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Would you like plastic in that?

Straws with viscous liquid (milkshake) in them

Do you need that straw?

Plastic Free July starts in just a few days time. Each year this initiative encourages us to eliminate, or at least reduce, our use of single use plastic throughout the month of July. It is a great way to increase our awareness of our plastic use by attempting not to use any.

There are numerous reasons that we may want to reduce our plastic consumption. In addition to the problems of litter associated with plastic waste, there are problems for wildlife caused by ingesting our rubbish. Even if we dispose of it responsibly, plastic takes a long time to degrade. It is thought provoking to consider that the take-away cup that we discarded yesterday may still be lying in some landfill site years after we have forgotten about drinking that coffee. So what can be done about it and what are the specific issues for coffee drinkers?

air valve, plastic, environmental coffee packaging

Air valves and metallised plastic are common packaging materials for freshly roasted coffee, but can we avoid them?

One way to start to reduce our dependence on single use plastic is to understand how much we actually use on a day by day basis. Registering for a plastic free July is one way of doing this. As a result of attempting a Plastic Free July last year, I have found some plastic-free habits that have stuck with me all year. Loose leaf tea is one such improvement (teabags can also contain plastic). Although initially it seemed a bit of a pain to use a basket to brew the tea, as I kept with the habit I found it easy to compost the tea leaves after making a brew and the tea tastes better too. Things like shampoo bars and tooth ‘paste’ tablets (from Lush) have also been better and longer lasting than similar products packaged in plastic bottles.  Although some plastic habits are hard to break, living as plastic free as possible for one month did deepen my awareness of the plastic that I take for granted.

But perhaps living plastic free for a month is too daunting? An alternative challenge sadly emphasises just how linked coffee drinking can be to single-use plastic consumption. The Top 4 challenge asks you to eliminate, just for July, the target take-away items. Of these 4, at least 2 (and arguably 3) are linked to coffee drinking or cafés. The top 4 are plastic bags, bottles, take-away coffee cups and straws. Could you avoid these for just one month? Take the challenge.

blue tits, mint water, mint infusion, mint leaves in water

Enjoying a glass of water in a cafe can be better than running with a bottle of water anyway.

If you are ready to go plastic-free in your coffee habits, here’s a list of where we frequently encounter single-use plastic while drinking in cafés or even at home, together with suggestions of how to avoid the plastic where appropriate. Please let me know in the comments section below if you can think of further examples (and how you are avoiding them either in July or more permanently).

  • Disposable take-away coffee cups – get and use a re-usable one. You can find a helpful comparison of different types of re-usable coffee cups on Brian’s Coffee Spot.
  • Tea bags – yes they can contain plastic, see more information here. To avoid them, get hold of a metal tea basket, or even a tea pot and strainer and start investigating loose leaf tea.
  • Water bottles/soft drinks bottles – if in a café, why not enjoy the moment by staying with a glass of water rather than grabbing a bottle? If you are in a hurry though, a flask (such as klean-kanteen) is a great investment. In some parts of London (and perhaps elsewhere?) chilled tap water is available on tap for use in re-usable bottles
  • Air valves on your roasted coffee bag – do you really need these? The Nottingham based coffee roaster, Roasting House, did a taste test on freshly roasted coffee packaged with and without air valves, you can read their results here. If the coffee roaster that you normally purchase coffee from insists on using air-valves, why not write to them to request that they reconsider their packaging or try a more environmentally conscious roasting company to see how their coffee compares?
  • Coffee packaging – What type of material did the last bag of coffee that you purchased come in? Chances are it was metallised plastic, why not find a roaster with alternative packaging? Who knows, you may find another great coffee roaster to add to the ones that you buy from.
  • Straws – why would you use these anyway?
  • Milk bottles – Some companies still supply milk in glass bottles, otherwise you could consider non-dairy milks that can be home-made such as oat or almond. Some cafés also offer home-made non-dairy milks which would be a way of going plastic free while enjoying a latte in a café.
  • Cakes/sandwiches packaging – in larger chains these may come in packaging. However, if they are coming in packaging then they are not likely to be that fresh, find somewhere else with better cakes or sandwiches or make your own!
  • Spoons/cutlery
  • Packaging for sugar etc – ditching the sugar is supposed to be good for you anyway. If you cannot resist sweetening your coffee, try to find a sugar that is packaged in paper rather than plastic.
  • Washing up liquid – switching to a re-fillable washing up liquid reduces (but does not eliminate entirely) plastic waste.

Good luck if you take the challenge. There are still a few days left to plan how you can reduce the plastic in your life before the start of Plastic Free July 2017. Please do let me know how your attempts to be plastic free go and whether you find, as I did last year, that you enjoy your tea (or even coffee) more when you do so.



Batch and CrO2 (Streatham)

coffee in Streatham

Batch & Co, Streatham Hill

A short while ago, on the advice of London’s Best Coffee (and, I headed along to Streatham to try a couple of cafés including Batch & Co along Streatham Hill Road. The café is quite modern and cubic with plenty of tables at which to sit and enjoy some good coffee and food. Another interesting recommendation from these sites to add to the list. The counter is on the left as you enter and there was a good selection of cakes on offer that day. Is it possible to have too much cake in one day? Sadly, possibly it is and so, as I had already had my fill of cake at a previous café, I kept with just an Americano (roasted by Caravan). Tap water (infused with mint) was available at each table which was greatly appreciated on such a hot day as the one on which we visited.

There were many things to notice in Batch and Co. The street/bus sign above the counter, the large selection of books in the corner (what a shame the seats next to the shelves had been occupied already!), the corrugated zinc walls and then, the cassette tapes on the tables. What a blast from the past. Sadly these tapes were no longer being used to store music but instead as table number indicators. Now ordinarily, I think these cafe-physics reviews should be the sort of science that is accessible to everybody, the sort of observation that anyone could make. But today, today the temptation is just too great, because these cassette tapes are linked to something that is being researched in an obscure but very novel effect that just happens to be an area of research for me. So today, I hope you will stay with me as I take you from Batch & Co to a very odd effect that happens when things (cassette tapes) get very cold.

coffee and cassette tape in Batch and Co

Coffee and tape. Who knew how special the tape material would be?

Those cassette tapes used to work by writing and reading magnetic information. So the actual tape bit needs to be a magnetic material. The first generation of tapes were made with ferric oxide (Fe2O3) but later, and seemingly better, music tapes used chromium dioxide, CrO2, as the tape material. Nowadays the technology of tape cassettes has been superseded by other media but the material CrO2 lives on, it turns out it is a very odd type of material.

Just like iron, chromium dioxide is magnetic, which is why it was used in tapes. But chromium dioxide is a very special type of magnet in that it is what is known as a fully spin polarised magnetic material. To understand what that means, it’s helpful to compare it with iron or copper or indeed, any other metallic material that you can think of. Metals conduct electricity because the electrons in them are free to move from one contact to another and hence carry a current. Electrons are negatively charged particles but they also have a property called “spin”. Although spin is associated with angular momentum (rotation), it is fundamentally a quantum mechanical property of subatomic particles and so shouldn’t be thought of as being about the electron’s rotation on its axis (rather like the Earth rotates). Indeed, it seems that this quantum mechanical property of “spin” is something that is very hard to pin down, even amongst physicists (see here). So instead, generally speaking, we just think about spin having two ‘directions’: spin up and spin down.

tape supporting a table, Batch and Co

An alternative use for a cassette tape. Poor tape.

Ordinarily, the electron spin doesn’t have that much effect on how much current the metal can carry (its ‘resistance’). Indeed for most metals, the number of spin up electrons is roughly equal to the spin down ones. However this is not true of chromium dioxide. Although it is a metal, all of the electrons that conduct the electricity through it are of one spin type. All the electrons are either ‘spin up’ or they are all ‘spin down’. This is spin polarisation. It is something that could never happen in copper.

There are many reasons that this could be interesting, both technologically and purely from the perspective of it being quite beautiful physics. What turns it from interesting to a really big question though is what happens when chromium dioxide interacts with another set of materials, superconductors.

Superconductors are materials that can carry large amounts of current with zero electrical resistance. This property makes them great for things like MRI machines in hospitals where large magnetic fields require the sort of currents superconductors can carry easily. How they are able to do this gets a bit complicated but what is crucial for this subject is the fact that to conduct a supercurrent they need to have zero spin polarisation: they need to have equal numbers of spin up and spin down electrons. (If you are interested in how superconductors superconduct you can read more about them here and here).

cassette tape at Batch and Co

Who knew that this tape was so special?

Now imagine, you have a wire of a superconductor such as very cold niobium (all spins are equal) that you connect to a wire (or a tape) of chromium dioxide (only one spin possible). You may think that if you tried to pass an electrical current down that connection there would be a problem. And you would be right: To conduct electricity, there have to be equal numbers of spin up and spin down electrons on the superconductor side but only one spin type can get through to the chromium dioxide side. There would be an electrical traffic jam. Which is all very logical and reasonable but it isn’t what happens. Instead, for reasons that we still do not understand, not only does the electrical current get through the connection, the chromium dioxide itself becomes superconducting through its proximity to the superconductor. By itself it could never superconduct but somehow, the superconductivity is leaking¹ into the chromium dioxide at the joint between the superconducting wire and the chromium dioxide tape. And it shouldn’t do this because everything we understand about superconductivity requires there to be electron pairs of spin up and spin down and everything we understand about chromium dioxide tells us that is absolutely not the case.

So how does it work? Surely these two effects (of superconductivity and spin polarisation) are incompatible with each other? Is there something peculiar about chromium dioxide that makes it so susceptible to this strange effect? We do not yet know (though we have a few ideas). Many groups around the world are looking at this odd effect including a network of universities in the UK. It is taking us a lot of research and quite a few meetings involving coffee to work it out but hopefully one day we’ll get there.

In the meantime, it may be worth pondering just how special those cassette tapes really were.

Batch&Co is at 54 Streatham Hill Road

¹Yes, “leaking” is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the technical words for what happens in the proximity effect.


Causing a stir

coronal hole, Sun

Where it all begins. The dark object is a Coronal hole on the Sun. Image credit and copyright NASA/AIA

What’s the difference between your cup of coffee and the solar wind (the fast stream of charged particles emanating from the Sun)? Perhaps this seems a strange question, we ought first to ask what connects your coffee with the solar wind. But, when we look at what connects them, you may be surprised to find the reason that they are different.

The solar wind is a flow of charged particles that streams past the Earth at roughly 400 km/s. To put this figure into some perspective, 400 km/s is 24, 000 km/min which means that the wind travels from the Earth to the Moon in 16 minutes. In comparison it took  Apollo 11 over 3 days between leaving Earth’s orbit and entering the Moon’s (over 4 days between launch and landing). The particles in the solar wind originate in the Sun’s Corona where temperatures get so hot that the gases have enough energy to escape the gravitational pull of the Sun itself. As these particles reach the Earth, they encounter the Earth’s magnetic field and, being rapidly slowed down by the Earth being in the way, a shock wave forms which is known as the Earth’s Bow Shock.

We must all have dragged a spoon through coffee and watched as the vortices form behind the spoon. It is a low-speed example of turbulent behaviour in the coffee. So it is perhaps not surprising that when the very hot and very fast solar wind hits the magnetic field region of the Earth, we find turbulence there too.

vortices in coffee

Vortices behind a spoon being dragged through coffee are an example of turbulence.

Now when we stir our coffee, we will see that there is one big rotation of fluid in the direction of the spoon but we may also notice smaller eddies in the drink. Some of these form from the fact that the coffee is rotating but the mug’s walls are staying motionless, friction forces the fast moving coffee to slow down at the walls. You can actually see this effect if, rather than stirring your coffee, you put it on a record player (or other rotating platform) as has been featured on Bean Thinking previously. Similarly, when you have a large vortex in the form of a smoke ring, it can decay into many smaller vortex “smoke rings” in what is known as a vortex cascade. This too is an effect that you can see in coffee (but rather than smoke rings you can make milk rings with a straw). Very often these milk rings will decay into many smaller rings in the same sort of vortex cascade as you get with the smoke, you can see a video of the effect here or at the bottom of this post. Big vortices decay into smaller vortices until they (to our eyes) disappear entirely.

vortices, turbulence, coffee cup physics, coffee cup science

Vortices created at the walls of a mug when the whole cup of coffee is placed on a rotating object (such as a record player). This is an image of water in a rotating mug with a drop of ink placed next to the mug’s wall.

The important thing is that this type of vortex cascade has also been observed in the solar wind. Rather than a giant spoon though, the solar wind stirs itself as the fast wind encounters the (relatively) slow Earth. We are used to stirring our coffee as a way of cooling it down, perhaps we blow on it gently to speed up the cooling process. But this is the difference between your coffee and the solar wind. When the solar wind is stirred up, it gets hotter. To examine how this occurs, scientists have been examining data from the Cluster set of satellites. Launched by the European Space Agency to study the magnetosphere of the Earth, Cluster has provided clues as to how the solar wind differs from a cup of coffee. Back in 2009, scientists analysed the data from Cluster looking at precisely how the turbulence produced as the solar wind meets the magnetosphere cascades into different sorts of eddies, different levels of turbulence. Comparing the data to theoretical models, they showed how the turbulence started off on large length scales (of the order 100 000 km), and decayed into smaller and smaller length scales until it reached 3km. At this point, all that energy, all that motion was dissipated as heat. Stirring the solar wind heated it up.

Why does stirring the solar wind heat it up whereas stirring your coffee cool it down? It’s to do with the environment of the coffee and the wind. On the Earth, the coffee will be surrounded by a cooler atmosphere. Stirring the coffee brings the hot liquid into contact with the cooler air and so the heat from the coffee can escape more efficiently into the atmosphere. They say in space, no one can hear you scream, which is another way of saying that there is no atmosphere through which sound waves can travel¹. No atmosphere means that there is no way of the heat generated by all that turbulence getting dissipated into a cooler air around it. So, as heat is energy, all that energy involved in stirring up the solar wind gets dissipated as heat in the wind which then has a higher temperature to that which we would naively expect.

So, next time you are waiting for your coffee to cool and stir it to hasten the process, take a moment to think about what is happening approximately 90 000 km above your head where the solar wind is being effectively stirred, and heated, by our planet’s magnetic field.

Seeing a vortex cascade in coffee:


¹The origin of the phrase however suggests that this was not quite the meaning that was intended, it was a promotional phrase used for the film Alien.


Communities at Wilton Way

exterior of Wilton Way, Hackney Coffee

Wilton Way cafe on Wilton Way

There are two things that may strike you as you walk past Wilton Way café. The first is the prominent La Marzocco espresso machine on the counter. The second is the “ON AIR” sign in the corner next to the window. Indeed, it is best to look out for these two as there didn’t seem to be any other sign indicating that this café was the Wilton Way cafe, home to the London Fields Radio that is broadcast from here (hence the “on air” sign). In the late afternoon, the café offered some shade on a sunny day and so we popped in for a tea, though there is seating on a bench outside should you wish to enjoy the Sun. Although this website is supposed to be about coffee (which is roasted by Climpson & Sons), sometimes a fresh mint tea is what is needed. This particular mint tea was very refreshing with plenty of mint leaves in the cup. Sadly though, in what seems to be a common pattern at the moment, this was another café at which there were few cakes on offer, presumably as it was late afternoon by the time we visited. However, what is sad for the mind is perhaps good for the waistline, we’ll have to revisit in the morning for the cakes next time.

Corrugated iron supported the counter while the (plentiful) seats inside the café appeared to be made of recycled wood and boxes. Interestingly, this is mentioned in the description of the Wilton Way café on the London Fields Radio website, apparently the interior was designed to be a mix of modern and reclaimed materials. Choosing a seat at the back allowed us to survey the space and people-watch while sipping the tea. On the counter was an old-style Casio cash register while in the far corner at the front of the café, the microphone and broadcasting equipment stood waiting to be used for the London Fields Radio.

the broadcasting equipment at the WW cafe Hackney

London Fields Radio, broadcast from Wilton Way cafe

In the book “Radar, how it all began” the author, Jim Brown reminisced about how he had played with a crystal radio set as a child in the 1920s¹. Many scientists can remember making their own radio sets as children (or indeed as adults). It seems playing with things, taking them apart and building them again is part of the personal-history of many scientists and engineers (particularly experimental ones whether they be ‘professional’ scientists or not). The Lunar Society (which was active at the end of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth) featured a group of keen “tinkerers”. These were people who experimented with nature and invented new devices in order to explore their understanding of the world. Though each of them were only doing science ‘on the side’ as they each had other day-jobs, individuals within the group did make some important contributions to our understanding of the world. One such contribution was by Josiah Wedgwood who by observing the “waviness of flint glass” noticed its resemblance to “that which arises when water and spirit of wine are first put together before they become perfectly unified”². The reference is to mixing fluids of different density. Isn’t this experience of tinkering with things similar to our enjoyment and appreciation of coffee? The more we experiment, the more coffee we try (including cupping coffee as with this how-to from Perfect Daily Grind), the more deeply involved in coffee we become and the more we value it. Isn’t it actually true that in order to deepen our relationship with coffee we need to explore it (and experiment with it) more fully? Cannot the same be said for our relation to our world?

interior of Wilton Way cafe

The view from the corner. Spacious and quirky, the Wilton Way cafe has plenty to offer the coffee (or tea) drinker who wishes to slow down and appreciate the moment.

But then a second thought that, to some extent flows from the first. No development would be possible without a community, each contributor bringing a different talent but each contributing to an idea of a greater good. The London Fields Radio would not be possible without the scientists and engineers who design and optimise the broadcasting (and receiving) equipment. But neither would it be possible without talented DJs and musicians, thinkers, poets and performers to give us something to listen to. Two more groups of people are needed for London Fields Radio to be a success. Those who provide the space for the broadcasting equipment (i.e. the café) and those who listen in. Again there is an analogy with coffee. No cup of coffee could be there for us to enjoy without the farmers, the traders, the roasters, the baristas and finally many other people like us who enjoy a good cup. And the more each of us tinker with appreciating another’s work (cupping the coffee like a roaster or tending an allotment to appreciate the growth), the more of a community we become and the better coffee we get for it. We do not imagine while ‘cupping’ coffee that we are really about to take on the role of the coffee trader or roaster, yet by playing at their job we can appreciate their importance and skill more and so realise more effectively our own role too. We could go full-cycle here and consider how playing with radios and experiments can help us to understand the role of technology and science in society and our participation in it, but perhaps that is left as a point to ponder in another café: How can we each contribute to a better society, understand our role in it and appreciate the contributions of others?

One final thought that came from the Lunar society but appears to have a very contemporary relevance. Wedgwood once said to Richard Lovell Edgeworth “But in politics… as in religion, hardly any two people who thought at all, thought exactly alike on everything.” The main thing was “to agree to differ, to agree on impartial investigation and candid argument”.² It appears the Lunar men still have a thing or two to teach us.

Wilton Way cafe can be found at 63 Wilton Way, E8 1BG

¹Radar, How it all began, Jim Brown, Janus Publishing Ltd, 1996

²The Lunar Men, Jenny Uglow, Faber & Faber, 2003

Developing, a new way to slow down with coffee

Instant gratification takes too long.

Carrie Fisher

What do you think of instant coffee? Does it, as Carrie Fisher may have suggested, take too long? Or perhaps you think that instant coffee is a bad idea, coffee ought instead to be prepared well and slowly to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Many readers of this website are probably of the latter school of thought and yet I would like to offer a slightly different perspective. There is indeed a way that instant coffee can be used to really slow down and to re-evaluate our view of the world: Instant coffee makes a good, or at least adequate, photographic film developer.

developing photographic film in instant coffee

The developing fluid – the instant coffee granules have nearly dissolved.

The caffeine in the coffee acts as a reducing agent for the film (so tea should also work). Instant was suggested over filter coffee in online recipes owing to the greater control over the amount of caffeine in the brew (it would be far easier to get reproducible results mixing 5 teaspoons of instant into the developer than 300ml of whichever coffee is your brew of the day). So, as a first try, it is worth keeping to previously tried-and-tested recipes, in this case from photo-utopia.

5 heaped teaspoons of instant coffee

2 level teaspoons of washing soda

300 ml of water at around 25C.

washing soda, available in supermarkets

The second ingredient that you need to develop your photographic film in coffee – washing soda.

The washing soda (sodium carbonate, Na2CO3) can be purchased in many supermarkets where it is known as a more environmentally friendly laundry agent (it is not the cooking ingredient sodium bicarbonate, that apparently does not work). It is used to ‘activate’ the reducing agent. I admit to being a bit hazy on what that actually means. Where you get your instant coffee from is up to you.

The photos show the washing soda and then coffee being added to the water. Do try to rid yourself of any ideas about developing film amidst the lovely fragrance of coffee coming out of the developing tank. Something in the reaction between the washing soda and the coffee stinks. It was not as bad as I was anticipating (as I had read the warnings of the smell elsewhere) but rest assured, it is not pleasant!

instant coffee film developing fluid

The washing soda is already dissolved in the water here but the coffee has just been added. You need to dissolve the coffee fully for it to be a good developing fluid.

For detailed instructions about developing with the solution, please see photo-utopia but briefly, developing the film took 30 minutes with one inversion every 30 seconds. If you have ever tried sitting, developing film for 30 minutes doing nothing but inverting the developing tank every 30 seconds you will know that this is quite an exercise in slowing down. Are those images that you have been taking on your camera going to come out? Will they be under-developed, over-developed? Does coffee really work as a film developing fluid?

After 30 minutes the film was put into a water stop bath and then fixed with Ilford Rapid Fixer (although it is possible to use salt-water as a fixer, I thought it best to start by experimenting with the developing fluid alone first). A further bit of washing and the film was hung out to dry. This meant more patience, although we could see the images on the film, it was not possible to scan them until the film had thoroughly dried (we left it overnight).

What about the results? Well, the four images below are from the roll of Fuji Neopan 400 film that was developed with the coffee. We had to adjust the scanning a bit as the film was somewhat lightly developed (a higher concentration of caffeine or a longer developing time was needed), but you can see that the images have not come out too badly. It is truly possible to slow down and see things in a different way with instant coffee, but maybe not by drinking it.

Cogs, Wimbledon Common, Windmill, Contact S2b, instant coffee and washing soda developer

Cogs on Wimbledon Common, developed with coffee.

Brighton shellfish, mussels, prawns, cockles, whelks, jellied eels, instant coffee

Shellfish trailer, Brighton, developed in coffee.

Merry-go-round and pier developed with coffee

Brighton beach, developed in coffee.

Bench with heads developed in coffee

Chelsea Embankment, developed in coffee.

Next time I plan to swap the instant coffee for a brewed batch and see how that comes out. More photos will be uploaded from time to time, probably to a special “coffee pictures” page on the website (yet to be created). And if you have tried developing photographic film in coffee, please do share any images that you have developed (with coffee or tea, instant or otherwise).

I am incredibly grateful to ArtemisWorks Photography for helping with all aspects of this project and for fantastic patience when confronted with some daft questions. You may also be interested to see ArtemisWorks’ own café work, photographing London’s older style “caffs” many of which have now disappeared, the café galleries can be found here.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

In the loop at Coffee is my cup of tea

exterior coffee is my cup of tea, cimcot, coffee Hackney

Coffee is my cup of tea on Dalston Lane. The colour of the exterior matches the crockery used inside.

There is a lot of truth in the name of this café. “Coffee is my cup of tea” in Hackney is a lovely retreat, a place where you can take time to enjoy whatever drink is your cup of tea. Walking through the door, you are presented with a few wooden tables and a cocktail menu on the wall. A breath of calm on an otherwise busy road. Together with the bench just outside, there is plenty of seating inside. There’s even a long table along the window where you can sit if you would like to enjoy your coffee while gazing at the passers-by. There were the usual range of coffees on offer along with fresh juices, other drinks together with a range of food. When we went in the late afternoon, there didn’t seem to be many cakes on offer but maybe we were just unlucky. Coffee only this time. The coffee is roasted by Assembly and there is of course tap water available at the end of the bar.

Facing the bar, glued to the wall, were a circle of stiletto shoes. Forming what seemed to  be a “shoe star”, they were one of a number of art works around the shop. The café is also quite spacious, the window at the front providing plenty of light and contributing to the relaxed space. When my long black arrived, the light coming in from the windows produced great interference patterns on the bubbles of the coffee, an irresistible piece of coffee physics. The cocktail menu provided quite a distraction, again making the point that it was a shame we visited on an afternoon: an evening of coffee and cocktails would make a lovely night. However, a sunny afternoon was a great time to sip and enjoy a long black. While the long black started off very fruity, the taste changed (matured?) as the temperature of the coffee decreased. In the background to this all though, something so subtle as to be almost un-noticeable caught my attention. Completely surrounding the window was a very thin piece of copper wire. Were there tiny little lights on it to make the café more attractive (romantic even?) in the evening? I couldn’t see any. From our table, it seemed as if it was just a thin, closed loop of copper wire forming a loop around the window.

coffee cimcot

Fantastic interference patterns on the bubbles of the coffee at Coffee is my cup of tea

Such a loop could be used as a radio antenna, a “loop antenna”. Indeed, when Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894) first discovered radio waves in 1887-8, he used a (gapped) loop antenna as the receiver. Hertz had been trying to test James Clerk Maxwell’s theory that visible light was part of a much broader spectrum of electromagnetic waves, particularly, that there should exist very low frequency waves far beyond the visible region of the spectrum, waves that we now know as “radio waves”. Radio, TV, wifi, all things that seem so obvious now but were really only predicted and discovered relatively recently. Working in his laboratory in Karlsruhe, Hertz set up a radio generator which consisted of two brass balls that were charged until a spark flashed between them. Sitting a few metres away, a gapped loop of wire, the ‘loop antenna’ suddenly showed a spark over the gap. The spark that Hertz had generated in one part of the room had been mysteriously transmitted, as if through an aether, to be picked up by the antenna a few metres away. Clearly it was consistent with Maxwell’s predictions. The electric spark had generated a low frequency electromagnetic wave that had been picked up with the loop antenna. With further experiments, Hertz showed that this wave was indeed reflected and refracted in the same way as ordinary, visible, light and even determined its wavelength (which for Hertz’s experiment was about 66cm)¹.

loop antenna at cimcot, Dalston Lane

It is probably easiest if you visit the cafe but look very very closely at the frame of the window. There is a copper wire surrounding it.

Although Hertz did not immediately see any practical application of his result (beyond the fact that it was a test of Maxwell’s theory of light), ‘radio’ soon started to be developed. Marconi and others worked with wavelengths of 200-600 m to transmit radio waves across the Atlantic Ocean¹. As amateur radio enthusiasts got hold of radio sets in the 1920s they started working with wavelengths that were initially considered impractical for applications (much shorter than the hundreds of metres used by Marconi). These enthusiasts soon realised that they could communicate with other enthusiasts in distant countries through the reflection of the radio waves off of the (until then unknown) ionosphere¹. Gradually our understanding of radio waves and antennae design developed, leading to further, unexpected applications. Depending on the design of the antennae, radio waves (and microwaves, which have a slightly shorter wavelength of the order of 0.1-100cm*) could be made to be directional. So antennae could be made that transmitted waves only in set directions (or conversely could detect the direction from which radio/microwaves originated). This understanding of antennae design would lead to advances in Radar technology.

Which brings us back to the loop antenna at Coffee is my cup of tea. Loop antennae are grouped into two types, “small” and “large”. It is fair to say that it is a large window at Coffee is my cup of tea and so the loop antenna there would fit into the “large” category. These antenna are ‘resonant’ (meaning that they respond most) to wavelengths equal in length to the circumference of the antenna. From memory, I’d guess that the window was roughly 2m high and 3 m across, meaning it had a circumference of 10 m. We can calculate the frequency of the radio waves that would be resonant with this by using the fact that the frequency (f) is just the speed of light (c) divided by the wavelength (λ) (ie. f=c/λ). The speed of light is 3×10^8 m/s, so the frequency would be (3×10^8)/10 = 30 MHz. There are two last things to notice about this result. First, the name of Hertz lives on in the unit of frequency (Hz). Secondly, the loop antenna around the window at Coffee is my cup of tea is resonant with approximately the frequency of Citizens Band radio (CB radio operates at ~27 MHz). Which may make us question once more what this loop of wire is doing at this friendly little café on Dalston Lane.

Coffee is my cup of tea can be found at 103B Dalston Lane, E8 1NH

¹Britain’s shield radar and the defeat of the Luftwaffe, David Zimmerman, Amberley publishers (2001, 2010)

*Technically Hertz discovered microwaves rather than radio waves. However, given neither were named at the time and they are both of longer wavelength than visible light, it is perhaps too pedantic a point.


Aroma and batch brew

Isn’t it great to find a lovely, freshly brewed, hot cup of aromatic coffee in a quirky little café? Which bit do you enjoy most? That special aroma as you inhale the steam above your cup before sipping the coffee to compare the taste with the smell?


Representation of 2-furfurylthiol. Amazing what can be found (briefly) above your coffee cup.

As you may imagine, a fair bit of research has gone into working out which chemicals are responsible for that just brewed aroma (for a review see here). More than 800 volatile chemicals have been identified as key to the aroma of coffee of which the most important for that freshly roasted and brewed coffee smell seems to be 2-furfurylthiol. Although it has a complicated name, it’s got a fairly simple chemical representation (shown right). Responsible for the “roast-y, sulphur-y” smell in freshly brewed coffee the problem for us, and for 2-furfurylthiol, is that it is not very stable. In fact, in experiments in which a freshly brewed coffee was stored in a thermos flask to keep it warm, the concentration of 2-furfurylthiol in the space just above the coffee decreased by more than 50% within 20 minutes of storage. After an hour, the concentration of 2-furfurylthiol had decreased to less than a quarter of its original amount and shortly after that, it was gone completely (study can be found here). (Other volatile aromatics decreased similarly (here)).

So if you were to brew a coffee, put it in a flask to keep it warm and then drink it within 20 minutes, you will have lost more than half of the lovely coffee smell. And if, heaven forbid, you were to take it from its thermos 1hr after brewing, almost all those wonderful aromatics would have decayed away.

Lundenwic coffee

This was not a batch!
Could you taste the difference between freshly made drip brewed coffee and batch brew?

Why is this important? Well, it’s about batch brew. You may have noticed that batch brew is increasingly popular in many cafés. Offered as a way of getting a filter coffee ‘freshly’ prepared for you without the hassle of actually having to have the filter made there and then. Different establishments try to get around the inevitable aromatic loss by changing the batch every 30 minutes or storing it in a ‘low oxygen’ environment, but is this enough? Do we need some blind taste-tests on batch brew?

A problem is that the decay of 2-furfurylthiol is not just due to oxidisation. Sadly for us, its decay seems to be intimately tied to other qualities that we appreciate in the coffee, the melanoidins (that make the coffee brown) and other chemicals formed during the roasting process (the phenols and the quinones). So even in a low oxygen environment, that aromatic 2-furfurylthiol is going to react with the other chemicals that make coffee great to make batch brew less great.

weather, bubbles, coffee, coffee physics, weather prediction, meteorology

It’s all in the 2-furfurylthiol. That fantastic coffee aroma is due to a number of unstable aromatic compounds that rapidly decay after the coffee is brewed.

That’s the theory. Clearly many cafés have taste-tested the batch brew and found that it doesn’t make enough difference to be concerned about. And in practice there are many other factors that may make a batch brew better than a fresh drip coffee you can make at home (though it would be great if someone could point some of these out for me!), what we need is a citizen science type taste test. A blind test of the same bean, prepared as a fresh filter and a cup at the end of the storage life of the batch. They will most likely have different temperatures so this would need to be considered, either by pouring very little of each (so the fresh-filter cools quickly), or waiting for 5 minutes for your cup of fresh-filter to cool to the batch temperature. Do they taste the same? Do they smell the same?

So this is a call for some science experiments “in the field” (and seemingly for everyone to drink more coffee). If you enjoy a cup of “batch” and are a regular at a café, please do drop me a note to share your blind taste-test experiences. If you are a café, any tips you have as to how to store warm coffee for longer than 20 minutes without compromising the aroma would be very interesting to hear (though if you find a café storing batch for longer than approx. 30 minutes, I would seriously consider going somewhere else!). And if you just drink coffee at home, why not get involved too, prepare a filter coffee that you store in a thermos and another a bit later ‘fresh’, get someone to help you so that you taste them ‘blind’ and let me know what you think. The comments section below is always available, otherwise I can be found on Twitter and Facebook and will happily debate there.

Enjoy your coffee!


The idea of a coffee at A Wanted Man

We cannot do without a view, and we put up with an illusion, when we cannot get at a truth“.

A wanted man, Chelsea, coffee cup

A wanted man becomes visible under thin coffee.

A Wanted Man on Chelsea’s Kings Road is unusual in many respects. Firstly, never before have I been to an espresso ‘canteen’, but then, neither have I had a coffee in a café that is part coffee-shop part waxing salon. While both wax based hair removal and coffee rely on bees, this is surely not the connection between these two enterprises. Nonetheless, once your coffee-loyalty card is full, you can choose: free brow shape, bikini wax or coffee. The coffee comes from Common Man Coffee Roasters in Singapore so it would be interesting to know how it was transported to Chelsea in order to retain its freshness, surely each batch is not flown in? On our first visit, we had a rich and smooth long black, a lovely aromatic banana bread and a good hot chocolate (with soy milk). There is plenty of seating in the front of the café and some more towards the back near the bar which was all fairly empty on our first visit but far more crowded (with singly-occupied tables) on my second visit (see below).

As I drank my coffee, hidden wording became visible at the bottom of the cup. “A wanted man” appeared beneath the coffee when the coffee was sufficiently thin. By tilting the cup, this “critical” thickness could be estimated, as you can see in the photos. Ah-ha I thought, the physics bit of this cafe-physics-review will be easy! The absorption of light (which we could measure by the visibility of the writing at the bottom of the cup) is directly proportional to the thickness of the absorbing liquid, the coffee. This is the Beer-Lambert law which describes how light is absorbed through substances such as coffee in which there are molecules and bits of sediment that absorb light (which is ultimately why coffee appears brown). Could I experimentally verify this bit of the Beer-Lambert law by somehow quantifying the visibility of the wording as a function of cup-tilt angle?

a tilted coffee cup at a wanted man

Absorption is a function of thickness and concentration

Before I had thought that far, I had finished the coffee, however the second part of the Beer-Lambert law could be tested by having another coffee on a separate occasion. The other part of the Beer-Lambert law states that the absorption (that’s the (in)visibility of the wording on the cup in this case) is also directly proportional to the concentration of the absorbing molecules/sediment. This makes sense, weak coffee is far more transparent than overly extracted coffee. On my second visit, the coffee tasted slightly stronger, a bit different from my memories of the first occasion. Did the “A wanted man” become visible at a different tilt angle? I would guess – or perhaps that should read ‘hypothes-ise’ – that the angle on the second occasion would have to be lower (that the coffee would have to be thinner generally).

However, while sipping my coffee (before getting to the tilt-angle-test) and looking around the second time I noticed that all along the wall where previously there had been plenty of empty tables, each one was now singly occupied by somebody using a laptop, a phone/tablet or in one case, both of these items together. This second time, my mind started wandering into more social issues, while looking at our screens and immersed in social media, are we able to see more or less, than our less absorbed fellow citizens? Does social media clarify the detail or cloud important aspects of our understanding?

Beer-Lambert applied to twitter and Facebook

Does social media do this to you? The light absorption of a coffee is determined by the thickness of the coffee and concentration of absorption sites within it.

After considering these two points, it became clear that in some ways they are connected. Admittedly a loose connection, and not one that is strictly scientific but perhaps it’s worth ‘running with it’ for a bit and seeing if it leads anywhere. Just as with the Beer-Lambert law with coffee, the more ‘interacting sites’ (or absorption sites) we encounter on social media, the harder it is to see through to the bottom. Twitter, Facebook etc. can be enormously helpful for widening our networks and learning about new things. But, as has been frequently pointed out elsewhere, they can also become quite unhelpful when we are in an “echo chamber” or when we think that points can be made in mere soundbites. Is it possible that the more absorbing and reflecting sites that we encounter, the harder it is to see anything to any greater depth? What we need is time-out, for self-reflection and for considering points made by others, on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere.

Perhaps the best way to end such a post is with a long quote by somebody else. In fact, the same person (and in the same book) as was quoted at the beginning of this article. Perhaps it would be something to consider while we drink our coffees and hover over the ‘retweet’ or ‘share’ button. Are we helping to probe the depths of our cup by the links we share, or are we merely adding to absorption sites in soundbites in our networks?

It requires a great deal of reading, or a wide range of information, to warrant us in putting forth our opinions on any serious subject; and without such learning the most original mind may be able indeed to dazzle, to amuse, to refute, to perplex, but not to come to any useful result or any trustworthy conclusion. There are indeed persons who profess a different view of the matter, and even act upon it. Every now and then you will find a person of vigorous or fertile mind, who relies upon his own resources, despises all former authors, and gives the world, with the utmost fearlessness, his views upon religion, or history, or any other popular subject. And his works may sell for a while; he may get a name in  his day; but this will be all. His readers are sure to find on the long run that his doctrines are mere theories, and not the expression of facts, that they are chaff instead of bread, and then his popularity drops as suddenly as it rose.

John Henry Newman, The idea of a university.

A Wanted Man can be found at 330 Kings Road, London

Reading tea leaves with Einstein and my great-grandmother

tea pot science

It’s not just tea, Einstein is famous for some other physics too

Ask anyone what Albert Einstein is famous for and you’ll probably (hopefully) hear that he came up with the theory of relativity (special and general). Perhaps you may also be told that he came up with a little theory explaining the photoelectric effect for which he won the Nobel prize in 1921. Maybe, if you have read this website before, you will know that he contributed to our understanding of Brownian motion, which is a phenomenon that is frequently found in a coffee cup. But it turns out that Einstein wrote another paper, far more important than any of these others, which was about tea. Or at least, I suspect my great-grandmother would have found it more important than any of these others as it coincided with a special hobby of hers, reading tea leaves.

It seems that my great-grandmother used to enjoy reading tea-leaves. Whether it was something she had learned as a child or merely used as an interesting trick to perform at family functions, stories of her examining the patterns formed by swirling tea leaves in a cup have come down to us in younger generations. Einstein too had noticed the patterns formed by the tea leaves in the cup and had observed a problem. The problem is this: If you drink a cup of (inadequately filtered) loose leaf tea and stir it, the tea leaves collect in a circle in the middle of the base of the cup. At first this may appear counterintuitive. When we stir things, don’t things fly outwards towards the edge of the cup rather than inwards to the centre of the circle? Why is it that the leaves collect in the middle?

Thames, NASA image

How do rivers erode? What causes a river to meander? The meandering Thames, photographed by NASA, Image courtesy NASA/GSFC/MITI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

For Einstein, this tea leaf problem was connected to another phenomenon, the erosion of rivers. But it turns out that the problem is also linked to issues found in beer brewing and blood tests, and it seems, in how to poach an egg. To see the solution and therefore the connections, we need to think a bit more about how water flows. One of the brilliant lines in Einstein’s paper starts “I begin with a little experiment which anybody can easily repeat.” This experiment is to obtain a flat bottomed cup of tea with some tea leaves at the bottom of it. Now stir the tea and watch how the leaves settle, Einstein continues “the leaves will soon collect in the centre of the bottom of the cup“.

The explanation is connected with the fact that at the walls of the cup, the liquid (tea) is being slowed down by the friction between the walls and the tea. Secondly, as the tea is stirred, the surface of the tea becomes concave with a distinct dip in the centre of the swirling tea. The result of all this is that a secondary rotation is set-up where the tea flows down the sides of the cup, along the bottom and then back up in the centre and once more to the sides (have a look at the diagram, some things are easier with pictures). As they are carried along with the water, the tea leaves move towards the centre of the cup but then, being too heavy to rise again with the tea up to the centre of the cup, they stay on the bottom forming a circular patch of tea leaves.

adaptation from Einsteins paper

The secondary circular flow set up in a tea cup when it is stirred leads to a circular deposition of tea leaves (figure adapted from Einstein’s 1926 paper).

When you think about how water flows as it goes around a bend in a river, you could perhaps imagine a similar secondary flow being set up but this time from the inner edge of the bend to the outer edge and back down (so, like half a tea cup). As the water is going to be moving fastest at the outer edge, just before it plunges down towards the bottom of the river in this secondary cycle, any river erosion is going to be most noticeable on the outer edge of the bend.

It seems the effect is also used in beer brewing in order to introduce a greater concentration of hops into the brew, and to separate different types of blood cell in blood tests. So this just leaves the poached eggs. How do you poach eggs? If you have a proper poacher perhaps you get neat eggs each time but for those of us without them, poached eggs tend to be a messy cooking project. But worry no longer! Just as tea leaves collect in the centre of a tea cup, so will the egg if you ensure that your pan of boiling water is swirling around the central axis before you put your egg in. Cooking helped by physics, perfect.

For reasons of full disclosure, I should emphasise that I have only recently found this suggestion for cooking eggs ‘theoretically’ and not yet tested it. So, if you were looking for reasons to drink loose tea, or wanted to poach an egg without a poacher, perhaps you could try Einstein’s little experiment and let me know how you got on, I’d love to hear your tea leaf readings and see your poached egg results.




Coffee innovations at MacIntyre, Angel

MacIntyre Coffee AngelOne motivation behind Bean Thinking is to explore those connections that can be found when we stop to really look around us. Whether your interest is in history, philosophy or science, something in a café will prompt a train of reflections that can lead to interesting and surprising thought journeys. This is surely true for anybody in any café, if we just take the time to slow down. But, I admit a prejudice: while I had heard great things about the coffee in MacIntyre, when I had glanced in from the bus window, I saw the scaffolding seating arrangements and wooden surfaces that can be a type of design found in many new cafés. So I worried. Was it going to be hard to ‘see the connections’ in MacIntyre? Would I end up with a great coffee but a challenge to my assumptions about the ubiquity of connectivity?

Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. The two lovely coffees that I have enjoyed at MacIntyre gave me plenty of time to really savour both the coffee and my surroundings and I was wrong in my assumptions from the bus window, connections really are everywhere. The café itself was a delightful find. Watching other customers while drinking my long black, it seemed that everyone was greeted by a cheery “hello”. Many people were clearly regulars, which is perhaps unsurprising for a friendly café with good coffee in a busy area. The scaffolding and wooden seating also works in the space at MacIntyre, giving a strangely relaxing feel to the café. The café itself is rather narrow, with the seating on one side and pastries/ordering queue on the other. Tap water was delivered with the coffee, without my needing to have asked for it.

Plant, light, scaffolding at McIntyre's Angel

Good scaffolding also has good connections.
Plant and light at MacIntyre.

MacIntyre may also be a great spot if you are into people watching. Amidst the general busy-ness, I could eavesdrop on conversations about the latest coffee news and the rise of artificial intelligence (these were two separate conversations!). Perhaps the conversations were particularly noticeable owing to the acoustics of the wooden walls and the narrow, small space of the café. At various points around the café, plants hung from the scaffolding. Some of the plants were spot-lit, which caused me to wonder whether the light that the plants were receiving was optimal for photosynthesis. The menu was projected onto the rear wall of the café, which was also decorated with hexagons, an immediate connection to graphene.

But then, in my coffee cup, the significant crema on the coffee showed evidence of amazing thermal convective motion together with turbulence. The coffee itself was very sweet with nutty overtones but the movements of the crema reminded me of cloud formation in thunderstorms. Although thunderstorms didn’t make it to the thought train of MacIntyre, another form of surface motion suggested a connection to another, unusual, feature of this café. You see, MacIntyre is a cashless business, no cash is accepted even if you’re only buying a long black. Most customers on my visit paid with their contactless cards.

The idea of a cashless society is one that has obvious advantages for both the business and the government/economy (whether it has such obvious advantages for the consumer I will leave as a point to be debated). While some countries are attempting to move to a more cashless economy, for a business to be entirely cashless is somewhat innovative. Even though MacIntyre is not the only café to go cashless (Browns of Brockley is similarly cash free), it has to be one of the first cafés to do so.

Coffee at MacIntyre Angel

Coffee and water on wood at MacIntyre Coffee. Could you increase the returns on your investments by understanding the movements on the surface of a cup of coffee?

What is the connection between this and the surface movement on my coffee? Well, it is not just at MacIntyre that a café has supported an innovation that has (or may) change our economy. Just over three hundred years ago, Jonathan’s Coffee House in Exchange Alley was a place of similar innovation, though there it was a customer rather than the coffee house itself that gave the change.

It was at Jonathan’s in 1698 that John Castaing published a paper twice a week detailing the latest stock prices titled “The course of the exchange and other things”. Recognised now as the origin of the London Stock Exchange, how stocks are priced and how their prices vary with time are subject to intense mathematical modelling. Although now, these models can be extraordinarily complex, the base of many of them share a mathematical model with the movements on the surface of your coffee cup, Brownian Motion.

Jonathan's coffee house plaque

The site of Jonathan’s in Exchange Alley. Seen while on a Coffee House tour last year.

Brownian motion is the phenomenon in which small particles of dust, or coffee grains on the surface of your coffee move in a random way as a result of collisions between the particles and the molecules in the liquid. First described in detail by a botanist, Robert Brown in 1827, the experimental evidence in favour of the molecular-collision explanation of Brownian motion came in 1910 with Jean Perrin’s careful experiments (that have featured in The Daily Grind previously). The maths behind the explanation relies on the idea of the ‘random walk‘ in which each dust particle is ‘kicked’ in a random direction by the molecules in the coffee, the consequent motion being frequently described with reference to a drunkard attempting to get home after leaving the pub. However, as this concept of the ‘random walk’ was being developed for molecules in a liquid, it was simultaneously being developed to model the movements of stock prices by the mathematician Louis Bachelier. Bachelier’s model of stock prices turned out to be the same as the model of Brownian motion, but both developed independently.

As yet, it is unclear (to me at least) whether there is a link between cashless payments and some of the maths in your coffee cup but, MacIntyre would be a great place to contemplate this as you sip your brew. Never succumb to prejudices, on which note please do let me know what you think of cashless payments, a great convenience or an invasion of privacy?

MacIntyre can be found at 428 St John St, EC1V 4NJ.