Waiting for a green light at Alchemy, St Pauls

8 Ludgate Broadway, St Pauls

Alchemy Coffee

Alchemy, “a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation or combination”, is certainly a cafe that lives up to the dictionary definition of its name. The branch, on Ludgate Broadway near St Pauls, is the outlet that ‘showcases’ the coffee of Alchemy Roasters. On walking into this cafe, I was presented with a menu of two types of beans for espresso based drinks or two different beans for filter/aeropress. Both sets of coffees came with tasting notes. After a brief chat with the friendly barista I went for the San Sebastian with aeropress. Notes about the origins of the coffee are dotted around this superbly sited cafe (its location is ideal for people watching). The coffee is directly traded (where possible) and, if lattes or cappuccinos are your thing, there are also details about the farm that produces the milk.

Although there were cakes on the counter, I had just had lunch and so had to pass on what looked to be a good selection of edibles. The coffee though was certainly very good and definitely an experience to be savoured. As, perhaps I should have expected, when the coffee arrived it came in a beaker reminiscent of chemistry laboratories. From my chair in the corner, I could watch the preparation of the coffee behind the counter, the people coming into the shop to order their coffee and the crowds passing by outside.

E=mc2 Einstein relativity in a cafe

Scales at Alchemy. Weights on one side, chocolate on the other, it can only mean one thing: energy-mass equivalence

Close to where I was sitting was an old style set of measuring scales. This see-saw balance had weights on one side and chocolate on the other. Perhaps this connection seems tenuous, but for me weights on one side of the scales and an energy bar (chocolate) on the other side could only mean one thing:


The equation relating energy and mass for a particle at rest derived, and made famous by Einstein. The equation comes from Einstein’s theory of special relativity which states that nothing can be accelerated to faster than the speed of light (in a vacuum). First set down in 1905, the theory has some very odd predictions, among which the best known is probably the twin paradox (details here). The idea is that a moving clock will be observed to run slowly by a stationary observer, a prediction that has been confirmed several times by experiments using atomic clocks (here).

San Sebastian via Aeropress

Coffee is served at Alchemy

Moreover, the equation states that mass and energy are equivalent and that a small amount of mass can produce an awful lot of energy, (details here). A detail which will bring this story of a cafe-physics review nicely back to the Alchemy cafe, to London and to the importance of slowing down. The connection is through a set of traffic lights in Bloomsbury. Back in 1933, Leo Szilard was waiting to cross the road at the traffic lights at the intersection of Russell Square with Southampton Row. Szilard had recently escaped from Nazi Germany and was spending his time as a refugee in London pondering different aspects of physics†. That September day, Szilard was thinking about a newspaper article featuring Ernest Rutherford that he had read earlier. In 1901  Ernest Rutherford, together with Frederick Soddy, had discovered that radioactive thorium decayed into radium. The changing of one element into another could be considered a type of modern day alchemy. However Rutherford did not believe that there could ever be a way of harnessing this nuclear energy. In the article read by Szilard in The Times, Rutherford had dismissed any such ideas as “moonshine”. Szilard was forced to pause his walk as he waited for the traffic lights to change. Those few moments of pause must have helped clear Szilard’s mind because as the light went green and Szilard was able to cross the road, a thought hit him: If every neutron hitting an element released two neutrons (as one element was transmuted into another), a chain reaction could be started. As part of the mass of the decaying atom was released as energy, it would mean that, feasibly, we could harness vast amounts of energy; E=mc².

This idea, a consequence of spending five minutes waiting for a traffic light rather than checking Twitter (not yet invented in 1933), proved to underpin both the nuclear fission which we use in electricity generation and the nuclear fission that we’ve used to develop weaponry. It makes me wonder what alchemy we could conjure in our minds if we stopped to enjoy the transformations of the coffee beans at Alchemy.


Alchemy (cafe) is at 8 Ludgate Broadway, EC4V 6DU

† A book that some may find entertaining is:

“Hitler’s Scientists”, John Cornwell, Penguin Group publishers, 2003. The book contains this anecdote about Szilard: As Szilard was of Hungarian-Jewish descent, he fled Germany to Britain via Austria on a train a few days after the Reichstag fire of 1933. On the day he left, the train was empty. One day later, the same train was overcrowded and the people leaving Germany were stopped at the border and interrogated.  An event that prompted him, a few years later, to reflect “This just goes to show that if you want to succeed in this world you don’t have to be much cleverer than other people, you just have to be one day earlier than most people.” Something to reflect on in today’s refugee crisis perhaps.

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