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December 8th, 2007

The Science of Small

Every Weekday Morning C. Jeffrey Brinker gets up at half past five and makes cappuccinos for himself and his wife. The windows of the mountainside home they designed afford 80-mile views of Albuquerque and the pink-orange desert beyond. Equally expansive is the amount of thought that goes into each cappuccino. Brinker, 57, is one of the world's leading materials scientists at the nanometer scale, a nanometer being about the width of the human DNA helix. A cup of coffee, for him, is an engineering experiment. At least with coffee, you can see what's going on. In nanotechnology, you can't.

Brinker explains as he brews that if the espresso beans are ground too coarsely, they'll make flavorless espresso. Too fine, the coffee will taste burnt. To make the milk froth, Brinker rests the head of the steam nozzle at the surface of the milk for a few seconds, explaining that he's squeezing air into small bubbles in a type of Venturi effect. Smaller bubbles make for a stable, uniform layer of foam. "That's why I hate Starbucks. Those guys hit a button and all this stuff just happens. They don't even understand what goes into it," he says.


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