Coffee Fitzrovia

A post in need of a Curator(s) Coffee, Fitzrovia

espresso Curators

A deliciously intense and fruity espresso from the ‘specials’ menu at Curators Coffee.

Curators Coffee in Margaret St in Fitzrovia has been there for years. A great location just off of Oxford St, with plenty of seating and good coffee, and so it is perfect to pop into, unless you are like me and avoid the Oxford St area as much as possible. Which perhaps explains the rarity of my visits. I first popped into Curators Coffee a couple of years back (before the laws on allergen information came in) when I remember enjoying a lovely long black but couldn’t have a cake because the people behind the counter that day couldn’t tell me which (if any) cakes contained nuts. At the time, I sat upstairs and noticed the graphene type arrangement of hexagons around the back of the space and the Bramah’s 300 years of coffee makers book in a rack at the back. I had wanted to return to properly cafe-physics review the place at a later date (and try the cake) but circumstances (and Oxford St avoidance) meant that I never got round to it. Until very recently.

This time, I noticed that there were three single origin coffees available to try as espresso. Glancing at the tasting notes it was a fairly quick decision: “chocolate”. And although this time I had just had lunch and so passed on the cake, it appears that the espresso choices regularly rotate, offering an incentive to come back again and try something new. Although the café is quite large, with plenty of seating, it seems that it is also very popular. And so there were no spaces remaining upstairs. Fortunately, there were more seats downstairs and so, taking our table number with us, we made our way down the stairs and found a table at the window, as if it was waiting for us.

UFO in Curators Coffee Fitzrovia

A UFO reflected in the window? Why? What? Why (again)? It is small details such as this that reward you as you put down your smart phone and notice your surroundings.

Perhaps it is obvious that a café called Curators should have art work adorning the walls. That, and the spotlights that highlighted the work immediately caught our interest, (although it was odd to see that one of the rows of spotlights was almost devoid of bulbs). The exhibition downstairs seemed to have a tilt towards street art and a couple of decorated aerosol cans were on the windowsill priced at £15 each. Was this the time to consider why an aerosol gets cooler as you spray the walls with it?

Outside the window, a staircase leading up to the street outside had railings in straight lines leading up towards a blue sky. Inside, a space craft was reflected in the window.

Indeed, on checking again, there was a spacecraft, like a cartoon of a stereotypical little UFO, drawn onto the wall behind my accomplice’s head and reflected in the window next to it. What could it mean? Regardless of whether some UFO incidents are associated with visitors from other planets, there are a large number of scientific thought trains we can take when considering a UFO reflected in a window. To start with, how likely is it that we are alone in the universe or that there are many other intelligent life forms in other planetary systems?

The question has been answered on the basis of probability for many years. But recently, we have been finding more planets orbiting stars and crucially, more planets that are in the ‘habitable’ zone around other stars. Assuming that life elsewhere needs similar conditions to the earth’s in order to thrive, the idea of life elsewhere is becoming increasingly real.

canali Curators Coffee

If you see straight lines such as this, it is fairly sensible to infer that they were built by an intelligent life-form. Can you see canals on Mars?

Closer to home, there were even suggestions that Mars may support flowing water, thought to be a host for bacteria based life. And although these interpretations of the flow patterns observed on the Martian surface have more recently been contested (could they instead be flowing sand?), we continue to send probes (such as the Insight probe that landed recently) to the red planet to investigate its geology. Did Mars once host life?  Mars of course has a resonance in science fiction for being the planet hosting extra-terrestrial life. HG Wells imagined the Martians landing just south of London, and eventually being killed off by exposure to bacteria on earth that they had not experienced in their Martian habitat. Could life on Mars suggest a (tenuous) further link to this café on Margaret St?

Perhaps one reason that people started to imagine (intelligent) life on Mars came about because of an interesting mistranslation of an astronomical observation. While gazing at Mars in 1877, Schiaparelli noted ‘canali’ on the Martian surface. The correct translation of this in this context into English is “channels” but what the observation came to be known as was “canals”. Canals imply an intelligent builder, and hence life on Mars. Later observers also saw these ‘canals’ and a popular myth was born. It is a useful lesson for us all, sometimes how we see something can be influenced by the language we use to describe it.

soya hot chocolate, Curators

We photograph our coffee, and share it with our online friends. But would putting down our phone in a cafe be worth something for the planet as well as for ourselves? How many batteries do we need?

And then one final thought train, prompted by photographing the cafe with my mobile phone. The whole probability argument rests on two assumptions. The first is that there are other planetary systems (which we are finding). The second is that life is fairly easy to start, or at least, that the chances of producing life are not restricted to one planet a short distance away from the Sun; we are not unique. As yet we don’t know whether this assumption is justified but discoveries such as the deep sea hydrothermal vents challenge our preconceptions about the requirements for life and suggest that life could start more than once, and so could very well start on other planets, not just ours. In these vents, bacteria are known to convert what we think of as toxic chemicals into energy in a process known as chemosynthesis without the need of sunlight or other ingredients that we had thought essential to life. Could similar hydrothermal vents on other planets host new life forms?

And in a related way, what is going on with these vents? Is new life being created even now in the deep sea? In which case, what do we think about deep sea mining? If our aim is to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by using more re-usable objects and renewable energy sources, we will require more batteries and batteries require (among other things) cobalt. If we are all to keep using mobile phones to photograph cafés, we too need the batteries which rely on these elements. A number of companies have realised that there is a vast untapped resource under the sea if only we could dredge it up. This may be easier or ultimately cheaper than recycling the old batteries. It may destroy a few hydrothermal vents or stir up the sea bed but what concern is that to us if we can gain access to more cobalt to allow us to have more batteries to allow us to all be ‘greener’.

Indeed, of what concern is that to us?

Curators Coffee is at 51 Margaret St, W1W 8SG

From Beethoven to Pythagoras via Kin Cafe, Fitzrovia

Kin Cafe Fitzrovia

Kin Cafe on Foley St

I had been waiting for an opportunity to try Kin Cafe in Fitzrovia for a while. Having followed them on Twitter, I had been tempted by the large selection of great-looking vegetarian and vegan food choices tweeted almost daily. Although I’m no longer a vegetarian, appetising meat-free meals are always appealing. So it had been on my “to try” list for a long time (preferably for lunch). However, sometimes things don’t work out quite the way you had initially hoped and so it was late afternoon by the time we ended up at Kin, sadly no lunch then. So we settled on an Americano, soya hot chocolate and a slice of Butternut and ginger cake. The coffee (from Clifton Coffee) was very fruity and full of character, highly enjoyable while sitting in the window overlooking the street outside. The cake meanwhile deserves a special mention. Not only was the cake very good, the helpful staff at Kin were very confident in their knowledge that this cake was nut-free and they also ensured that the new member of staff (being trained) used a new cake slice to serve it. Extra ‘points’ for a nut-allergy aware café and definitely a tick in the “cafes with good nut knowledge box”.

As we sat with our drinks, one of Beethoven’s quartets was playing through the loudspeakers. For me, Beethoven being played in the background is a bonus for any café but it did, perhaps, mean that I was less sociable than normal with my frequent companion in these reviews; the quartets are too absorbing. I do hope the hot chocolate made up for it.

Interior of Kin cafe

Tables are supported by struts forming triangles. But this is not the Pythagorean link.

Inside the café, tables along the wall were each stabilised by a diagonal support. A practical arrangement that had the visual effect of forming a triangle with the wall. While this did make me think about force-balancing and Pythagoras, this is not the link to Pythagoras alluded to in the title. No, instead the connection goes back to the Beethoven and the links between music and mathematics. Perhaps we no longer immediately think of music and mathematics as being particularly connected, after all one is an ‘art’ and the other a ‘science’. But music and mathematics have, traditionally, been so inextricably linked that, as Susan Wollenberg wrote in ‘Music and Mathematics’* “… it is their separation that elicits surprise”.

Some of the links between music and mathematics are explored in this TED-Ed talk about the maths to be found in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. This part of the link between music and mathematics comes in the relation between what is known as consonant and dissonant notes. The first part of the Moonlight Sonata is made up of triplets of notes that sound good to our ears when they are played together. As Pythagoras is said to have discovered (see link here, opens as pdf), there is an interestingly simple relation between notes that are consonant with each other. Whether you look at the frequency of the notes or the length of a string required to play them, the ratio of two consonant notes seems to be a simple number ratio.

For example, the A of an oboe has a frequency of 440 Hz*. The A one octave higher is at 880 Hz, a factor of 2. If we took instead a series of notes of frequency f, then we could find a series of consonant notes at f:2f:3f. But now, remembering that octaves are separated by a factor of 2 and that they ‘sound good’ together, this will mean that the ratio of frequencies f:1.5f:2f will also sound good. This set of frequencies just happens to coincide with the C-G-C’ chord that forms the basis of many guitar based pieces of music. As you continue looking at these simple number ratios you can start to build a set of notes that eventually forms a scale.

Blue plaque Foley St

The artist Fuseli once lived diagonally opposite Kin Cafe. J. James notes that Fuseli was part of the artistic revolution that was paralleled by Beethoven and the Romantics in the musical sphere**.

But the links go deeper than this. In the same book “Music and Mathematics”, JV Field wrote “..in Ancient, medieval and Renaissance times, to claim that the order of the universe was ‘musical’ was to claim that it was expressible in terms of mathematics.” Indeed, Kepler looked for these musical harmonies in the maths of the planetary system. Although he found no ‘harmonies’ in the ratio of the periods of the planets then known, he did find musical scales in the ratios of the speeds of the planets (measured when they were closest to the Sun, at the perihelion, and furthest from the Sun, at the aphelion). Other simple number ratios can be found when we look to different regions of the Solar System. The periods of three of the Galilean moons of Jupiter for example have the ratio 1:2:4 (Io:Europa:Ganymede). While we would no longer describe these patterns as reflecting the harmony of the Universe (see here instead for current understanding), perhaps we ought to ponder the next sentence that Field wrote in the chapter on Musical Cosmology:

We still believe [that the universe is expressible in terms of mathematics] now. Indeed, mathematical cosmology has proved so powerful that it is perhaps difficult to take a sufficiently cold hard look at the metaphysical basis on which it rests. On the other hand, the explicitly musical cosmologies derived more directly from the Ancient tradition seem sufficiently fantastic to invite instant questioning of their underlying metaphysics…

One to consider next time you happen to wander into Kin Cafe, or another café playing such mathematical composers as Beethoven.

Kin Cafe can be found at 22 Foley St, W1W 6DT

*Music and Mathematics, Edited by J. Fauvel, R. Flood, R. Wilson, Oxford University Press (2003)

** The Music of the Spheres, J. James, Copernicus (Springer-Verlag), (1993)

Lastly, a video of Wilhelm Kempff playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I would really recommend playing it twice, the first time to listen only, the second to watch while Kempff plays. His performance is fascinating.