Edmond Halley (of comet fame) was born in the London district of Haggerston in 1656. More recently, Arepa and Co a Venezuelan cafe located alongside the canal that runs through the district, has just celebrated its first birthday there. This cafe serves a variety of Venezuelan foods including the arepas of the name which are, apparently, a traditional corn cake that can be filled with a variety of fillings (more info here). There are seats both inside the cafe or outside, overlooking the canal. As it was the early afternoon and we’d already had lunch, we decided upon a coffee, a sugar cane lemonade and, to accompany it a plate of Tequenos de Chocolate. These unusual little pancakes filled with chocolate were delightful to enjoy with a cup of coffee and a view over the canal. Sitting back and enjoying this relaxing view, I noticed a tree on the roof of a building on the opposite side of the canal. Hanging on the tree were a number of glass shapes. As the wind blew, the different faces of the shapes caught the Sun. Looking towards these glass shapes, they appeared to change colour as the sunlight was refracted through them. A glinting rainbow array of light fell onto our side of the canal.
The story of the investigation of colour is a great example of how our preconceived ideas can influence the results that we think we see. Up until the seventeenth century, colour was viewed as a property of the surfaces of an object as opposed to “light” which was that which rendered objects visible. Therefore trying to explain how rainbows formed or light scattered from ornaments was a difficult task. Indeed, medieval philosophers (the term ‘scientist’ is a nineteenth century invention), considered that there were only seven colours: Yellow, orange, red, purple, green and black and white.
Work understanding colour as a refracted component of white light started with Marci in his 1648 work Thaumantias (another name for Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow) and continued with Newton’s famous experiments with prisms. Newton showed that a glass prism refracted the different colours of light by different amounts (resulting in a spectrum). If two prisms were placed at right angles to each other, the rainbow of light from the first prism recombined into white light emerging from the second. With the change in mindset that this brought about, phenomena such as the rainbow could be more easily explained.
Which brings me back to coffee. Back in the eighteenth century cafes (or coffee houses) were not just places to have coffee but places to engage in the latest philosophical, political or scientific discussion and debate. Scientists of the day regularly gave public lectures and demonstrations in coffee houses both as a way of entertainment and of education. One scientist who participated in this was Stephen Demainbray (1710-1782). Demainbray demonstrated Newton’s experiments and theories on colour to a coffee drinking audience. The models that he used to explain the refraction of light are now on display in the Science Museum which is well worth a visit if you are in London. In the present day, there are still cafes and coffee houses that try to do a similar thing (of showing fun science to a coffee drinking audience), although perhaps sadly there are fewer now than there were then. Two movements that are trying to put the science back into coffee houses are Science Cafes and Cafe Scientifique. Although not always held in cafes, both movements have the aim of combining interesting science with a cup of coffee or glass of wine. Somewhat poetically the next Cafe Scientifique in London is to be held, on the 9th December, at the Royal Society. It is poetic because back in the time of Newton, discussions with the Royal Society president (Newton) and other society members took place at the Grecian Coffee House.
Both “Science Cafes” and “Cafe Scientifique” have events worldwide. It is worth taking a look at their websites to see if there is an event near you. Why not pop along and see what you can find out while having a cup of coffee?
The Rainbow Bridge, Raymond L Lee, Jr and Alistair B Fraser, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002
The Nature of Light, Vasco Ronchi, Heinemann, 1970
London Coffee Houses, Bryant Lillywhite, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1963