Why Walking with Coffee is Tough

Almost everyone is familiar with the problem of coffee or tea sloshing over the sides of a mug as one walks, but this may be the first time researchers have systematically studied the problem. The results show that the typical frequency of the human stride closely matches the natural frequency for back-and-forth sloshing of a low-viscosity liquid in a cylindrical container the size of a typical coffee mug. Even though our natural side-to-side motion plays a role in coffee sloshing, its effect is small in comparison. A person’s maximum acceleration, which usually happens early on when walking, sets the initial sloshing amplitude, which is subsequently amplified by the stepping frequency. The researchers did find that the time to spill increased substantially if the subject was focused on not spilling the coffee, though it was unclear if this was due to the subject decreasing their acceleration and step frequency, or whether they were actively damping the oscillations with adjustments in the wrist. If you’re a perpetual coffee spiller, there’s still hope: the authors suggest that flexible cups and/or cups with a series of concentric rings–baffles–could help reduce sloshing in spite of our natural tendency to induce it.  (Photo credit: dongga/Flickr; Paper: Mayer and Krechetnikov; submitted by @__pj)

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