PHOTO: The Wall Street Journal
Coffee lovers have squabbled for centuries over the best way to extract juice from roasted beans. Drip? Perk? Steam? Pour-over press?
The Italian coffee magnate Renato Bialetti was so partial to the brew from his company's Moka espresso maker that, upon his death last February, his family placed his ashes inside one.
Now, after centuries of consumption without consideration, dozens of academics are pouring into this question, which mathematicians at the University of Florence call "the coffee problem."
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In recent papers they have examined the quantum mechanics of caffeine, the thermal properties of stovetop coffee-maker steam, the capillary action of the "coffee ring effect" and the low-viscosity-liquid dynamics of hot coffee. Some insist that aroma is the secret, others argue it is all about the ions in the water. One group of researchers attempted to calculate how long it would take to heat a pot of coffee by yelling at it.
Alfred Renyi, a Hungarian academic famous for both his love of coffee and his contributions to probability theory, once said, "A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems." A 2011 study by Dunkin' Donuts and CareerBuilder concluded that US scientists and lab technicians are the heaviest coffee drinkers in the country.
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What's surprising about this effort to crack the coffee mystery is how resistant coffee seems to being cracked.
"It is the most challenging example of applied chemistry I have come across," said computational chemist Christopher Hendon at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who recently co-wrote a 134-page treatise on the effects of water chemistry on coffee. "There are a lot of variables that go into solving the perfect cup of coffee."
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