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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.

Scratching the surface in coffee week

reflections, surface tension

The effects of surface tension can be seen in the light reflected from a coffee

UK Coffee week is once again upon us meaning that all week we can be justified in thinking about, drinking, appreciating and celebrating coffee. And of course, as soon as we start to do this, we realise we have to drink, appreciate and celebrate water which is, ultimately, what really makes most of the cup of coffee. So UK Coffee Week raises money for Project Waterfall which is a charity that brings clean water to coffee growing communities. Giving something back by enjoying something good.

In keeping with the water theme, this week The Daily Grind is all about water, including an experiment that enables you to make a hole in it. As this is also the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, perhaps we could call the post “Holey water for Holy Week”.

But moving quickly to the experiment. While drinking your coffee, you may have noticed how around the edge of the cup, the coffee appears lighter, not quite so dark, as in the interior. The coffee is being bent upwards at the edge of the cup by the surface tension of the water in the coffee. Now, what happens if you add alcohol to the coffee? If you do this in your coffee cup you may well end up with an Irish coffee which may provide even more of an excuse to celebrate your coffee drinking, but if you were to put your coffee on a plate first (I know, why? but bear with me) you will get a quite different result. You will be able to make a hole in the middle of your coffee. The reason is that the surface tension of alcohol is much weaker than that of water. Consequently, if you try to mix a very thin layer of coffee with a small amount of alcohol, something slightly unexpected happens as this video shows:

The addition of a small amount of alcohol into the middle of a thin layer of water (or coffee) causes the water to recede. As the alcohol evaporates off, you are left with a dry ‘hole’ in the coffee. Why is this? It is effectively a liquid-tug-of-war on your plate. The higher surface tension in the coffee (or water) pulls against the weaker surface tension of the alcohol which eventually means that the water breaks away, leaving the hole. As the water molecules are continually moving, eventually they start to meet again over the dry spot and close the hole.

You can’t see this in your mug of course because the mixing occurs throughout the liquid while the plate ensures that this is only a surface effect.

You will need a strong alcohol, perhaps gin or vodka but please do try this experiment, let me know how you get on and enjoy the coffee, water (and alcohol) in UK Coffee week. And if you want to donate to Project Waterfall, you could either find a participating café here or donate online here.


Good vibrations at Vagabond, Highbury

black coffee, Vagabond, Highbury

A good start to the day. Coffee at Vagabond.

A long black, flat white (with soya milk) and a tea. Yes, you could say we spent a fair while at Vagabond in Highbury the other week. It was a lovely space to catch up with an old friend again. There were plenty of comfortable seats and the staff were definitely friendly, supplying us with coffee and space to chat for a while. The coffee was good (Vagabond are roasters as well as a café) with batch brew and Aeropress/drip on offer together with the usual selection of coffees and other drinks. Tasting notes were on a black board behind the counter while on the wall, also behind the counter, was a drawing of a tongue taste map. While the science of this has been disputed, it does serve as a reminder for us to sit back and properly appreciate – and taste – what we are drinking.

Above the espresso machine was a long rectangular sign that said “coffee in progress”, suspended by four cables, one at each corner. Coffee orders were placed onto this sign allowing the baristas to keep track of who ordered which drink. Given how busy this café occasionally got (and we weren’t even there for lunch), it seems that this is a very handy system. Each time an order was placed on the sign, the whole sign oscillated, rather like a rigid trampoline. Even if you had not seen the note placed on the sign by the barista, you would get a clue, a piece of evidence, that something had just happened by the vibrations long afterwards. Perhaps you may say that the sign was some sort of “order-detector”.

order detector oscillation espresso machine

The “order-detector”: sign at Vagabond in Highbury

Or at least, that is what you may say if you were thinking about the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational waves Observatory) detectors that, back in 2015, detected the gravitational waves produced by two merging black holes between 700 million and 1.6 billion light years away. Not only do these detectors have similarities to the order-detector sign at Vagabond, the beauty of the LIGO detector is that you can start to understand how it works by staring into your coffee. The LIGO experiment consists of two detectors. Each LIGO detector is an L shaped vacuum tube (4km long) with a mirror at each ‘end’. A laser beam is split between the two legs and reflected back by mirrors at the end of each L. When the reflected laser beams return back to the detector at the corner of the ‘L’, how they interact with each other is dependent on the exact distance that each laser beam has travelled between the mirror and the detector. Think about the bubbles on the surface of your coffee. These colourful bubbles appear as different colours depending on the thickness of the bubble ‘skin’. You may remember being taught that, exactly as with oil slicks on water, it was about the constructive and destructive interference of the light waves. As each ‘colour’ has a different wavelength, the colours that destructively interfere change with the thickness of the bubble skin. You can determine the thickness of the bubble by the colour it appears.

LIGO photo

An aerial photo of the LIGO detector at Hanford. The mirrors are at the ends of the tubes going away from the main building. Image courtesy of Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory

In the LIGO experiment, there is only one wavelength because the light is coming from a laser. So whether the detector registers an intense laser beam or the absence of one, depends on whether those two beams coming back from the mirrors interfere constructively, or destructively. (A deeper description of the technique of “interferometry” can be found here). As the gravitational waves emanating from the collision of the black holes encountered the mirrors at the ends of the L’s in LIGO, so each mirror wobbled a little. This small wobble was enough to change the intensity of the laser light received by the detector and so reveal that the mirrors had moved just that little bit. In fact, the detectors are so sensitive that they can detect if the mirrors move by less than the diameter of a single proton. Given that this is a sub-atomic distance, I don’t think I can even start to relate it to the size of an espresso grind, even a Turkish coffee grind is millions (billions) of times larger than the amount that these mirrors moved. Yet this is what was detected a couple of years ago in the now famous announcement that gravitational waves had been detected and that Einstein’s predictions had been shown to be true.

Watching the “coffee in progress” sign oscillate at Vagabond, it is clear how much engineering has gone into isolating the mirrors at LIGO enough that they do not move as people walk by. Yet perhaps it is interesting that, nonetheless, one of the final refinements of isolating the mirrors from the vibrations of the earth involved changing the material for the cables that suspended them, just as with the sign at Vagabond. You can learn more about the engineering behind this incredible feat of detection in the video here, or you can go to Vagabond, enjoy a lovely coffee and think about the physics of detection there.

Vagabond (Highbury) can be found at 105 Holloway Road, N7 8LT

If you would like to hear what the collision sounded like, follow the link here.


Stirring up some climate science

Everything is connected. At least, that is part of the premise of Bean Thinking, where the physics of a coffee cup is used to explore the physics of the wider world. So it was great to stumble upon a new connection that I had not previously appreciated¹.

vortices in coffee

Like the vortices behind a spoon dragged through coffee….

The connection is between climate science and that wonderful pastime of pulling a spoon through coffee and watching the vortices form behind it. Yet the research that revealed this connection was not looking for links between coffee and the atmosphere. Instead the researchers were interested in something seemingly (and hopefully) very far from a coffee cup: rogue waves.

Rogue waves are rare and extremely large waves that have been the subject of mariners tales for many years. Nonetheless, it is only relatively recently that they have become the subject of scientific research, partly because they are so rare and so outside our usual experience that they were thought to be the stuff of myth rather than of science. So it is only now that we are developing an understanding of how it can be that, in amongst a number of smaller waves, a massive wave of 20m height can suddenly appear, apparently out of nowhere. One of the groups looking at this problem investigated the effect of a particular sort of (known) instability on a series of waves in water. However, unlike other research groups, this particular study included the effect of the air above the water as well as the waves themselves.

Small waves seen from Lindisfarne

Rogue waves seem to come out of nowhere. A rogue wave can be 2 or 3 times the height of the other waves in the water at the time. How and why do they form?

Although this sounds a simple idea, modelling water waves in air is actually extremely complex. To do so, the authors of the study had to use a computer simulation of the air-water interface. It is not the sort of problem that can be solved analytically, instead the computer has to crunch through the numerical solutions. In order to start to see what was going on with the rogue waves, the authors had to simulate multiple waves of different amplitudes. Each simulation took weeks to perform. Given that this was only a few years ago (the study was published in 2013), you can start to see why people had previously been approximating water waves as waves in water (without worrying too much about the air interface).

Now here is where the link with coffee comes in. The group modelled waves as a function of steepness and found that, above a critical steepness, the wave breaking caused significant interaction between the air and the water layers. In addition to the bubbles that form when waves break, the movement of the air over the breaking wave formed into a vortex which, when it interacted with the back of the wave created an opposite vortex: a vortex dipole “much like the vortices that form behind a spoon dragged through a cup of coffee“.

Rayleigh Benard cells in clouds

The water droplets that form clouds are often ‘seeded’ by particles of salt or dust, such as the aerosols distributed by the vortices in this wave study. Image shows clouds above the Pacific. Image NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

Just as with the vortices in the coffee cup, vortices were forming in the air behind the wave crest (which acted as the spoon) and travelled upwards through the atmosphere and away from the waves. As each wave broke, a train of vortex dipoles were produced that twirled off into the sky. Imagine a coffee bath and multiple spoons rather than a coffee cup. The authors suggested that these vortices could carry aerosols from the sea (salt, water droplets etc) into the atmosphere. Travelling within the vortices, these tiny particles could travel far further and far higher than we may have expected otherwise. Such aerosols can be critical for cloud formation and so the effect of these breaking waves could be important for climate modelling.

While an undergraduate, I had an opportunity to study a course in atmospheric physics. I remember the lecturer lamenting that while we (as a community, but not really as the students sitting in the lecture theatre at that time) understood atmospheric modelling quite well and that we understood how to model the oceans fairly well, we got problems when we tried to put the two sets of models together. It was clear that something wasn’t quite right. Years later, it seems that at least past of the reason for that is linked to those vortices that you see as you pull your spoon through your coffee cup.

Everything is connected indeed.

A summary of the study can be found here. The abstract (and link to the pdf) of the published paper can be found here. If you do not have access to the journal through a library, an early, but free, version of the paper is here – note though that this version may not include the amendments included after peer review.


¹A quote attributed to Jean-Baptiste Biot (1774-1862), is perhaps relevant here “Nothing is so easy to see than what has been found yesterday, and nothing more difficult than what will be found tomorrow.”

Some perspective at Over Under, Earls Court

Over Under Coffee Earls Court

Follow the arrow! Over Under Coffee in Earls Court.

Whenever I’m heading somewhere that I haven’t been to for a while, I check the London’s Best Coffee app to see if any new cafés have popped up in the area since my last visit. So when I was in Earls Court recently, I was very happy to be alerted to a new café on the map with a review by Beanthereat.

Over Under Coffee is at 181A Earls Court Road but is tucked around the corner from the main road and so thank goodness for the helpful arrow (and the map which told me I should be on top of it). Once found, we ordered coffee and banana bread and took a table to sit down. The friendly staff behind the counter were quite confident of the ingredients in the banana bread as it is made locally by a lady in Fulham (whose name I have sadly forgotten). The coffee and banana bread formed a great combination for a mid-morning snack. Coffee is roasted by Assembly roasters over in Brixton and came with lovely interference patterns in the bubbles on the surface together with dancing white mists, which never fail to fascinate me.

On the table next to ours was a small Kilner jar for sugar and two succulent plants. The Kilner reminded me of the use of air valves in coffee packaging (which are non-recyclable plastic) and the interesting experiment by Roasting House coffee roasters to investigate whether they are actually needed for freshly roasted coffee (which you can read about here). However it was a picture above the table that prompted the thought-train for today’s Daily Grind. A charcoal sketch, the picture featured a tree in the foreground with a fence behind it. From a very early age we are taught how to represent 3D objects on a 2D sheet of paper, the idea of perspective seems ingrained on our minds. But how intuitive is it really?

perspective in coffee

A picture at Over Under. Note the smaller reflections of the (more distant) light fittings.

Although the ancient Greek artists could convey an idea of depth in their art, the development of a mathematical understanding of perspective only came with Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), although a written account of the mathematics of perspective did not arrive until Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). Alberti’s method for drawing in perspective used not just a vanishing point, but an additional diagonal vanishing point in order to construct a sense of depth and an accurate depiction of perspective (a description of Alberti’s method is here). The development of the understanding of perspective during the Renaissance meant that for some paintings, the ‘viewing depth’ can actually be calculated, while other artworks managed to create optical illusions whereby objects would jump out at the viewer as if they are in 3D. Works such as Andrea Pozzo’s ceiling in the chiesa di Sant’Ignazio in which a flat ceiling appears magnificently domed. Or, closer to home,  Samuel van Hoogstraten’s work in the National Gallery in London in which the viewer looks through a peep hole to see the interior of a house complete with a dog that appears to be sitting up inside the painting. Such paintings required a knowledge of the mathematical rules behind the depiction of perspective. Isn’t it surprising that the understanding of these rules is so recent?

Over Under Earls Court

Coffee with bubbles showing interference patterns at Over Under Coffee

Another art work with an interesting use of perspective that will bring us, in some way, back to Over Under Coffee is Raphael’s fresco “School of Athens“. The two figures of Plato and Aristotle stand at the centre of a diverse group of philosophers including Socrates, Zoroaster, Euclid, Diogenes the Cynic and, possibly, an image of Hypatia of Alexandria. Although the use of perspective for the architecture draws your eye towards the centre of the picture, two spheres (held by Zoroaster and Ptolemy) on the right hand side of the picture are drawn as circles rather than ellipses. Spheres viewed from an angle should be represented as ellipses if drawn correctly according to the rules of perspective. Did Raphael make an error in perspective (that may work better for our eyes?) or is the degree to which these two spheres are distorted within the limits of the fresco brush and so not visible in the picture? An episode of Radio 4’s In Our Time discusses this picture at length including a deep conversation about the significance of Plato pointing upwards towards the heavens and Aristotle indicating towards the Earth. Plato’s wisdom and Aristotle’s knowledge, above and below, much like the weave logo that brings us back to Over Under Coffee.

Over Under Coffee can be found at 181A Earls Court Road, SW5 9RB.



Biscuit Crystals

biscuits gone wrong, crystals in the oven

Expanding biscuits are a 2D example of a close packed crystal lattice.

Blaise Pascal once wrote of the benefits of contemplating the vast, “infinite sphere”, of Nature before considering the opposite infinity, that of the minute¹. And although the subject of today’s Daily Grind involves neither infinitesimally small nor infinitely large, a consideration of biscuits and coffee can, I think lead to what Pascal described as “wonder” at the science of the very small and the fairly large.

The problem was that my biscuits went wrong. Fiddling about with the recipe had resulted in the biscuit dough expanding along the tray as the biscuits cooked. Each dough ball collapsed into a squashed mass of biscuit, each expanding until it was stopped by the tray-wall or the other biscuits in the tray. When the biscuits came out of the oven they were no longer biscuits in the plural but one big biscuit stretched across the tray. However looking at them more closely, it was clear that each biscuit had retained some of its identity and the super-biscuit was not really just one big biscuit but instead a 2D crystal of biscuits. The biscuits had formed a hexagonal lattice. For roughly circular elements (such as biscuits), this is the most efficient way to fill a space, as you may notice if you try to efficiently cut pie-circles out of pastry.

salt crystals

Salt crystals. Note the shape and the edges seem cuboid.

Of course, what we see in 2D has analogues in 3D (how do oranges stack in a box?) and what happens on the length scale of biscuits and oranges happens on smaller length scales too from coffee beans to atoms. Each atom stacking up like oranges in a box (or indeed coffee beans), to form regular, repeating structures known as crystal structures. To be described as a crystal, there has to be an atomic arrangement that repeats in a regular pattern. For oranges in a box, this could be what is known as “body centred cubic”, where the repeating unit is made up of 8 oranges that occupy the corners of a cube with one in the centre. Other repeating units could be hexagonal or tetragonal. It turns out that, in 3D, there are 14 possible such repeating units. Each of the crystals that you find in nature, from salt to sugar to chocolate and diamond can be described by one of these 14 basic crystal types. The type of crystal then determines the shape of the macroscopic object. Salt flakes that we sprinkle on our lunch for example are often cubic because of the underlying cubic structure on the atomic scale. Snowflakes have 6-fold symmetry because of the underlying hexagonal structure of ice.

It is possible to grow your own salt and sugar crystals. My initial experiments have not yet worked out well, but, if and when they do, expect a video (sped up of course!). In the meantime, perhaps we could take Pascal’s advice and wonder at the very (though not infinitesimally) small and biscuits. And if you’re wondering about where coffee comes into this? How better to contemplate your biscuit crystals than with a steaming mug of freshly brewed coffee?

¹Blaise Pascal, Pensées, XV 199

Thinking space at Le Peche Mignon

Coffee in Le Peche Mignon, Highbury, Islington

Le Peche Mignon in Highbury, hidden down a side street.

It was a balmy February morning when I met an old friend at Le Péché Mignon on Ronalds Road near Highbury and Islington. I had first come across Le Péché Mignon a few months ago when I had had a lovely coffee (and a great cake, I remember the staff being very helpful to check the ingredients for my nut allergy) but too little time to properly think about the space. So, when the opportunity arose to meet a friend (who I have known since we were both 5 but haven’t seen for many years) near Islington, I jumped at the opportunity to meet there.

This small but delightful café seems to be very popular. Both the bench seat in the window (where I had sat last time) and the long, sharing-table in the middle of the café were practically full by the time we arrived in the mid-morning. Fortunately, there was plenty of space in the quiet garden at the back for us to catch up for a couple of hours (and a couple of coffees!). The coffee is roasted by Monmouth, the Americano was very well done and there were quite a selection of pastries and salads on offer. One wall of the café was lined with bottles of wine while Carambars were available to purchase next to the counter.

brick wall at Le Peche Mignon

A join between two brick walls at Le Peche Mignon. How exactly are bricks made and why are they made that way?

The garden behind the café had plenty of tables and, even though it was February, it was warm enough for us to sit comfortably outside. One of the walls of the garden was formed by two sets of brick walls that had a join between them. The appearance of a separation between the walls, together with the weather, reminded me of the crack and the imminent demise of the Larson C ice shelf. However as this was probably too close to recent posts about climate change, I started thinking about defect structures in crystals instead. While pondering this though, my thoughts turned to an entirely different subject matter, the unusual toilet at Le Péché Mignon.

Just as the toilets in our old primary school, the toilet at Le Péché Mignon is outside, in the garden. This got us reminiscing about our old primary school which, during winter, regularly closed when the outside toilets froze (hopefully not a problem for the toilets at Le Péché Mignon!). And while the school has undergone significant renovation since then, it does get you thinking about the history (and engineering/science) of toilets. While this may seem an unpleasant subject for, what is after all a café review, please do bear with me because thinking about toilets can lead to surprising connections. For example, a recent New Yorker article about confirmation bias featured quite a discussion on toilets. How? It seems that while people generally tend to think that they understand how a toilet flush works, when asked to explain it step by step, they suddenly become far less confident. Our knowledge is not so great as we tend to think it is.

cup of coffee in Le Peche Mignon

From coffee cups to aeroplanes, the hardness and porosity of materials depends on the temperature that the starting materials were ‘baked’ at.

Which brings me back to Le Péché Mignon. The issue of flushing toilets became a problem for London in the mid-nineteenth century when the introduction of the “water closet” increased the volume of water flowing into the rather inadequate sewage system (if you are interested in the history of the toilet you can click here). The great engineer Joseph Bazalgette (1819-91) was commissioned to design and build London’s sewer system in which a network of tunnels were built across the capital. Bazalgette’s northern branch lies about 5 minutes walk north of Le Péché Mignon and runs from Hampstead Heath to Old Ford in Stratford. A distance of just 9 miles (14.4 Km), this particular tunnel has a remarkably steep gradient dropping at least 4feet (1.2m) every mile (1.6 Km). Imagine water flowing down a plug hole. The turbulence and speed of the water (ahem) flowing down this ‘drain’ means that Bazalgette had to think very carefully about how he lined this particular tunnel. If he had used ordinary bricks, such as those that make up the wall around the café’s garden, they would have eroded quickly with the turbulent motion of the water. Consequently, Bazalgette specified Staffordshire Blue bricks¹ to line this tunnel. During the manufacturing process, Staffordshire Blue bricks are baked at very high temperature (and in a low oxygen atmosphere) making them particularly resistant to erosion and to water absorption. It should not surprise us that the hardness, brittleness and texture of materials should be affected by the temperature at which they are formed after all, great care is taken about the temperatures at which chocolate is melted and allowed to re-solidify. Indeed, a vast amount of research is done to understand how different materials (from ceramics to metals) respond under different heat treatments. This research is important for applications as diverse as the walls of sewer tunnels to the design of aeroplanes. And, of course, to the design of better coffee cups, a thought with which we can return to thinking about this great little café.

Le Péché Mignon can be found at 6 Roland’s Road, N5 1XH

¹”The Great Stink of London…” Stephen Halliday, Sutton, 1999

A language problem?

Bob Ward, Obama quote, climate change

The last generation: our urgent need to communicate effectively.

The beverage was prepared by pushing water (at 94ºC and 1.0 MPa) through a pellet of coffee beans ground to an average of 10 – 100 μm diameter. The pellet had been compacted (“tamped”) using a variable pressure as described in ref [1]. Following a manual transfer of the cup to the table, the drink was consumed at a temperature of 55ºC. Fruity overtones were noted.

Would you rush to try this coffee?

Last week I wrote about the effects of climate change on coffee and how climate scientists are trying to reach out and communicate more about the science behind global warming. But there was a crucial question left un-answered, just how do we communicate? Do we all speak the same language or is the dry impersonal prose of science a hindrance to discussion?

To start with the encouraging news. It turns out that scientists are a pretty trusted bunch. In a recent survey 79% of the British public trusted scientists to tell the truth (compared with 21% for politicians). Part of the problem for politicians may be the language that they tend to use, “if I am honest…”, “to be fair…” etc, are apparently statements that haemorrhage trust. These are not statements that you will hear made by scientists. The language of science is cold and dry, utterly devoid of the personal. So, coupled with the results of the survey, it is tempting to think that we should continue to use our cold and impersonal language when communicating things like climate change. It seems that this works.

Steam, scattering, colour

How would you describe your coffee? Do those who read your description read it in the sense that you wrote it?

Only we would be wrong, the language that we use is (apparently) not helping us to communicate and we need to change it (as the meeting was told in an impassioned talk by Bob Ward). An average scientific paper for example is designed to convey exactly what we did, how we did it and to eliminate any possible element of confusion. Ideally, we would write a scientific paper so that someone else could read it, understand precisely what we have done and repeat the experiment under very similar conditions. In this context, our dry language can work very well but does it work generally when communicating results more widely?

To see the problem, compare the (scientifically written) coffee review that started this article with an extract from a recent review of Silhouette Cheapside by Brian’s coffee spot:

The coffee offering’s simple: there’s a single-origin espresso from Notes, a Brazilian Cachoeirinha during my visit. As an espresso this was gorgeous: fruity and complex, it rewarded me with every sip, holding its own right to the end. I also tried it as a flat white, which was very smooth and surprisingly different, the coffee and milk perfectly complimenting each other.

A visit to Cheapside may be imminent.

So this is the problem, while the scientific language may convey accurately what was consumed, it can’t convey it fully. Language that communicates more generally includes details about how we feel: “gorgeous”, “rewarded me with every sip”, “surprisingly different”. The language used in Brian’s coffee spot in no way detracts from an accurate description of the espresso or the flat white. Arguably your idea of the drinks that Brian sampled at Silhouette is far better formed in your mind than the idea of the espresso described by the scientific-language description at the start of this post. Can we extend this reasoning to scientific descriptions of the science of climate change and its likely effects?

Earth from space, South America, coffee

Our common home.
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

Perhaps you could imagine yourself in the position of a climate scientist: your research is showing you that the planet that you live on is likely to suffer significant change as a result of something that we humans are doing but can also do something about. I would guess that you are likely to get quite worked up about it. Wouldn’t it come across better if scientists were to use some of that emotion in how they communicate? Wouldn’t it convey our meaning more effectively?

Immediately though we come up against this issue of trust. Does the cold and dry scientific language somehow better communicate that the argument is evidence based? In this line of reasoning, subjective descriptions would be ok for things like describing a good coffee but not ok for describing climate change. And yet I can’t help feel that even here there is a problem. The philosopher of science Michael Polanyi argued that “Fairness in discussion has been defined as an attempt at objectivity, i.e. preference for truth even at the expense in losing force of argument”. Our “preference for truth” must include the fact that we have an emotional investment in the argument. It is our planet that we are destroying. Indeed, attempts to hide this emotional investment may even lead others to suspect climate scientists of other, more nefarious, secondary motives (financial gain, global conspiracy). However there is an important caveat on Polanyi’s argument, he writes: “[f]airness and tolerance can hardly be maintained in a public contest unless its audience appreciates candour and moderation and can resist false oratory…”.

screenshot of tweet from Digitalnun

A thought provoking tweet from @Digitalnun – science communication goes both ways.

Which brings me to a last point. A recent tweet by Digitalnun posed a question on related lines: does careless reading or careless writing lead to more problems? What we write is not necessarily what people read and if we allow emotion to enter into the cold language of science then we may increase the likelihood of misinterpretation (whether deliberate or not). Will those who read our attempts to communicate science with full honesty be able to resist false oratory, twisting our words to imply a ‘war’ or financial interest? Which is more appropriate, to remain dispassionate and potentially unconvincing or to be more honest in our discussion at the possible expense of losing trust? It’s not a question which seems to have an easy answer. What do you think? Do scientists have a language problem? Would you trust a discussion on climate change more or less if you thought that the scientist actually cared about the planet too? Let me know, either in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter.

[1] is hyperlinked above but if you are in the habit of scrolling down to look at the references, you can find the article about tamping in “coffee research” published here.

The Polanyi quotes are from “Science, Faith and Society” by Michael Polanyi, University of Chicago Press, 1964 (2nd edition)


Talking about coffee and climate change

coffee cake Muni

Coffee and chocolate, both of which may be badly affected by climate change.

Last week the Royal Meteorological Society hosted an afternoon of talks and discussion titled “Avoiding Myth, Mayhem and Myopia: the challenge of climate science communication”. The meeting coincided with a social media campaign “#showthelove” which aimed to highlight something that you fear is at risk because of climate change. As coffee is definitely one of those things that is at risk (and indeed is already being affected by climate change), I went along to the discussion to see what is already being done to communicate climate science and also, what we can do as science communicators.

Although I do not research climate science (my research involves superconductors), there are many links between coffee and the climate: clouds of steam, turbulent movement, periodic waves in the cup and of course the greenhouse effect. Additionally, the risks that coffee faces from the effects of climate change are dire. Summarised in the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (AR5), the risks to coffee are threefold, 1) from a warming climate 2) from more extreme weather events, 3) from pests that have increased due to (1) and (2).

Currently about 27million acres of the Earth’s land is used to cultivate coffee, most of which is grown by small scale farmers. The effects of warming mean that this area is going to decrease substantially. For us consumers this is going to mean a dent in our pockets but for the estimated 120 million people worldwide who depend on coffee growing for their livelihood, it is likely to be catastrophic.

room full of scientists and others, RMetS meeting, discussion time

A good crowd meant a lively discussion at “Avoiding Myth, Mayhem and Myopia”. What should we communicate about climate science and how?

The odd weather patterns that are going to be more common are also going to affect the coffee yield. Severe droughts are likely to happen more frequently (this year’s drought in Brazil has actually prompted the government there to consider importing (robusta) coffee beans). Moreover the combination of higher temperatures and greater rainfall that has been seen recently in Central America has ‘helped’ outbreaks of coffee rust while the berry borer beetle is also benefitting from the warmer climate worldwide (at the expense of the coffee crop).

Among climate scientists, the issues are clear (for the world rather than just for coffee). Climate change is already happening and it is caused by human activity in the form of greenhouse gas emissions. The problems are how to communicate this knowledge both to policy makers and industry and to the public so that we, as a society, can do something about it. What do each of these groups want to know and how best to reach them? There were discussions at the meeting about how to engage with politicians and to ensure that the message is properly transmitted so as to translate into action but for me (as a non-climate-scientist who drinks a lot of coffee), the interesting bit was about communicating with the public. In this sense it was great to see that the meeting had attracted a diverse audience with both Oxfam and the Green Party represented. Two questions dominated here: How is climate change affecting us now (/will affect us in the future)? And, what can we each do about it?

Bob Ward, Obama quote, climate change

The last generation: Bob Ward emphasising the urgent need for scientists to communicate effectively.

In terms of the second question, it seemed agreed that the best thing that we each can do is to reduce our carbon footprint. A concern echoed by the Society’s recent communiqué written with other professional bodies (that you can read here). Simple things like driving less or buying more efficient washing machines (or other household appliances when they need to be replaced) can make a difference. Of course, if you wanted to, you can have a go at calculating your carbon footprint using tools such as this guide by David MacKay (it is a lot easier than it may seem at first glance). It was this aspect of what ‘we’ can do that some audience members (including a Green Party representative) thought was a key thing that scientists working with the Royal Meteorological Society needed to communicate. Expect to hear far more about how you can make a difference.

In general, it seemed that there was a clear feeling that the scientists there wanted to communicate climate science and the science of climate change more insistently and more clearly. Indeed there was a rallying call for us all to increase our science communication by Bob Ward (the Policy and Communications Director at the Grantham Research Institute of the London School of Economics). But how should scientists communicate? Is there an intrinsic conflict between the language typically used by scientists and the urgency of the message? Should climate scientists use emotion in their discussions about climate change and what about issues of trust? All these are too much for this piece and so I shall leave those questions until next week, for now perhaps, it would be worth asking people who read this to suggest something that they are doing to reduce their carbon footprint, it doesn’t have to be much and it doesn’t need to be about coffee (though it would be nice if there were some coffee ideas) but please do share your ideas for reducing your carbon footprint, it is likely that they will be useful for others too.

Next week: Do we speak the same language? Is scientific language a help or a hindrance when it comes to communicating climate change?