Sugar castles at Iris and June, Victoria

Iris and June, Victoria, coffee in Victoria

The exterior of Iris and June

This post has been a long time coming. Over the past few months I’ve been popping into Iris&June to get take away coffee now and then and have got quite fond of the friendly service and good coffee. What I have not really had the opportunity to do (until recently) was sit and enjoy a coffee inside. Fortunately that’s now changed and I can add Iris&June to the Daily Grind.

So, how is I+J? Well, it is a 5 minute walk from Victoria train station and a welcome break for good coffee. They serve Ozone based espresso, with a brew bar which features guest roasts (also from Ozone) made with the V60 or Aeropress. There are a good looking selection of cakes on offer, though sadly, on the day that I could sit inside with my drink, they all had nuts in them. Hopefully another time.

Sugar jar, I&J, I+J

A jar of sugar at Iris and June

I took a seat on the cushioned bench near the wall and started to look at what was going on. It is the sort of place that is very good for people watching. My eye though was drawn to what was on my table: a jar of sugar. It is not that I take sugar in my coffee, it is that I was reminded of a tutorial I once had as a student. I cannot remember the exact conversation but it concerned piles of sand. My tutor (a theoretical physicist) had said something along the lines “Ah yes, well, of course, everyone knew the maximum angle that a pile of sand could make before it became unstable and then how it started to collapse…. Until of course someone measured it.” [laughed] “We’d got it entirely wrong.”

This ability to laugh at what we do not know, (or what we assume we do know and then measure it and find out that in fact we do not)  is one of the pleasures of physics. We are trying to understand the world we live in, we have not yet got there. Sometimes it is the smallest things that are not yet understood, such as how and why (dry) sand forms avalanches as it is piled up. Yet these small things can turn out to have big consequences (as was also the case for the understanding of coffee stains). In this case, the experiment had tested the way that a pile of sand collapsed in response to different shaped grains of ‘sand’. It had relevance then (and continues to have relevance now) not only in terms of granular dynamics: how do we predict landslides/avalanches? But also in terms of crucial theoretical models about how these processes behave. Theoretical models that are applied to systems as diverse as knowing how electrical devices (resistors) work to understanding the noise on the luminosity of stars. Realising that we were wrong enabled us to probe the question more deeply and thereby to understand it more.

There are similarities between sugar and sand, but also key differences. Although it was tempting to start building sugar castles in the sugar jars on the tables at Iris and June, I was aware of the impression that I may have made to those who go to I+J to people watch (see above). I will therefore leave it as a home experiment. How steep a sugar castle do you think you can make? And how steep can you in fact make it, what is the role of water in building sand castles?

Please leave any reports of experimental results for how steep you can make a pile of sugar in the comments section below and feel free to send me your sugar-castle pictures.

Iris and June is at No 1 Howick Place, SW1P 1WG

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