from inorganic material. This opened a new research field in chemistry, and by the end of the 19th century, scientists were able to synthesize hundreds of organic compounds. The most important among them are mauve, magenta, and other synthetic dyes, as well as the widely used drug aspirin. The discovery also contributed greatly to the theory of isomerism.

Disputes about atomism after Lavoisier

Throughout the 19th century, chemistry was divided between those who followed the atomic theory of John Dalton and those who did not, such as Wilhelm Ostwald and Ernst Mach. Although such proponents of the atomic theory as Amedeo Avogadro and Ludwig Boltzmann made great advances in explaining the behavior of gases, this dispute was not finally settled until Jean Perrin’s experimental investigation of Einstein’s atomic explanation of Brownian motion in the first decade of the 20th century.

Well before the dispute had been settled, many had already applied the concept of atomism to chemistry. A major example was the ion theory of Svante Arrhenius which anticipated ideas about atomic substructure that did not fully develop until the 20th century. Michael Faraday was another early worker, whose major contribution to chemistry was electrochemistry, in which (among other things) a certain quantity of electricity during electrolysis or electrodeposition of metals was shown to be associated with certain quantities of chemical elements, and fixed quantities of the elements therefore with each other, in specific ratios. These findings, like those of Dalton’s combining ratios, were early clues to the atomic nature of matter.

This concludes my contribution made some years ago to the Wikipedia article The History of Chemistry.

The beginnings of Chemistry III

The slow emergence of Chemistry

The initial development of a scientific method was slow and arduous. Indeed, the roots of alchemy in Europe go back to the early Christian Church, and it would be more than 700 years for it to be developed into a science. The writings of philosophers René Descartes (1596-1650) and Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) provided a catalyst which influenced scientific thinking in the Renaissance. In their writings was advice to remove bias from observations, and that theories which can be proven with mathematics were the soundest theories to build a science on.

The superstitions of alchemy gave alchemists a weak foundation to build on, but at least a bad theory was a better place to work from than no theory at all. As history progressed Paracelsus evolved alchemy away from esotericism and mysticism and developed more systematic and scientific approaches in what was known as iatrochemistry. Paracelsus was not perfect in making his experiments truly scientific. He had only a vague understanding of the chemicals and medicines he worked with. For example, as an extension of his theory that new compounds could be made by combining mercury with sulfur, he once made what he thought was “oil of sulfur”. This was actually dimethyl ether, which had neither mercury nor sulfur.

The first alchemist considered to apply the scientific method to alchemy and to separate chemistry further from alchemy was Robert Boyle (1627–1691). Robert Boyle was an atomist, but favoured the word corpuscle over atoms. He comments that the finest division of matter where the properties are retained is at the level of corpuscles.

Boyle was credited with the discovery of gases and later on of Boyle’s Law. He is also credited for his landmark publication The Sceptical Chymist, where he attempts to develop an atomic theory of matter, with no small degree of success.

Despite all these advances, the person celebrated as the Father of Chemistry was Antoine Lavoisier who developed his law of Conservation of mass in 1789, also called Lavoisier’s Law. With this, Chemistry was allowed to have a strict quantitative nature, allowing reliable predictions to be made.

The beginnings of Chemistry II

The Philosopher’s Stone and the Rise of Alchemy

Many people were interested in finding a method that could convert cheaper metals into gold. The material that would help them do this was rumored to exist in what was called the Philosopher’s stone. This led to the protoscience called Alchemy. Alchemy was practiced by many cultures throughout history and often contained a mixture of philosophy, mysticism, and protoscience.

Alchemy not only sought to turn base metals into gold, but especially in a Europe rocked by Bubonic plague, there was hope that alchemy would lead to the development of medicines to improve people’s health. The Holy Grail of this strain of alchemy was in the attempts made at finding the “Elixir of Life”, which promised eternal youth. Neither the elixir nor the Philosopher’s Stone were ever found. Also, characteristic of alchemists was the belief that there was in the air an “Ether” which breathed life into living things (gases had not been discovered until almost the end of the age of alchemy, by Robert Boyle). Supporters of alchemy included Isaac Newton, who remained one until the day he died.

Problems encountered with Alchemy

There were several problems with alchemy, as seen from today’s standpoint. There was no systematic naming system for new compounds, and the language was esoteric and vague to the point that the terminologies meant different things to different people. In fact, according to The Fontana History of Chemistry (Brock, 1992):

The language of alchemy soon developed an arcane and secretive technical vocabulary designed to conceal information from the uninitiated. To a large degree, this language is incomprehensible to us today, though it is apparent that readers of Geoffery Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale or audiences of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist were able to construe it sufficiently to laugh at it.

Chaucer’s tale exposed the more fraudulent side of alchemy, especially the manufacture of gold from cheap substances. Soon after Chaucer, Dante Alighieri also demonstrated an awareness of this fraudulence, causing him to consign all alchemists to the Inferno in his writings. Soon after, in 1317, the Avignon Pope John XXII ordered all alchemists to leave France for making counterfeit money. A law was passed in England in 1403 which made the “multiplication of metals” punishable by death. Despite these and other apparently extreme measures, alchemy did not die. Royalty and privileged classes still sought to discover the Philospher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life for themselves.

There was also no agreed-upon scientific method for making experiments reproducible. Indeed many alchemists included in their methods irrelevant information such as the timing of the tides or the phases of the moon. The esoteric nature and codified vocabulary of alchemy appeared to be more useful in concealing the fact that they could not be sure of very much at all. As early as the 14th century, cracks seemed to grow in the facade of Alchemy; and people became sceptical. Clearly, there needed to be a scientific method where experiments can be repeated by other people, and results needed to be reported in a clear language that laid out both what is known and unknown.


The beginnings of Chemistry I

This article contains my original, un-edited contributions to Wikipedia’s “History of Chemistry” article from a few years back.

It can be said that chemistry would have “started” when it was possible to distinguish it from alchemy. This would not have happened until Sir Francis Bacon built on the work of Descartes and suggested a scientific method of inquiry. That would not have been at least until the 1600’s. Its application to chemistry still took longer, as many “chemists” of the day still had a poor understanding of the chemicals they were working with.

But what about the idea of atoms (atomism)? How far back can we go?

Atomism can be traced back to 440 BCE in ancient Greece, as what might be indicated by the book De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things)[1] written by the Roman Lucretius[2] in 50 BCE. In the book was found ideas traced back to Democritus and Leucippus, who declared that atoms were the most indivisible part of matter. This coincided with a similar declaration by Indian philosopher Kashyapa Kanada in his Vaishe Shika sutras around the same time period. Kashyapa arrived at his sutras by meditation. By similar means, he coined a form of Newton’s Third Law, and discussed the existence of gases, a substance not mentioned in Europe until Robert Boyle proved its existence over 1000 years later. What Kanada declared by sutra, Democritus declared by philosophical musing. Both suffered from a lack of empirical data. Without scientific proof, the existence of atoms was easy to deny. Aristotle opposed the existence of atoms in 330 BC; while on the Indian sub-continent, the study of the Vaishe Shika was suppressed almost until the 20th century.

Aristotle was rediscovered by St. Thomas Aquinas and alchemist Roger Bacon in the 1200s. In Europe, the Church raised Aristotle’s writings almost to the level of scripture, associating atomism as some form of heresy.

The rise of metallurgy

It was fire that led to the discovery of glass and the purification of metals which in turn gave way to the rise of metallurgy. During the early stages of metallurgy methods of purification of metals were sought, and gold, known in ancient Egypt as early as 2600 BCE, became a precious metal. The discovery of alloys heralded the Bronze Age. After the Bronze Age, the history of metallurgy in Europe (and indeed the world) was marked by which army had better weaponry. Countries in Europe and Asia had their heydays when they made the superior alloys, which, in turn, made better armour and better weapons. This often determined the outcomes of battles.