Science = free coffee

By Phil Plait | February 22, 2008 7:00 am

So I’m at Peet’s coffee a while back — Pirillo loves it, and talked me into it — and I want to buy some beans. They look good, oily and dark. I move over to the counter, and the barrista looks up at me and asks if she can help me.

As I’m about to open my mouth, I notice she’s wearing an unusual necklace. It’s a simple thing, wire with small beads on it. The shape is odd, though. The wire has been bent into a pattern, a hexagon with some radial bits coming out at the vertices.

It’s obviously a molecule. It looks familiar, but I can’t place it. Suddenly, though, I get a flash of insight.

Where am I standing?

I smile. I already know the answer… "Is that a caffeine molecule?" I ask.

Over the course of two seconds her expression changes from open and helpful to one of surprise and amazement.

"That’s right!" she exclaims. "You’re the first person to get it!"

Just like that, we bonded. Turns out she’s a biochem major, and working at Peet’s to make ends meet. We chatted for a while — we scientists tend to stick together — and she told me she made the necklace herself, which is cool.

Finally, though, I have to leave. As I turn to go, she tells me to wait. She reaches down and grabs something. Smiling broadly, she passes it to me.

It’s a coupon for a free cup of coffee, next time I come in.

Science, babies. It pays.


Comments (56)

  1. Thomas Siefert

    Science, babies. It pays.

    Simpsons band-aids are good too :-)

  2. zpt

    My Physics instructor has a a coffee mug with the caffeine molecule on it that he brings to class every morning. Always thought that was kind of funny…Though I don’t think most of the class has made the connection yet….

  3. Michelle

    And here it is! Think geek as a few coffee molecule blings. :)

  4. Brown

    As for determining the nature of the molecule, it sounds more like there was less science going on, and more good old-fashioned observation and intelligent guessing.

    But hey, cold reading pays off pretty well for some people, too. (Sadly, it sometimes pays better than science, and curiously, it sometimes even pays off for people who really suck at it.)

  5. Mikhail Bragoria

    So Phil, did you get her number? :)

  6. She’s onto something, that barista:

    Let me see if I can post the image directly:

    Good story!

  7. Nope, didn’t work, the old
    thingie… Oh well. Still a good story!

  8. ShavenYak

    I bought my wife a T-shirt with a theobromine molecule for Valentine’s Day. Perhaps the standard HTML img tag works…

  9. Cello Man

    Fun story! So Phil, you did mention to her that you’re married, right? 😉

  10. ShavenYak

    Apparently the HTML tag doesn’t work either. Oh well, you can click on the link if you want to see a picture.

  11. Mister Earl

    There’s a local drive-up coffee shack in the town I’m from. I like my coffee high powered, and they ended up naming a drink after me. One extra large mocha, with twelve shots of espresse. It’s the Earl Special.

  12. Mister Earl

    Espresse Espresso.

  13. Hoonser

    A word of advice. Don’t be too friendly to people who pour coffee for a living.

  14. In looking at the various links to geeky merchandise here, I came across this:

    Phil, do you have one of these? It seems like just the thing for you.

  15. geomaniac

    What a great story! To make a connection with someone based on the sadly obscure language of science is wonderful. If one in a thousand people recognized that symbol as a caffeine molecule, I would be amazed. Heck if one in a thousand people even recognized it as a chemical symbol at all it would surprise me. Sad.

    I personally wouldn’t know that it was a caffeine molecule but I would certainly recognize it as the symbol for a molecule of something.

  16. That’s pretty fantastic, and I bet it totally made her day too – I love randomly meeting people over things like that, or just making small talk with people I come into contact with during the day. Especially when it’s about science! It makes life more interesting.

  17. Bort

    I would have said the molecule looked a lot like adenosine, but I guess that is the point. Isn’t it?

  18. LadyvonKulp

    Awesome. My 5-year old and I just now spent some quality time using my modeling kit to build caffeine and chocolate molecules

  19. Charles

    “One extra large mocha, with twelve shots of espresse. It’s the Earl Special.”

    As long as your cardiologist doesn’t have his own Earl Special, you’ll be just fine! :-) I kid, I kid.

    Cool story about the caffeine pendant. That’s definitely one of those “wish I had thought of that things.”

    Then again, I am the geek that made a hanging DNA helix out of four different kinds of seashells just for fun. Where I live, the life sciences are a pretty big deal and of course I have friends who work either for private firms or are at universities. One of them came inside the house, and started looking at it, then came back and looked again. Suddenly a smile broke out on his face and he looked at me and smiled, saying ‘very nicely done.’ It made my day that someone actually figured out the little puzzle.

  20. Shaven Yak:
    (I also “get” the Ren & Stimpy reference! Cool!)
    It’s too bad we can’t use image tags here to spice up our replies…
    Prolly couldn’t do anything about that though, WordPress wouldn’t permit it I’ll bet.

    I’ll try again, just for grins:

  21. I’m new here, great site, got here from Pharyngula so thank you PZ.

    I didn’t know your marital status until reading the comments otherwise I’d have said that while its a great story, being slid a phone number would have been a better finish. But seeing as youre married (at least according to the comments) I guess this was the ideal outcome.

    I’m not an astronomer in any sense, I’m not a scientist or even a science student, I just love learning new things, guess I’m a student of life. Thanks for the great website, I don’t know how much I’ll comment as I have little knowledge to add, but I will be enjoying your thoughts. Have a good one everybody.

  22. Gary Ansorge

    So, how come an astronomer knows the chemical formula for caffein? Have you been moon-lighting as a chemist?

    I keep looking for a formula that will raise human IQ by 100 points but so far,,,no luck,,,
    ,,,seems it may be impossible to do that by any means other than hard work and serious brain sweat,,,

    Gary 7

  23. I thought it was cool that she made the necklace herself.

    No, I didn’t get her number. I’m married. Happily… and I wanna keep it that way.

    PsyberDave, that’s a great shirt! I do have a Doctor Who shirt (I’ll have to wear it on one of the live chats or while making a video). I’ll have some more Who news later today, too.

    Richard: excellent photos! I saw them on Pamela’s site. I’ll round up a few links later if I can and post them. For those who are curious, here is Richard’s picture. Beautiful!

    Kilgore, welcome!

    And Gary, I happen to be a pretty smart fella. I read a lot, and I know a thing or two about other fields of science. I mean, cool one, interesting ones, not squishy ones.

  24. “Just like that, we bonded.”

    See, that’s hawsome.

  25. Gary Ansorge

    I wrote this some years ago, as much for the fun of it as for the writing exercise it was intended to be. Just remember, spam, like god, is ubiquitous,,,so maybe god IS spam,,,


    A cheap lunch meat, chopped ham. Also known as junk mail advertising.

    ” Researchers today reported the first successful unraveling of the human genome. ”

    Buy the latest hardware, software, firmware, wetware, etc from GEE WIZ products,,,

    ” Working with “junk” DNA, the portion left over from early evolutionary trends, researchers succeeded in isolating a portion that pointed the way to a complete decoding of the DNA code, a kind of Rosetta stone.”

    Our health food is of the highest quality, totally vegetarian. No life sacrificed to support yours,,,

    “Junk DNA is present in all life forms and is assumed to be identical, cutting across evolutionary differences between species.”

    When you visit, stay at the Rainbow Shores Inn. Thirty percent discount to first time visitors,,,

    ” Researcher John Doh, in an interview with UPN, was very excited about finding the translation matrix implicit within the “junk” DNA.”

    Want a beautiful baby? Bid on the eggs of super models. You too can have a skinny, emotionally disturbed “beautiful” child,,,

    ” We hoped the “junk” DNA might contain clues to our evolutionary history or maybe even pointers to future evolutionary trends.”

    Be the first kid in your neighborhood to clone your siblings and sell them for spare parts with our special Beginners Clone Kit. Only 2999 left in stock. Order now,,,

    ” However, when our translation was complete, we discovered far more than we had expected.”

    This is our final offer. Buy something immediately or we will terminate your online connection,,,

    ” We discovered someone has been tampering with our DNA.”

    Last chance to purchase super nova insurance at these low, low rates,,,

  26. Gary Ansorge

    ,,,OOPS, I forgot to highlight the punch line,,,

    ” It appears”, said researcher John Doh, ” the “junk” DNA is nothing more than alien advertising.”

    1999 by G7

  27. BlondeReb3

    My coffee addicted biology major roommate had a teeshirt and a coffee mug with the Caffeine molecule on it. It got to the point where we started referring to her coffee machine by name…

  28. Quiet_Desperation

    Can *I* have her number? I keep meeting women with “healing crystals” on their necklaces. :-( Must be a California thing.

    Don’t really like coffee. Mountain Dew is my caffeine delivery platform. Cold, green and mysterious…

    And everyone knows that the “junk” DNA contains the coding to turn us into vampires, werewolves and zombies given the appropriate trigger.

  29. I was always a soda person, myself (I figure anything that green and spooky has a real chance of mutating me into a ninja if I just drink enough of it). However, I might be teetering into the coffee domain, since I discovered — at my local Peet’s — that they’ll add a shot of espresso to hot chocolate. Mmmmm.

  30. No, I didn’t get her number. I’m married. Happily… and I wanna keep it that way.

    One of my wife’s young minions got his fiancee a health club membership for Valentine’s day. My wife warned him to rethink before presenting such a valentine gift, but he charged ahead anyway.

    I suspect the lad is single by now.

  31. I have the shirt, and I wear it to work at the art gallery a lot. And I have YET to meet a co-worker with enough curiosity to ask what it is. Oh Utah, 49th in educational spending. What else is new?

  32. Blu-Ray-Ven

    like molecules, we scientists BOND together, get it, harhar

  33. Gary Ansorge:
    “I keep looking for a formula that will raise human IQ by 100 points but so far,,,no luck,,”

    Given some of the people I’ve met/read about, I’d be happy with a formula that would raise someone’s IQ too 100 points. :-)

  34. Umm… Make that “to” 100 points. :-(

    Or, as we say in Unix-land:

  35. Michelle

    Well, since the Thinkgeek one costs 85 giganormous bucks… I think I’d make my own molecule necklace too 😛

  36. Barber of Civilty

    Phil –

    It looks like you take after Dad, just like I do – you never meet a waitperson (female) that you don’t know.


    It’s a good thing Mrs. BA knows you well, huh?

  37. Hannu Siivonen

    Oh my god. You just prooved my theory, that science is a great way to get chicks. Too bad it usually works only for married men.

  38. Bob Brashear

    “and I want to buy some beans. They look good, oily and dark.”

    Good does not equate to oily and dark. I’ve roasted coffee for over 20 years. All oily and dark does is mask lousy beans. Charbucks and other shop chains have sold you all on “dark roast is the best”.

    Try an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe roasted just past first crack and enjoy some amazing floral and citrus taste. Or A Yemen Mokha Sana’ani roasted to Full City (just into second crack, no oils) and experience a robust, full body coffee. Or go back to Ethiopia to an Idido Misty Valley roasted to , again, just past first crack and taste … BLUEBERRIES!

    Origin flavors of most coffees are killed by over roasting, which most of the major chains do.

  39. Some of the best artists were/are scientists and some of the best art is science, so go figure.


  40. IAmMarauder

    Mmmm…. Coffee… Where would I be without it…

    I bought my boss a caffeine molecule keychain from ThinkGeek, one of the light up ones. He loves it :) Then again, a few of us at work went and put in money for a decent coffee machine for the office – cost $1000 but was well worth it. Nothing beats freshly ground and brewed coffee.

    As for different bean types, I have tried one of the Ethiopian blends, and would highly recommend trying them. The ones we got were honey roasted, and was absolutely beautiful. I might have to see if I can find some of the others Bob Brashear mentioned.

  41. Jeffersonian

    Boulder’s great for witty rhetorical synchronicity.

  42. Gary Ansorge

    Ken B: Now, that was a good one.

    Back in the old days(1967 or so) Jerry Garcia said his goal in life was to advance humanity 2 or 3 steps up the evolutionary ladder.

    In 1992(or thereabouts), he said he’d be happy for a half step,,,

    GAry 7

  43. Gary Ansorge says: “So, how come an astronomer knows the chemical formula for caffein? Have you been moon-lighting as a chemist?”

    No. It’s one of the molecules SETI is looking for…

    – Jack

  44. The BA says: “Just like that, we bonded”

    So is that a covalent bond or just ionic?

    – Jack

  45. Thomas Siefert

    The ones we got were honey roasted, and was absolutely beautiful.

    Come on! You don’t really like coffee, I bet you have it with milk and sugar.
    I take my coffee like my men, strong and black 😉

    Joke aside, Java blend is my brew of choice even if it means supporting a mean and evil empire, but hey so does people using cars.

  46. Zyggy

    I laser engraved some stainless steel coffee mugs with our company logo inside the caffeine molecule for Christmas gifts at work a few years ago and they were very popular.

    However, what I found most interesting in my research of the molecule’s structure is that one can change one component (specifically the H3C at the upper left becomes H) and the diagram becomes that of CHOCOLATE. I knew they were similar, but not that similar.



  47. Ronn!

    Gary Ansorgeon asked:

    “So, how come an astronomer knows the chemical formula for caffein? Have you been moon-lighting as a chemist?”

    I dunno about Phil, but I had originally planned on going into chemistry until around the 10th grade when I decided I didn’t want to limit myself to anything smaller than the universe.

    And, Phil, had you really wanted to impress her, you could have identified the molecule as 1,3,7-trimethyl-2,6-dihydroxypurine . . .

    (And I don’t drink or even like coffee . . .)

  48. Ronn!

    Zyggy wrote:

    “However, what I found most interesting in my research of the molecule’s structure is that one can change one component (specifically the H3C at the upper left becomes H) and the diagram becomes that of CHOCOLATE. I knew they were similar, but not that similar.”

    Actually, theobromine, which is one of the alkaloids found in chocolate. (And, FWIW, the reason chocolate is poisonous to dogs, because unlike humans they cannot process it.) And if you make the same change with the methyl group on the upper right rather than the upper left, you get theophylline, which is sometimes used as a medication for asthma.

  49. Ravenor

    A few years back I was working as a waitress, when a customer (with a rather evil smile) requested a glass of chilled dihydrogen monoxide. I smiled, walked back to the server station, and returned with his order. As I placed it in front of him, I said, “One glass of dihydrogen monoxide in the form of low entropy cubes, suspended in a aqueous solution of said compound.” 😉 He did a bit of a double-take before laughing, saying, “You’re the first waitress who has ever not only understood what I was asking for, but responded to it in chemical terms.” :) In that case also, we ‘bonded’. (though it was more of a hydrogen bond) 😉

  50. Z. Breeblebrox

    Back when I was in school I remember a chem major wearing this around her neck: C6H2(NO2)3CH3 I asked her if she had an explosive personality, she laughed. She knew I was in EE so she asked me if I was electrifying. We have been married for close to 30 years now.

    Science picks up chicks!

    BTW, the formula is for Trinitrotoluene (TNT)

  51. Finally remembered what this reminded me of:
    Back decades ago (1970’s?) Edmund Scientific (one of my favorite catalogs) had mobiles of various ‘drugs’ – as I recall, THC (active ingredient in marijuana), Mescaline and (IIRC) LSD.

    Did not get them, they were later dropped.

    Imagine finding those around!


  52. Vince Loach

    Years ago I made a huge (3000×2000) caffeine JPEG, suitable for printing on a t-shirt, as I couldn’t find one suitable online. This was mostly to avoid the expense of shipping one from ThinkGeek (I’m in the UK). Thought the URL might be handy if anyone else wants to make their own:

  53. Eric

    The madewithmolecules stuff is great.

    There was an article about the creator of the jewelry – Raven Hanna, who has a PhD in molecular biophysics – in one of my wife’s ACS journals a few years ago. Which I stole so she wouldn’t see the article, and so I could buy her a serotonin necklace.

    ACS article is here:

  54. Ken

    Friend of mine had this in the opposite. He was wearing the thinkgeek caffeine molecule T-shirt, and a checkout girl at the local supermarket started chatting to him about it after she recognised it.

  55. The Caffeinated Barista

    “# Hoonseron 22 Feb 2008 at 8:29 am
    A word of advice. Don’t be too friendly to people who pour coffee for a living.”

    Awww. We’re not so bad, and most of us are just hanging out behind the bar to pay bills so we can be your doctors and future astronomers and chemists.

    I’m so glad I left such an impression! I’ve been branched out since you met me, making molecules for everyone at our Peets, and for my family.
    (My boyfriend’s mother loves her seratonin)
    Yeah, sorry guys, my phone number goes out only to friends now, I am spoken for and yes, we met through an argument in a science class which we carried on out the door and throughout the past three years.

    Thanks for the tip o’ hat, I’ll see you next time you’re in.

  56. Yay! Hi Barista. Glad you made it here. :-)


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