slow

Coffee and science: a problem shared?

coffee and Caffeine at Sharps

What is the future of coffee? Science? Our society? Are these things held together more closely than we imagine?

There is a lot of science in coffee (and a lot of coffee in science). And there are also many scientists who are keen coffee drinkers and vice versa. But is there more in common between these two fields than even this? Could a shared problem be hiding a different (shared) problem?

One issue for coffee drinkers is reliability and reproducibility. How can we ensure that we get a good cup each time we visit a café or brew our own? In a similar way, how do we ensure that our experimental results in science are correct and reproducible? It is a fairly fundamental tenet of science that an experiment should be able to be reproduced in another lab with similar equipment. The suggestion is that this is not always happening, we have a ‘reliability’ problem in science (and sometimes in coffee).

A possible solution, in both fields, is some form of automation. In the world of coffee this is quite obviously just by making coffee via a machine. There have been several attempts to make reproducibly good coffee using an automated pour over machine. In the world of experimental science, it is not quite so clearly an automation process but is described instead as “data sharing”. The results of all experiments, or at least those that are published, should be shared (uploaded with the published paper) so that others can examine the data in more detail and form their own conclusions†.

For both coffee and science, it is suggested that this opening up of our process so that it is more transparent or reliable, will increase the reproducibility of good results and, crucially, mean that we get those results faster. We will get reproducibly good coffee without having to queue so long in the morning; we will make discoveries more quickly and have faster progress in science.

It seems that the problem that we thought we had, reproducibility, is perhaps not the one that we are actually aiming to solve. The problem we seem to be interested in is ensuring faster progress.

coffee under the microscope

We can look at coffee under the microscope (here are two different coffees ground to the same degree). But do we need to look more closely at the process of making good coffee or of doing science?

But an emphasis on faster progress can undermine our initial ideal of a reproducibly good result. For scientific research the emphasis on getting results quickly (at least within the time frame of the science funding cycle) has led to predictable problems. There are cases that I know about where results that were contrary to those that were wanted were suppressed. Not permanently. No, that would be demonstrably scientific fraud. No, suppressed just long enough for the first ‘ground breaking’ paper to be published. Then, after a suitable length of time, the second paper showing the problems with the first can follow up. Those involved get two papers (at least), and rapid progress is shown to be happening in the field. Would data transparency help here? Clearly not, because the initial set of data would still be suppressed until it was wanted those few months later.

What we need is a change in the structure of how science is done. We need to value scientific integrity and so trust that other scientists do too. We know that the current situation whereby promotions, funding etc are determined by the number of papers in ‘good’ journals, can act to undermine scientific integrity. This needs to change if the reliability issue is to be addressed. In the type of case described above, there would be no consequences for the people who kept their names on the paper(s) published. The only consequences would be if anyone refused to have their name on the paper as they knew it was misleading. And even then, the consequences would be to that person/those people in terms of their CV, and publication list, not those who published the paper and of course, shared the data.

coffee at Watch House

A good pour over takes time.
What are we looking for in coffee, in science? Is progress an aim of itself?

For the coffee, there are already discussions about whether the increase in throughput offered by automated coffee brewing techniques really contributes to the coffee experience that the cafés are trying to encourage. Can we really expect someone to slow down, take in the aroma, the mouthfeel, the taste and flavour if we rush the cup through to them on a production line? Isn’t part of the enjoyment of something to have to wait for it (hence lent before Easter; fasting before a feast)?

It is not that automation necessarily is bad. We can get a genuinely all round good coffee in a café that utilises a machine based pour over (perhaps). We can also get genuinely reproducible data in a situation where data is routinely shared. It’s just that data sharing does not solve the reproducibility problem, nor does automation give us continually good coffee. What makes the difference is a café that cares about the product that they are serving; scientists that care about the integrity of the research that they are doing. Automation processes give us faster results, they do not, automatically, give us better science (coffee).

Moreover, our desire for faster progress obscures questions that we should be asking if we slowed down a little. What is a good coffee experience? Who (if anyone) should own the scientific data shared? Is our desire for good coffee, quickly and (relatively) cheaply obtained, an aspect of that consumerism that is damaging for the planet’s ecological health? How much do we need to trust each other (and take responsibility for our own integrity) for our society, including our scientific society, to function? Is faster progress in and of itself, a “good” to aim for?

And perhaps, there is a final, more fundamental question. Have we become so accustomed to seeing ourselves and our work as merely a cog in a machine that we have become inured to the dehumanisation of society which seems to us almost natural and itself progress? Is this what we want for society?

The process of making a good cup of coffee indeed shares many things with the process of doing science. Perhaps this should not be surprising, both are practises embedded in our society. Certainly our view of the society that we live in can be informed by slowing down with our coffee as we enjoy a little science (or should that be the other way round)?

 

†It is not quite an automation process in the sense that the data is taken by a machine and then uploaded. However, it is still a dehumanisation process. At the root of the concept is the idea that the human experimenter can be taken out of the process. I would be happy to expand on this in the comments but for the sake of readability haven’t done so here.

To stay or to go at Cafe from Crisis

coffee commercial St volcano

Cafe from Crisis on Commercial Street, E1. Notice the arches…

It was not what I had expected. Entering the door of the Cafe from Crisis, you go up a ramp with a bench running alongside it before the counter looms in front of you with a large café space opening up to your right (previously partially obscured from your view by the wall for the ramp). Perhaps it is fitting that my expectations were wrong. Many of us have ideas about the homeless (why they are homeless, what homelessness is etc) that may not match fully with the reality. And this café is, after all, in the head office of Crisis, a UK national charity working with the homeless and homelessness.

The coffee is roasted by Volcano and there are a large number of food options (including vegan and veggie) and cakes at the counter. A selection of keep cups are also arranged in a rack on the left of the counter, should you not have one yet. We ordered an Americano and tea (to stay) and took our numbered wooden spoon to the table so that they could find us. Although it was late lunchtime and busy, the drinks arrived fairly quickly with the coffee in a (Crisis themed?) red cup. Apparently serving coffee in red cups make us perceive the coffee as warmer than if it is served in a blue cup. Whether this is true or not, the warm brew was very welcome on this cold January day. The café is situated on a street corner which means that it has many windows, each topped with a shallow arch. The building looks fairly modern from the outside, but the arches were reminiscent of the way that older buildings can be dated by the window style, along with other features. The Cure played in the background which entertained my tea drinking companion but made me wonder about the ideas of Pythagoras on the psychological impacts of different sorts of music (and whether it affected the ability to find thought connections in a café).

plant in a coffee cup

It turns out there are many things to notice in this photo. From the bricks to the self-defence tactics of plants. But what about the nature of the home of the plant?

As we sat, enjoyed our drinks and looked around, we noticed that some plants had found a home in coffee cups placed on the tables around. Small plants in plastic pots (a nod to the anthropocene as pointed out by @lifelearner47 on twitter) were dotted around the café. Did they move from an espresso to a long black cup as they grew larger? Perhaps it was the spiky plant in one of the pots, but my mind immediately jumped to hermit crabs and their search for a new shell each time they grew a bit bigger. Marine hermit crabs  have been shown to be happy in any old discarded shell. Normally these are the ex-homes of gastropods that have, well, “moved on” would be a euphemism, but marine based hermit crabs have been known to make their shells out of all sorts of things including our plastic litter. Land based hermit crabs however are far more demanding and only move into shells that have been specially remodelled by earlier generations of hermit crabs for their own use. This means that land based hermit crabs have to develop a social awareness of other hermit crabs when they want to swap shells.

Apparently the interaction goes something like this: A group of hermit crabs come together in a small-ish area and begin to scope each other out. The loose collection becomes a cluster as the crabs explore whether one of the larger crabs can be evicted from its shell. As the process of eviction is about to occur, the remaining crabs (which can number quite a few, 10 or more) literally ‘line up’ in order of shell size so that, when the largest is evicted, each crab can move up to the next sized shell leaving the smallest, most undesirable shell on the seashore and the poor evicted crab, shell-less.

Several questions arise but one is, do the crabs make decisions, “to stay or to go” based on how advanced the eviction process is? So, say a crab wanders into an area with an unusually large number of crabs in it (perhaps 4) but the crabs are all lined up in a queue ready to swap into each others shells. Do the crabs coming into the area stick around for a long time or do they head off somewhere else? Or, conversely, what if they enter an area where there are more than the usual number of ‘colleagues’, but they are all scattered about, not yet ready to evict the largest crab. What would our incoming crab do then?

coffee red cup Crisis

What would you learn if you noticed the connections your mind was forming while enjoying a coffee?

These questions were addressed by a group working with the terrestrial hermit crabs of Costa Rica. By defining five cells on the beach, each with a different arrangement of (empty but inaccessible) shells that the incoming hermit crab may want, the researchers found that the incoming hermits were making some strikingly sensible decisions. When the crab came into a region of scattered shells (that the incomer mistook for fellow crabs owing to a trick with a combination of loctite glue and partially burying the empty shells that the researchers used to fool the incomers), the incomer tended to stick around, waiting for an opportunity to swap a shell. If the incomer came but saw that the queue of shells had already formed, it still stayed a bit longer in the region relative to a control area devoid of shells, but it did tend to leave it after some time, perhaps to look for new shells elsewhere. The researchers concluded that when the crab came into an area and thought it had a pretty good chance of inserting itself into a good queue position, it would stay in the area waiting for the eviction to occur and the shell swapping process to start. However when the crab came into an area where the queue had already formed, it was unlikely to be able to get a good position in the queue and so would investigate the situation for a bit before wandering off elsewhere in the search of a new shell in a different area.

Does this have any relevance to a café trying to do a bit to address the problems of homelessness and the homeless in our city and country? I will leave that to each reader to ponder. However, it was a great opportunity to learn something new about our world, which only happened because I stopped to notice something in a café and then wondered how hermit crabs get their homes. It’s always good to slow down and notice things. What will you see next?

Cafe from Crisis (London) is at 64 Commercial Street, E1 6LT.

Pondering at Populus

It’s been a bit of a slow start to January, with no post since 2018, sorry!

But I wanted to share a couple of images from the next cafe-physics review. Perhaps you could place yourself in a comfortable chair in a café called “Populus”. Gazing out of the café, the front door looks like this:

door, Populus

A decorated door, but what connections do you make?

While looking inside the café, you are greeted with these patterns on the wall.

Inside Populus

Inside Populus.

What strikes you? What do you think about? I think there are a number of avenues for possible thought trains. Where would your thoughts go if you just sat here in Populus and pondered?

 

 

 

Corona gazing in cafes

interference patterns on coffee

There are many ways in which rainbows of colour are produced as light interacts with our coffee or in a cafe. Looking around yourself now, how many do you see? What physics underlies each?

As the nights grow longer and the days colder, we notice that windows steam up as the water vapour in the café condenses onto the cooler glass. Perhaps we see a similar thing on our glasses while we are drinking tea or on the windows of a bus. Initially we perhaps become frustrated at our inability to see what is going on outside but then we notice the colourful patterns around the lights of passing cars and of street lights. Haloes of coloured light around a central bright spot. What does this tell us and where else can we see it, either in a café or in life generally?

On a window pane, a large number of small droplets of water have condensed into what appears to us as a fog on the glass. As the light shines through from the car headlights, each droplet acts as an obstacle to the light and so bends it. You could see a similar effect with the waves on the sea going around stones or perhaps if you brew a large cup of coffee with the surface waves going around a spoon (let me know if you manage to see this bending in a coffee cup). The amount that the light bends is dependent on the wavelength of the light (look carefully at the waves going around obstacles in ponds to see this) and so different wavelengths (different colours) get bent by different amounts and interfere with each other at different points – a spectrum is produced. It is a phenomenon known as diffraction.

Not all beans are equal! How could you quickly distinguish between arabica and robusta beans?

This phenomenon means that we have a way of separating the frequencies (or wavelengths) of light. And so this means that we have a way of measuring the chemical composition of some substances as different chemicals absorb different frequencies and so have ‘fingerprints’ in the light they scatter. By passing the light scattered from a substance (such as arabica coffee beans compared to robusta) through a diffraction grating (which is an obstacle with a pattern of fixed size), we can separate the frequencies being scattered and see if any of them are ‘missing’ (ie. they have been absorbed by the material we’re studying). It would be  a bit like looking at that rainbow pattern in the café window and not seeing blue, its absence tells you something. This is one of the ways that robusta beans can be quickly found if they have been substituted for arabica beans in coffee trading.

Coffee Corona

Look carefully: Sometimes you can infer the existence of a thin (white) mist over your coffee by the corona pattern around reflected light fittings.

But it is not just its technological aspect that has interest for us surely? When gazing at the moon on a misty evening, the halo around the moon suggests the clouds between us and it. It is something that poets have remarked upon to evoke atmosphere, it is something that we can gaze at as we imagine the giant café window of our atmosphere. But the size, and distinctness of the lunar corona actually give us clues about the droplets making up the cloud. And then we look closer to home and to our own coffee and we see the same diffraction pattern again looking back at us from our coffee’s surface. Occasionally it is possible to see haloes on the coffee surface around the reflection of overhead lights in the café. A coffee corona! This reveals to us the fact that there are droplets of water above the surface of our coffee; an extra layer of hovering droplets. Something that we can sometimes see more directly in the dancing white mists.

Diffraction is a beautiful phenomenon that allows us to gaze and to contemplate how much we are able to deduce and how much we have yet to understand. How atmospheric our coffees and cafés are and the journey of understanding that we have taken to get to this point. Coffee gazing is a hobby that should be taken up by far more of us.

Bean Thinking noticing afternoons are going to start in London in early 2019. To find out more information, sign up to the Bean Thinking events list here:

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Noticing at Artisan, Ealing

coffee Artisan Ealing

A good coffee is a solid foundation for any afternoon’s noticing.

A cafe-physics review with a difference. In that, it’s not so much a review as an invitation. What do you notice in a café?

Last week, I had the opportunity to try Artisan’s Ealing branch. Although I had found a lot to notice on my previous visit to the East Sheen branch, I had a very specific reason for visiting the Ealing location of this small chain of four cafés. The coffee (espresso) was reliably good. Smooth and drinkable in a friendly atmosphere. Just as with the café in East Sheen, there were a good selection of edibles at the counter and plenty to notice. The light shades were immediately outstanding as something to notice while a framed ‘hole in the wall’ provided a conversation point. The café was very busy and while there was plenty of seating with many tables, we were still lucky to have got a table for two near the back. Behind us there was a lesson going on in the coffee school while on the wall was the calendar for the space booking downstairs. And it was this that I had come here for.

A couple of months ago, Artisan announced that this space would be available to rent to provide a friendly space (with coffee) for the meetings of local small businesses or charities. This stayed in the back of my mind for a while as it came about at roughly the same time as an idea for Bean Thinking.

Lampshades at Artisan Ealing

First the obvious. Immediately striking, these lampshades could provide several avenues for thought.

There are a couple of us who are interested in meeting, about once a month, to discuss science. As ‘science’ is quite a big subject, we thought we would limit it to science that is associated with coffee or with the café at which we are meeting. Perhaps readers of this website may realise that this is not such a restriction, it is quite easy to connect coffee to the cosmic microwave background radiation of the Universe or to chromatography and analytical chemistry. If we were to meet in a location such as Artisan, there should be plenty more food for thoughts. The lampshades prompted me to consider what made substances opaque or transparent? Where is the link to coffee and methods for measuring the coffee extraction? The hole in the wall suggested thoughts about the algorithms behind cash machines. I’m sure that there is plenty more to notice if we take the time to see it.

And so this is an invitation. Would you like to join us in exploring what we each notice about the science of our surroundings? The plan would be to meet once a month, probably starting late January 2019 or early February (date and location to be confirmed). An afternoon on the weekend is probably better than an evening and we’d probably stay for an hour or two. You do not have to be a practising scientist to come along indeed, it would be great if we could have people from a variety of walks of life. The idea is not (necessarily) to answer scientific questions that we each may have but instead to explore the science behind the questions, to find the connections that form our ideas of the universe. To really notice our surroundings and our coffees (tea drinkers would also be welcome). As a consequence of this, mobile phones/laptops etc. will be discouraged during the afternoon. We’d like to notice things around us and not be distracted by what a search engine suggests about it; if we think a search engine could help us, we’ll use it after we’ve left and come back the following month to discuss the issues further. So, if you are curious, would like to explore what you notice and can tolerate keeping your phone on silent and in your pocket for an afternoon, please do come along, it would be great to meet some of you.

menus and lampshades in Artisan

You may like to look more closely at this photo. How are the menus supported? What does that tell us about the history of science?

In order to understand whether there would be any interest in this idea and to hear your input about the format, content, location, time etc. I have set up a mailing list for these cafe-science-spaces. Please do sign up to the mailing list to hear the latest announcements concerning these events and also to email me back to contribute your opinion. You can sign up to the mailing list using the sign up form below. Alternatively, if you don’t want to sign up to the mailing list but do want to hear more, I will be advertising the events on Twitter and Facebook so please do feel free to follow me there.

 

Please enter your email address here if you would like to hear about future Bean Thinking events.

 

A Story with many layers, Clapham Junction

Story Coffee St John's Hill Clapham

The doorway to Story, or a story depending on how you look at it.

A “ghost sign” above the door to Story Coffee on St John’s Hill ensures that you know that you have arrived at the correct place. “Peterkin Custard, Self-Raising Flour – Corn Flour, can be obtained here”, only now it is coffee rather than custard that is sold in the shop beneath. The sign is an indicator to the many tales that could be discerned while exploring the coffee within. I had had a couple of attempts to visit Story Coffee (thwarted for a variety of reasons) before Brian’s Coffee Spot’s review appeared a couple of days after one of my attempted visits. Suitably re-motivated, another trip was attempted (address checked, closing times checked) and this time we were in luck. Although a pour over is listed on the menu, sadly this was not available on our visit and so I enjoyed a lovely long black instead (Red Brick, Square Mile) while looking at the cakes on offer. There was plenty of seating in which to shelter from the rain outside and many things to notice in this friendly café. In addition to the cakes and lunch menu, a box on the counter housed “eat grub” protein bars, protein bars made of cricket powder. Are insects the future for humans to eat protein sustainably?

glass jar at Story

Through a glass darkly?
The distortions produced by the refractive indices of air, water and glass and the shape of the glass produces interesting effects on our view through it.

The tables were well arranged for people to sit chatting while enjoying their beverages and it is always an excellent thing (from a personal point of view) to encounter a café with a no laptop (or tablet) at the tables policy. Complementary tap water was available in jugs placed on each table while it was also nice to note that Story branded re-usable cups were on sale from the counter. Many things we noted can be seen in the gallery pictures in the review on Brian’s Coffee Spot: the funky fans, the egg shaped light shades, the light introduced by the large glass window panes (though it was a much fairer day on Brian’s visit than on ours). Each had its contribution to a thought train, the way the glass water jar bent the light coming through, the concept of a Prandtl boundary layer in fluids (and its connection to both fans and coffee cups). Moreover there were hexagons, which for someone who has worked on the periphery of the graphene craze, are always thought provoking.

Apart from hexagons decorating the top of the stools, there were hexagons lining the counter made of cut logs, each showing the rings from the tree that was felled. Rather than a flat surface, these hexagons were made to be different thicknesses on the wall, rather like the hexagonal columns of the Giant’s Causeway. It is a subtle thing that may have implications for the space that is otherwise surrounded by flat, solid, walls. Such spaces can become echo-y and yet, the music and conversation in Story was not overly distracting presumably because features such as the uneven hexagonal wall reflected the sound waves such that they destructively interfered rather than echoed around the room.

every tree tells a story, but which story

A macroscopic crystal of hexagonally cut logs forms the side of the counter.

Each log in the hexagonal decoration was cut with its cross-section showing a number of tree rings. We know that we can age a tree by counting the rings (though each of these would be underestimated as they have been trimmed into hexagons post-drying), but what more do the tree rings, and the trees themselves have to tell us? The rings are caused by the rapid growth of large cells during spring followed by a slower growth of smaller cells as the year progresses. But this method of growth means that the cut logs have more to tell us than just their age. The spacing between the rings can tell of the weather the tree experienced during that year, were there many years of drought for example? Such clues, from the relative density of the tree rings, can help researchers learn about the climate in previous centuries, but conversely, reading the climate report in the rings can indicate in which year a tree was felled and so the age of a building for example.

coffee at Story

Many stories start with a coffee.

And then there is more, trees will grow at an average rate per year so that, as a rough guide, the circumference of a mature (but not old) tree increases by 2.5cm per year¹. There is therefore something in the idea that you can have a good guess at how old a tree is by hugging it. But this assumes that the tree is growing in its optimum conditions, far enough from any neighbouring trees so as not to be crowded into growing more slowly. So the absolute density of tree rings must also give a clue as to whether this tree was in a dense forest or an open clearing. Which is reminiscent of something else that living trees can tell you if you listen to them closely enough: trees will grow so that their leaves are exposed to the maximum amount of light. For us in the UK, this means that the crown of a tree will frequently tip towards the south (where the Sun is most often) and there will be more leaf growth (and consequently more branches) in a southerly direction². But again, we only see this if the tree has room to grow on its own, without the crowding, and competition, of too many neighbours. A solitary tree helps us to know which direction we are walking in.

empty coffee cup Story St John's Hill

While many coffees could also tell a story. It depends on how you read them.

Which all points to the idea that there are many stories being told all around us all of the time, the ones we hear depend on what we choose to pay attention to. So what about the story behind the ghost sign above the door? The Peterkin custard company was a venture by J. Arthur Rank in an attempt to start a milling company in the mould of his father’s (Rank Hovis McDougall, later bought by Premier Foods). The company failed and Rank went on to form the Rank Organisation that was responsible for many films made throughout the 40s and 50s as well as running a chain of cinemas around the UK. Truly a sign concealing many stories.

 

Story Coffee is at 115 St John’s Hill, SW11 1SZ

¹Collins complete guide to British Trees, Collins, 2007

²The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs, Tristan Gooley, Hodder and Stoughton, 2014

 

 

 

 

Creating an impression at 2Love Coffee House, Clapham Junction

coffee, cake menu, Clapham Junction, monmouth coffee

The menu at 2Love in Clapham Junction and some of the coffee making equipment in the window.

There is a lot of coffee paraphernalia on display in the windows at 2Love Coffee House on St John’s Road near Clapham Junction. Reusable cups, filters, moka pots, Chemex’s etc. Stepping inside, a piano greets you while the counter is on the left. The wall behind the counter is lined with jars of different sorts of tea while the coffee menu is on a blackboard close to the window. Coffee is roasted by Monmouth and is also available to purchase for brewing at home. Moreover, the number of re-usable cups on display meant that I have to admit to a touch of reusable cup envy when I saw the variety of glass cups on sale, have I used my cup enough to justify a second*? One great feature about this café was the care that they have taken to specify the allergens in their cakes on the blackboard, it is a considerate touch for people with allergies. Although we didn’t enjoy a cake on this occasion, it is great to know that I can!

There is definitely a musical feel to the café, with statues of musicians on shelves around the shop and pictures of different singers on each of the walls. Although we managed to find a table, it was rather crowded with the amount of chatter and distractions in the café initially challenging my assumption that all cafés can offer a space to contemplate and consider connections. However, this brief doubt in the idea behind Bean Thinking did not last long. The change in direction started with our discussion over an Americano and a fruit juice: can there be a justification for not eating certain meats if you are not already vegetarian/vegan and if so, what is it? This didn’t seem to go down too well with the table adjacent to us. On the wall behind our table was a metal picture of a horse drawn cart where the figures had been raised out of the picture to form a 3D image. It was reminiscent of the patterns given for stone rubbing as a child. But it was also reminiscent of something else, something that shines a light on an area of manufacturing as well as, perhaps, our conversation about the ethics of meat eating.

Not quite a mirror at 2 Love

3D Metal picture, musician statue and poster at 2Love Coffee House, who is the fairest of them all?

It concerns Chinese (or Japanese) magic mirrors. Known about for millennia (and not just in China, Aulus Gellius (c125 – approx 180 AD) wrote of them in the second century¹), they are slightly convex mirrors made of bronze. One surface appears to be an ordinary mirror but on the reverse surface, images of mythology or special Chinese characters are cast in relief. A Nature paper of 1879 describes why they were considered ‘magical’:

“If a polished surface is looked at directly, it acts as an ordinary mirror, reflecting the objects in front of it, but giving, of course, no indication whatever of the raised patterns on the back; if however a bright light be reflected by the smooth face of the mirror onto a screen, there is seen on this screen an image formed of bright lines on a dark background more or less perfectly representing the pattern on the back of the mirror, which is altogether hidden from the light”.¹

You can see photos of such mirrors and their reflections here but how would such an image be produced? Apart from magic, the first explanations for the effect focussed on it being trickery on the part of the makers of these mirrors. Perhaps the image was patterned onto the front of the mirror using more dense (or less dense) material, covered with a thin layer of lead or tin and highly polished so that you would never notice it by looking at your reflection only by shining light at it? Maybe there was other trickery involved on the part of the mirror makers to deceive us into thinking we could see through the mirror to the back. Later researchers wondered if these mirrors really existed at all as few could be found when they searched for them amongst Japanese mirror workshops. And yet a few mirrors with this magic quality were found and subject to study in the late nineteenth century.

window display 2Love

How much is that cup in the window?
Some of the reusable cups on sale at 2Love coffee house.

The results showed that the image was not formed if projected too close to the mirror but only if the screen were held some distance away from the mirror’s surface. Moreover careful optical experiments showed that the image was formed by the surface of the mirror having thicker regions that were less convex than the rest of the mirror so that these reflected the light differently². Although the image at the back of the mirror had been cast and not stamped on the back, the stresses and strains formed by the pattern on the metal somehow propagated through the (thin) mirrors and produced distortions on the surface of the mirror. Even when highly polished, these minute distortions in curvature remained causing the reflection of the ‘magic’ image under certain lighting conditions.

The theory describing the optics behind the magic mirrors was described as a ‘beautiful fact’ in a fairly recent mathematical description. But exactly how the stress of the pattern at the back gets transferred to the surface of the mirror remains to be understood³. Nonetheless, the fact that imperfections on one side of a material can be revealed by the projected reflections from the surface of the other, a process known as “Makyoh imaging”, is now used to check the integrity of semiconductor wafers before they are used in the manufacturing of devices. A piece of physics based neither on magic, nor on trickery, that is useful for our computer based lifestyles.

When faced with something that seemed improbable, it is interesting that our first explanations were based on magic, deceit on the part of the one who made it or distrust of the phenomenon altogether. It was only by carefully studying something that was too easily dismissed that the beautiful physics and industrial relevance of the property was revealed. For me this has pertinence to the question of our own investigation into what we think about the world. Do we place too much weight in our judgement of what we do not understand merely based on our own experience of how things are? Do we need to look more carefully at what we thought we knew? Great pondering points for a visit to a café and confirmation that, provided you have good coffee and a nice chair to sit on, contemplation directions can be found no matter how popular the venue.

2Love coffee is at 89 St John’s Road, Clapham Junction, SW11 1QY

¹ “The Mirror of Japan and its Magic Quality” Nature, April 10 1879, p 559

² “The Magic Mirror of Japan, Part 1”, WE Ayrton and John Perry, Proc. Royal. Soc, 28, 127 (1878-79)

³ “Oriental Magic Mirrors and the Laplacian Image”, MV Berry, Euro. J. Phys. 27, 109 (2006)

*Although there are differences depending on what you take into account, lifecycle analysis done here, here and here suggest a break-even point of disposable to reusable cups from 15 to 100 re-uses. However, if you consider that part of the solution to our environmental problems involves breaking the consumerist mindset then perhaps, if it ain’t broke, no need to replace it.

 

Feeling the Earth move at Pritchard and Ure, Camden

Egg no pales, coffee, garden centre

Fried egg on cactus leaves. Cactus festival at Pritchard and Ure, Camden

Good coffee in a garden centre, in (nearly) central London, with some physics thrown in? Today’s cafe-physics review seems unlikely on several levels. And then it becomes even more unlikely as you realise that this garden centre and café are also a social enterprise where people “disadvantaged in the labour market” are helped back to employment through working here. All in all, Pritchard and Ure represent a great café to have come by.

Pritchard and Ure can be found in the gallery space of a warehouse type shop that houses the Camden Garden Centre. They serve Workshop coffee together with an extensive selection of alternative drinks and food. As it was lunchtime we enjoyed a spot to eat which gave me an opportunity to try cactus (it was cactus festival at the garden centre). Cactus leaves with re-fried beans and a cactus-water mocktail which came together with a reusable metal straw. The straws were being sold (together with brush straw cleaners) at the counter. After lunch there was a very well made long black (interestingly I was given the choice to have it either as a 6oz or an 8oz, ie. more or less water depending on whether I wanted more or less coffee taste) and resisted (somehow) one of the tempting cakes before having a wander in the garden centre.

equations art work coffee Camden

But are they real?
The equations are the writing on the wall at this cafe.

There are of course many things that you can notice and connect with/to in a garden centre. Plants, biosphere, windows and greenhouse effect, the carbon cycle, the nature of colour, the list could go on. In addition to all of these, to the left of the counter was an art piece on the wall with a list of various equations and comments. Were all these equations real? One thing in particular though in this café/garden centre was particularly mesmeric: the disco ball suspended as a pendulum from a beam across the ceiling. Initially we watched as the ball just glinted reflected light as it slowly swayed to and fro in its oscillation. It took 22 seconds to cover 5 oscillations while I estimated it was 7m in length. Knowing that there is a formula for calculating the period of oscillation I wondered, was my estimation any good?*

During the hour it took us to enjoy lunch, the position of the Sun moved in the sky so that the disco ball started to reflect an array of polka dots of light onto the walls surrounding us (you can see these in the photo). Owing to the combined rotation and oscillation of the ball it wasn’t too easy to measure the time period from these oscillations but about 4 seconds per swing (as I had obtained by merely watching the ball) seemed comfortingly correct. The sun slowly moved round and these dots danced until at some point the sun had moved far enough that the glitter ball was no longer in direct light. But had the Sun moved or the Earth rotated underneath it? We all know the answer (or at least we think we do), but we could use the pendulum to prove it (and to calculate our latitude).

discoball cafe

Disco ball pendulum together with polka dot reflected sunlight. The view from the gallery at Pritchard and Ure.

In various science museums around the world, different Foucault pendulums swing to and fro all day above circular patterns on the floor. The pendulums appear to rotate clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the southern hemisphere thereby illustrating the rotating earth underneath the pendulum. The idea is of course that the pendulum continues to swing in the same plane as it was when it was started off but as it is swinging the earth is rotating underneath it giving an apparent rotation of the pendulum swing over the course of a day. If we were at the north (or south) pole, the period of one complete rotation of the pendulum through a circle on the floor would take 24h. As most of us are not at the pole (and Pritchard and Ure certainly is not), the period of complete rotation is lengthened by a corrective factor proportional to the sine of the latitude. Consequently, it is perfectly feasible for us to calculate our latitude by observing a pendulum swinging for long enough in the absence of any breeze.

It is a great piece of evidence for the rotation of the earth (and by implication the fact that the earth is not flat and that the sun is not going round the earth each day). It’s also a very simple (hiding some complicated maths) demonstration that anyone could set up if they wished to carefully do so. So next time you see a disco ball suspended as a pendulum in a café, you would have another reason to start singing “I feel the Earth, move, under my feet…”

Pritchard and Ure is in the gallery of Camden Garden Centre at 2 Barker Drive, St Pancras Way, NW1 0JW

*7 m is an over estimate of the length of the pendulum based on the period of the oscillation. A length of 7m would give a time period of 5.3 seconds, whereas 22 seconds for 5 oscillations is about 4.4 seconds for one giving a calculated length of just under 5m. More details about how to calculate this are here.

(Im)perfect reflections on coffee

science in a V60

Have you noticed droplets like these dancing on your drip-brewed coffee?

With the recent coffees from Hundred House and Quarter Horse, there have been many opportunities to observe the coffee brewing in the V60 in the mornings. The steam rising from the filter paper, the different ways different coffees bloom and out-gas, the droplets that skim the surface of the coffee and bounce off the walls of the jug and then, of course, the many different effects with light. Watching the dancing droplets (an explanation of why they may dance is here), it is perhaps not immediately obvious that you could form a connection between these, the light reflections and an insight into something you may have noticed while passing through customs. And yet the connection is definitely there.

The connection is formed through a technique called Raman spectroscopy. Named after Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (1888-1970) who discovered the Raman effect in 1928. As the ‘spectroscopy’ part of the name suggests, it is a technique that offers a way to identify different chemicals, or components, in a substance. For coffee it has been used both as a non-destructive technique to determine the kahweol content of coffee beans and hence help as a test for identifying rogue robusta in arabica beans and as a way of analysing the brewed coffee. But what is it, how does watching a brewing V60 help to understand it and why would you want to know about Raman spectroscopy while travelling through an airport?

beauty in a coffee, coffee beauty

A collection of bubbles on the side of the coffee. What happens when one of the dancing droplets collides with a group of bubbles?

Generally, it helps to begin with coffee and the link is the way in which the droplets bounce off the side of the jug. Brew a coffee and watch them (if you are a non-coffee drinker, you could try dripping hot water through a filter paper into a jug). When one of these droplets hits the wall of the V60 container, it generally bounces back with a trajectory expected for an elastic collision. Given the relative masses of the droplet and the jug, the speed of the reflected droplet is essentially unchanged (even if its direction is reversed). This is similar to what we would normally expect for light. We are used to considering light as waves but because of the wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics it is equally valid to consider light as a stream of particles called photons. As the photons hit a surface and are reflected off, they recoil with the same energy that they initially had, just like the droplets in the coffee. But now look more closely at the dancing droplets. Normally they hit the walls and not each other but just occasionally, they can hit either another droplet or a group of bubbles that have formed on the coffee surface. In these cases, rather than get reflected as before, the droplets transfer some of their energy to the collection of bubbles causing them to move and to wobble. And when the droplet is reflected back, it has a noticeably slower speed (and so we could say a lower kinetic energy) than when it initially danced into its collision. Where is the analogue with light?

When we think about a coffee bean, we probably think about something that is about 1cm oval, brown and quite solid. But if we zoom in, we find that it is made up of a collection of atoms bound together in molecules or, if we are thinking about a solid like salt, in a crystal structure. These atoms act as if they are balls connected by springs and so they wobble as would any structure of masses connected by springs. This is true whether the crystal is diamond or the molecule is caffeine, kahweol, cocaine or semtex (do you see where the customs part is going to come in yet?). Different crystal structures have different atomic arrangements meaning that they are effectively connected by springs of differing strength. If you build a mental model of masses connected with springs, you can see that changing the spring strength will change the vibration energy of the structure. So if now we think about the photons hitting such a structure, while most will bounce off as we saw with the droplet hitting the V60 wall, some photons will trigger a wobble in the crystal structure and bounce off with lower energy. It is a process analogous to the droplet hitting and bouncing off the collection of bubbles on the coffee surface.

Sun-dog, Sun dog

Sun dogs are caused by a different interaction between light and crystals. Rather than the inelastic scattering of Raman spectroscopy, Sun dogs are caused by the refraction of light by hexagonal platelets of ice crystals.

When a photon of light loses energy, it is equivalent to saying that the frequency of the light has changed (which is very closely related to what Albert Einstein got his Nobel prize for in 1921). So a photon that creates a crystal vibration and is scattered off with lower energy has a lower frequency (or longer wavelength) than it had when it first hit the crystal. Importantly, the energy lost by the photon is identical to the energy gained by the vibrating crystal and so by measuring the frequency change of the scattered light we have a way of determining the energy of the crystal (or molecule) vibration. As this energy depends on the way that the atoms are arranged in the crystal or molecule, measuring the frequency shift offers us a way of identifying the chemical under the laser light: kahweol or cocaine.

It is not an easy technique as you can guess from the V60 analogy. Only around one in a million photons incident on a solid will be Raman scattered. You need some pretty decent optics to detect it. Nonetheless, it is a powerful technique because no two chemical structures are the same and so it can be used to identify tiny amounts of smuggled material completely non-destructively. It becomes easier to understand how this elegant technique has become useful for many areas of our lives from customs, through to pharmaceutical development and even into understanding how fuel cells work.

Although it is stretching the analogy too far to say that you can see Raman scattering by watching the droplets on your V60, it is certainly fair to say that watching them allows you the space to think about what is happening on a more microscopic level as your bag is hand-scanned at customs. What do you see when you look closely at your brewing coffee?

 

Hundred House: Wonder what they are?

Dog and Hat, Dog & Hat, Hundred House, Quarterhouse coffee

Look what arrived! The package from Dog & Hat with the distinguished logo.

What would happen if, rather than five minutes taken noticing the surroundings of a café, you were to look closely at the coffee you brewed in the morning? Different roasters, different coffees, an opportunity to notice something new in each brew. And so it was that a couple of weeks ago a package arrived in the post from the coffee subscription site “Dog and Hat“. Together with a note (in answer to a question I had sent them) ‘Recycled box, paper, mail bag’, came two coffees. An Ethiopian honey processed coffee from Hundred House and a Mexican washed coffee from Coatepec via Quarter Horse coffee.

Each time I moved the bag from Hundred House, a lovely aroma was released. So I moved it around quite a lot. While brewing a V60 with it, the morning light poured through the window producing beautiful lensing effects through the bubbles on the coffee surface and reflections from the coffee itself. The brewed coffee had such a sweet, fruity aroma reminding me of cherries that gave way to plums on tasting. What I took as toffee seemed to be described on the tasting notes as “dates” or “molasses”. Close enough I think. A lovely coffee to enjoy slowly.

Hundred House coffee

The Hundred House coffee bag. With that aroma, indeed how I wonder what you are.

Printed onto the bag was a star with extra lines coming out of it, suggestive of a twinkling star at night. Although each star is massive, they are all at such a great distance from us that they appear to us as point sources of light. And since all light gets refracted when it goes from one medium to another (think about the appearance of that paper straw in a glass of water) the star will appear to twinkle from our position on the Earth below our turbulent atmosphere. Although on a clear night we may not notice it directly, regions of relative hot and cool air in the atmosphere are constantly moving. Layers of air move over each other creating waves much like you see on the seashore and it is this turbulent environment that refracts the light from the stars in such a shimmering way. We can see a similar effect in tea (though not so easily in coffee*): When we pour hot tea into a cold cup, the convection in the cup leads to there being areas of hotter and cooler tea. The refractive index of water is temperature dependent and so the light incident on the tea gets refracted (bent) by different amounts depending on whether it encounters a cool region or a warm region. This leads to the lines of light that we see dancing on the bottom of the cup¹.

KH instability, Kelvin Helmholtz instability

Not a great example of a Kelvin Helmholtz instability but it gives the general idea. This one was quickly snapped from a moving car, I’m on the lookout for a better example.

Although atmospheric turbulence is inferred by the twinkling of stars, a beautiful visualisation of that turbulence can be seen in the form of the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability. Named after Lord Kelvin and Hermann von Helmholtz, this instability manifests as a string of waves on a cloud. It occurs when a fast moving layer of air flows over a slower moving one. The phenomenon is fleeting. If you are lucky enough to see it, the pattern manifests only for a very short time. They are definitely worth watching out for.

Depictions of atmospheric turbulence can also be seen in some paintings. It is said that Vincent van Gogh’s depiction of turbulence in his painting “Starry Night” is extraordinarily accurate. Certainly it is striking that the turbulence depicted by van Gogh does look like the turbulence in a coffee cup. However apparently it goes much deeper than this. In a numerical analysis of the turbulent patterns in a few van Gogh paintings, researchers showed that van Gogh’s depiction was very close to the mathematical (Kolmogorov) description of turbulent flow.

Coffee, Van Gogh

Van Gogh in a coffee cup. Reminiscent of his painting “Starry Night”, there are remarkable mathematical similarities between what van Gogh depicted and real turbulent events.

On their website, Hundred House discuss their aim of being a “collective space, where conversation, art and industry meet, over a cup of coffee”. Pouring a coffee, and watching the turbulence in the cup, perhaps pause a while to consider these points of connection and maybe add a bit of science to the mix. This week if you are in the Northern hemisphere, the Perseid meteor shower offers a particularly great time to reflect on turbulence in the atmosphere and the twinkling of the stars. If you locate the “W” of Cassiopeia (currently in the north east viewed from London) and watch, slightly underneath it towards Perseus, you should see a few meteors of the Perseid meteor shower (perhaps 60-70 per hour during the peak of 11th-13th August). While watching for the shooting stars, it is worth looking at those that twinkle. Which twinkle more, the stars of Cassiopeia or the stars toward the horizon? Why do you think this is?

Whether you watch the stars or just prepare your coffee, take the time. Enjoy your brew.

You can find out more about the coffee subscriptions at Dog and Hat coffee, here and more about Hundred House coffee, here. Do get in touch (email, Twitter, Facebook or comments) if you notice anything you want to share.

 

*We don’t see this so often in coffee because coffee, generally, absorbs more light than tea and so it is harder to see the bottom of the cup.

¹Another effect that can lead to these patterns in swimming pools and similar large bodies of water is caused by waves on the surface of the water. Where waves form on the surface of the pool, the curved surface acts as a lens focussing the light to the floor of the pond. As the waves move on the surface, the pattern on the pool floor will change similarly to that in the tea cup.