Shades of light and dark. How do we see shadow, colour, depth? How is it linked to the physics of coffee?
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The other morning, grinding coffee in order to prepare a V60 (the last of a fantastically complex Natural El Salvador from Amoret coffee), I was hit by the intense aroma of rich, freshly ground beans. It seems at the moment that we are surrounded by more vivid impressions of things that have, in reality, always been there, but that have previously been obscured by other features of our lives. Such things have been revealed by the changes to our lives that have come about as the result of the “lock-downs” needed to reduce the transmission of Covid-19. The birdsong that seems more dramatic and intense than before the traffic subsided. The colours of the trees as the spring light bounces off and filters through the leaves no longer surrounded by a misty haze of pollution (now suggested through its absence). And of course the smell of the coffee hitting our olfactory senses.

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Before this period of social distancing and self-isolation, I had been preparing for another in the series of Coffee & Science evenings at Amoret coffee in Notting Hill. The title of the evening had been “Space Coffee” and we were going to explore the connections between what happened in your coffee cup with features that you can see in the atmospheres of planets such as Saturn and Jupiter. Actually the connections are a lot wider than that and can be seen on the Earth too, but the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn have some very peculiar structures that you may not immediately think could possibly be linked to your coffee cup. One of the key people who worked on the science behind this was Hermann von Helmholtz (known as H2 to his friendsa). For the Coffee & Science evening, the important work of Helmholtz was on vortices and fluid rotations, but it turns out that he has more links with a coffee cup than that, connections that can even give us some food (drink?) for thought in this time of separation.

which will win, gravity or light
The world has not really been turned upside down, but certainly the way that we view it could be. An opportunity to re-assess our view points?
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Helmholtz made many contributions to the understanding of our world including how we see it. In addition to inventing the ophthalmoscope (in ~1850), Helmholtz was interested in the way in which we perceive colour and how we manage to see in 3D. Thinking about the way in which we see things like light and colour and developing on the idea that how we perceive our world is, ultimately, received in each of our own minds via our sense organs, Helmholtz compared the sensations of light and colour to symbols of language: ways in which we interpret the world around us. As Michel Meulders writes in his fascinating biography of Helmholtz (told from the view point of a medical doctor rather than a physicist)b, Helmholtz had

“…stated lyrically that we should thank our senses, which miraculously gave us light and colour as responses to particular vibrations and odour and taste from chemical stimuli. We should thank the symbols by which our senses informed us of the outside world for the spell-binding richness and the living freshness of the sensory world.”

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What does it mean that I should thank my senses for the way in which I smell, see and hear the coffee beans as they are ground?

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The connections between Hermann von Helmholtz and coffee are more than just the vortices that form, and more than the fact that Michael Faraday once served him cups of it while he was preparing lectures for the Royal Institutionc. We’ll be exploring those links over the next few weeks, from how we see coffee, through how we hear it and eventually to what ties it all together. Please keep checking back but also, do let me know what new sensory symbols you have perceived in this time of opportunity to attention.

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a “Worlds of Flow”, Olivier Darrigol, Oxford University Press (2005)

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b “Helmholtz: from Englightenment to Neuroscience”, Michel Meulders, MIT press (2010)

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c “Helmholtz and the British Scientific Elite: from force conservation to energy conservation”, David Cahan, Notes & Records of the Royal Society, 66, 55-68 (2012) doi:10.1098/rsnr.2011.0044

Planet Earth is blue (or is it) at Ground Control, Clerkenwell

Ground Control, outside the cafe

Ground Control on Amwell St

Ground Control is a small little cafe on Amwell St. If you are in the Angel/Clerkenwell area it is well worth stopping by this interesting cafe which serves a variety of Ethiopian coffees. Of course they offer the normal espresso, Americano etc. type drinks but if you want to sample their coffee properly, I think it best to try one of their coffees prepared with a V60. Tasting notes are shown on the menu on the wall. Being fairly small, there aren’t that many tables, however if you are lucky enough to get one of the two tables at the window, you will find plenty around you to look at without resorting to checking your phone while you enjoy your coffee. Behind one of the tables at the window is a set of shelves with coffee beans (presumably for sale). Behind the other table is a picture of a lady holding a jug and a basket. Vibrantly coloured circular patterns form the backdrop behind her.

coffee mosaic, colour perception

The coffee mosaic at Ground Control

The picture (shown on the left) has a flow to it, you are almost drawn into the movement of the picture. This movement comes from the many, differently coloured, coffee beans that have been used to make the picture. Each bean is orientated slightly differently so that the lines through the bean flow with the picture, rather than the beans being mere individual pieces of a mosaic. The circular patterns, the lines of her shirt, all of these are produced by orientating coffee beans this way or that. The mosaic is also richly colourful. Many of the colours stand out, but some, arranged next to each other, appear more subdued. How do we see the colours of a picture? How much of our colour perception is due to the pigment of the paint, how much due to the lighting, and how much is due to the individual colouration of the neighbouring beans?

An artist known for his unusual use of colour was Georges Seurat (1859-1891). Seurat developed the technique of pointillism in which small dots of varying colours are painted next to each other. Viewed from a distance, the colour seen by the viewer may be quite different from the multitude of differently coloured dots perceived close up. As with the coffee bean mosaic, direction was given to Seurat’s work through the orientation of the painted dots. Seurat had based his technique on the state-of-the-art science of the day. One of the scientists whose work on colour theory influenced Seurat’s artistic development was Ogden N. Rood, a physicist who’s 1879 book “Modern Chromatics” he seems to have read (in its French translation)*. Rood had carefully distinguished between two types of colour mixing, that of mixing coloured lights and that of mixing pigments. Mixing pigments had been used by all of the old masters. It is the process by which paints are mixed to produce a new paint colour. Rood however showed that if small dots of colour were painted adjacently, when the painting is viewed from a distance such that the eye cannot distinguish the two dots individually but rather mixes them in the eye, the colour produced is that of mixing coloured lights, not coloured pigments. As he explained, colour mixing through adding light of different colours was an additive process, colour mixing through combining pigments was subtractive. More about colour theory and colour mixing can be found here.

Pointillism Seurat

Georges Seurat, 1859 – 1891
The Channel of Gravelines, Grand Fort-Philippe
1890, Oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm, Bought with the aid of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, 1995, NG6554

In the late 1880s, Seurat was criticised for relying “unduly on scientific formulae”, though he himself seems to  have viewed his use of science merely as a guide, a way to help control the colour and light seen by the viewer*. The colours that we perceive can be affected by the colours they are adjacent to, as evidenced by many optical illusions. Yet even when everybody is looking at the same photo, we do not necessarily all see the same colour (I saw it as white and gold).

There is indeed a lot to the science of colour perception and some great fun that can be had with it. Seurat was aware of some of this and used science to understand how to best paint his paintings. Note how the (pointillist) border of the Seurat painting pictured on the right is a different colour at the top, do you think that affects how your eye perceives the top compared to the bottom of this painting?

Starting tomorrow, light and colour are to be combined in a three day “Lumiere festival” across London. The event looks as if it will take full advantage of the effects of different methods of colour mixing. If you are outside London, sorry! If you are lucky enough to be in London over the weekend, more details of what looks to be a fascinating science/art/experience event can be found here.


Ground Control is at 61 Amwell Street, EC1R 1UR

*”Seurat and the Science of Painting” by William Innes Homer was published by MIT press in 1964

Ordinarily I would have left the title of this post as a type of puzzle to see if anyone got the link (some posts on the Daily Grind have such puzzles, I’ve no idea whether I’m the only one who understands some of them). However, given that he passed away two days ago, here’s a rendition of David Bowie’s Space Odyssey (which is referenced in the title) sung by Cdr Chris Hadfield:


Diamonds are forever at Violet, Hackney

the outside of Violet

Violet in Hackney

Violet is not quite where I expected it to be. I had expected it to be in a row of shops on a main street, instead it is tucked away, a little cafe in a back street in Hackney. Despite the relative anonymity, Violet has won awards for the quality of its cakes. Award winning cakes are hard to resist and so, a few weeks ago I went along to Violet to try the coffee. With a couple of seats outside and a large room upstairs with seating, it is very easy to enjoy a good coffee and a cake while taking in the surroundings. The cakes certainly do not disappoint and, importantly for Bean Thinking, they know exactly what goes in them, meaning that if you are allergic to nuts or have other food allergies or intolerances, they are incredibly helpful. They definitely get a tick in the “cafe with good nut knowledge” category.

As it had been raining when we tried Violet, we decided to take a seat upstairs. Stacked in one corner of the room were a set of wooden chairs, reminiscent of those chairs that we had to stack at school. Each chair fitted almost exactly onto the previous one. At the top of the stack of chairs however, the uppermost chair did not fit exactly onto the previous chair, it was as if there was a defect in the stack.

stack of chairs, Violet

The chair stack in Violet.

The diagonal legs of the chairs resembled the multiple strata in a layered substance such as graphite. Each layer of graphite features a hexagonal arrangement of carbon atoms forming a structure very much like the chair legs in the chair stack. Graphene, a material of which there is currently a lot of hype, is a single layer of graphite. The carbon equivalent of one chair leg on its own. Carbon is a fascinating element. If, rather than being arranged in layers, it is arranged into a more 3D crystal structure, then you get diamond, a colourless, extremely hard crystal structure, very different from graphite. It is in diamond that defects in the stacking structure (such as with the uppermost chair) can cause spectacular effects.

If the carbon atoms are arranged into a perfect crystal structure, (the equivalent to the chairs being perfectly stacked), then diamond is colourless. If on the other hand, something happens to disrupt the structure, perhaps there is one carbon atom missing in the structure or maybe another, impurity element, such as nitrogen, has got in, the way that the electrons in the diamond react to light changes. This means that it can take on a colour. The introduction of nitrogen for example, in concentrations of only 0.1% will make the diamonds more yellow or orange. Red diamonds are a consequence not of impurities but simply defects in the crystal arrangement. The equivalent to that one last chair in the chair stack changing the properties of the stack completely. Knowing that the colour of a diamond is a result of a defect in the arrangement of carbon atoms in the structure offers us two possible viewpoints. Either people who buy red diamonds are paying a premium for defective goods, or, beauty takes many forms and what is beautiful is not necessarily what is regular and perfect. I know which view of the world I prefer to take.

Comments are always welcome, please click in the box below.

Violet is at 47 Wilton Way, E8 3ED