Why I learned to love mathematics 3

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The secret to doing maths is lots and lots of coffee.

When I was a kiddy in school I hated mathematics – everything from abstract algebra to Zeta function. I hated hyperbolic geometry, I loathed linear aggression, I despised Diophantine equations, I feared fractions, I trembled at the thought of trigonometry and I rejected rational numbers.

Then when I became a grownup I realised I didn’t need mathematics – and mathematics didn’t need me – because we all had nice little pocket calculators.

But only recently I was made aware that finally mathematicians are doing something actually worthwhile. Researchers at Ireland’s University of Limerick and England’s University of Portsmouth are working out ways to make a better cup of coffee.

I suppose they thought it was pretty useless to, for example, discover proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem as Oxford’s Sir Andrew Wiles had already done that and, what is more, got the 2016 Nobel Prize for it.

Normally, I am a cautious creature who is unwilling to go out on a limb by making grand assumptions, but the fact of the matter is that infinitely more people are concerned about having a good cup of coffee than finding out about Fermat’s Last Theorem. I’m inclined to think that if Fermat, a 17th century French mathematician, had started every day with a good strong cuppa, he would have worked out proof of his own theory.

The work of this enlightened research team has been published recently in the SIAM Journal on Applied Mathematics. No, I don’t subscribe to this publication and had my attention drawn to it by the BBC.

Coffee is composed of more than 1,800 chemical components and at least two billion cups a day are consumed world wide.

What the team has done is not looked at the maths of coffee extraction, but rather how to make drip filter coffee machines better. Gravity pulls water through the filter and extracts soluble compounds from the coffee grains during the flow.

“Our overall idea is to have a complete mathematical model of coffee brewing that you could use to design coffee machines, rather like we use a theory of fluid and solid mechanics to design racing cars,” researcher Dr William Lee told the BBC.

“We looked at the effect of coffee grain size on the way that coffee comes out of a filter coffee machine. The really surprising thing to us is that there are really two processes by which coffee is extracted from grains. There’s a very quick process by which coffee is extracted from the surface of the grains and there’s a slower tail-off where coffee comes out of the interior of the grains,” he said.

We already knew that grinding beans too finely could result in bitter coffee while not grinding them enough could make the end result too watery.

Dr Lee said he set his own coffee grinder to its largest setting, which meant the coffee was less bitter because the water passed more quickly through the large grains.

He did explain at some length that you need to play around with the grind size and the water flow rate to get your ideal cuppa – what is good coffee for one is bad coffee for another.

Now my two goals for today were to get out of bed and drink coffee and so far, so good. After all, retirement is like one unending coffee break. I’ve always been very suspicious of people who say they don’t like coffee – it is unnatural and it is like faking an orgasm.

In my working life, I would always start the day with a coffee and woe betide anybody who interrupted me. I would make it plain that I could either finish my coffee in peace or I could kill them and that usually had the desired effect. I left behind very few corpses. On very stressful days in the office I often felt that even my coffee needed a coffee.

Having achieved this scientific breakthrough, the research team are now looking at the shape of the coffee bed in drip filter machines.

“The shape of the coffee bed is deformed as you brew the coffee. When it goes in first, its sitting flat at the bottom of the filter, but at the at the end of brewing, it’s coating the walls of the filter. This also seems to play a role in how the coffee tastes,” Dr Lee said.

So it is now up to people who make drip filter machines to learn from Dr Lee and his team about how to produce even better machines to help the cause of civilisation. They could start by asking him out for a coffee.

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Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.