cafe-physics review

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

 

 

 

 

Keeping it local at Lumberjack, Camberwell

Lumberjack coffee Camberwell

Lumberjack Camberwell with the (not quite) inukshuk in the window

I came across Lumberjack last week while spending an afternoon in Camberwell looking for interesting cafes to “cafe-physics” review. I was actually on my way to a cafe further along the road when a couple of wooden structures in the window attracted my attention. Thinking that they were “Inukshuk” we decided to go in and try this new cafe. It turned out to be a good choice because, even though the structures were not in fact inuksuik, they had brought us into this lovely little cafe. We arrived shortly before closing but I still had time to enjoy a very good long black (with beans from Old Spike Roastery). Complementary water was brought over to the table. It would have been great if we had arrived just that bit earlier so that we could have had more time to properly appreciate this friendly cafe. The interior is bright and smartly decorated with wooden tables and shelving as well as plenty of seats at the back. The wooden furniture is explained by the fact that the cafe is the trading arm for London Reclaimed, a charity that provides employment and carpentry training to 16-25 year olds from SE London while making bespoke furniture from reclaimed timber. The cafe too aims to provide training and support to encourage 16-25 year olds into work and a future career. In terms of the ‘physics’ bit of this review, the interior of the cafe certainly has plenty to observe, from the pendulum like light fittings to the detail of the wood. But as this cafe is metaphorically, and in some ways literally, built on/with wood and as Lumberjack boasts on its website that “almost everything you’ll find in store, from the coffee to the furniture, are sourced as locally and homemade as possible” it is only appropriate that this cafe-physics review should focus on wood, trees and a tree very specific and local to London; the London Plane tree.

Long Black coffee in a red cup

A Long Black at Lumberjack with the grain of the wood showing underneath

With their characteristic mottled bark, London Plane trees are a recognisable sight along many a London street. The bark absorbs pollutants from the street before bits of bark fall off, taking the pollution with them and leaving the tree with its mottled appearance. Their root structure and resistance to pruning or pollarding helps to ensure that (mostly) they can survive happily in the crowded confines of London pavements. They are indeed very much a tree that seems almost specially adapted to London. Yet the connection between the London Plane and London goes deeper than that. The first ever record of a London Plane tree was in the seventeenth century, just up the road from Lumberjack, in the Vauxhall Gardens of John Tradescant the Younger. The London Plane is in fact a hybrid tree, thought to be a cross between the American sycamore (first recorded in London in 1548) and the Oriental Plane (first recorded in London in the C17th). Both these trees were found in Tradescant’s gardens and it is possible that the hybrid tree, the now ubiquitous London Plane, was actually first grown in Vauxhall.

Even though London is full of Plane Trees, it is not very common to find plane wood furniture. Rather than the grain visible in the tables at Lumberjack, Plane wood shows a “lacy” structure that gives furniture made with plane a distinctive pattern. Although unsuitable for outdoor furniture, plane-wood can be used to make indoor furniture and indeed some London based cabinet makers have even documented obtaining usable timber from recently felled London Planes.

Tomb of the Tradescants

The Tradescant Tomb at St Mary’s, Lambeth

And it is this that takes us to the physics part of the cafe-physics review. Perhaps it is the areas (and the parks) that I walk through, but it seems to me that there has been a fair amount of tree felling in London over the last six months or so. Part of the reason for this must be to ensure that the trees in our parks and that line our streets are safe and not going to fall down in high winds. Many trees that fall down in high winds do so because they get uprooted. However it is also possible, in very high winds for the whole tree to snap. Indeed, when researchers mapped the wind speeds through a forested area of Southern France during a storm in January 2009 they found that when the wind speed exceeded ~40 m/s (90 miles per hour), more than 50% of the trees broke in the wind, irrespective of whether these trees were softwood (pine) or hardwood (oak). A very recent paper by a Paris-based group (published last week in the journal Physical Review E) confirmed that irrespective of the species of tree or the tree height, the trunks of trees were liable to snap at a critical wind speed. The team combined experiment and theory to establish that the critical wind speed scaled with the tree’s diameter and height. However, because trees generally treble their diameter as they double their height, the effect of the diameter change was (almost) cancelled by the height difference between trees. Surprisingly, this critical wind speed did not depend on the elasticity of the tree, so there is no difference between a softwood such as pine and a hardwood like oak or plane. The researchers calculated the critical wind speed needed to break a tree to be 56 m/s, very close to the 40 m/s observed in that January storm.

Lumberjack can be found at 70 Camberwell Church St, SE5 8QZ

If you have a cafe that you think needs a cafe physics review, please let me know. Comments always welcome, please click the box below.

 

 

 

Time for a slow coffee?

enamel mug, teh halia, Straits Times kopitiam

This enamel mug connected glass to the Giants Causeway (Straits Times kopitiam)

Every two weeks, the Daily Grind on Bean Thinking is devoted to what I have called a cafe-physics review. The point of these reviews is to visit a café, slow down and notice what has been going on in a cafe physics-wise. I focus on physics because it is my ‘specialist’ area but the point is to notice the connections between the coffee, or the cafe and the world around us. To see how what is going on in your mug is reflected in the science of the wider universe. Realising that things that seem disparate are in fact connected: It is the same maths that describes electrons moving in a metal and the vibrations on the surface of a cup of coffee. That sort of connection to me is mind boggling. Yet there is more. Thinking about the connections between physics and coffee can lead to meditations on the environment and sustainability, or considerations about how our attitude to drinking coffee changes our perception of it.

Everything is connected.

Parquet floor at Coffee Affair

How many people have walked on this floor? The story of evolution at Coffee Affair

It is my strong belief that whenever we go into a cafe, order a coffee and then proceed to sit down with our smart phones or tablets and check our e-mail or our Twitter accounts we lose a fantastic opportunity. It is the opportunity to be properly present and to notice what is going on around us. It is the opportunity to slow down and to appreciate what life has given us and the surprising things that the world has to offer. To look at the beauty and the complexity of the world and to say ‘wow’.

This appreciation is open to us all, provided we seize the opportunity to slow down and take that time to enjoy our coffee.

So, this week’s Daily Grind is an invitation. It is an invitation open to anyone who sits down with a coffee. If you notice anything peculiar, or interesting, that you feel deserves a mention as a cafe-physics review why not write an edition of the Daily Grind? It does not matter where in the world you are or what your level of science knowledge is. If a full Daily Grind article is too much but you have a great observation, write a paragraph review of your favourite cafe and I’ll add it to the cafe-physics review map. Think that you don’t know enough science? Never mind, share your idea with me and we can work on it together.

Hasten coffee, long black, black coffee, espresso base

Sometimes the link with physics/science is a little bit tenuous, as it was at Espresso Base

Your observations need not be physics-based. It would be great if it is based on some aspect of science, but, as past examples have shown, this link can be a little tenuous if the cafe/subject warrants it.

So, over to you. I hope that someone will respond to this invitation. Please do contact me if you would like to pen a review or if you have any questions. It is my hope that you are all enjoying such great coffee in the huge variety of cafe’s that we now have that there will be plenty of opportunities for people to slow down and to notice and then to share it with the Daily Grind.

Please contact me here, or in the comments section below. I look forward to hearing from you.

 

Some brief guidelines for a cafe-physics review:

1) The cafe should, preferably, be a good independent.

2) Any science/history etc. needs to be verifiable but, as mentioned, if you’ve noticed something great but are unsure of the science, get in touch and we’ll work something out together.

3) If you have noticed something fascinating with your coffee but at home and not in a café, contact me anyway.

4) Please do not write a cafe-physics review of any cafe you are financially associated with. I will have to refuse/delete any ‘reviews’ that I find are adverts.