disco ball

Feeling the Earth move at Pritchard and Ure, Camden

Egg no pales, coffee, garden centre

Fried egg on cactus leaves. Cactus festival at Pritchard and Ure, Camden

Good coffee in a garden centre, in (nearly) central London, with some physics thrown in? Today’s cafe-physics review seems unlikely on several levels. And then it becomes even more unlikely as you realise that this garden centre and café are also a social enterprise where people “disadvantaged in the labour market” are helped back to employment through working here. All in all, Pritchard and Ure represent a great café to have come by.

Pritchard and Ure can be found in the gallery space of a warehouse type shop that houses the Camden Garden Centre. They serve Workshop coffee together with an extensive selection of alternative drinks and food. As it was lunchtime we enjoyed a spot to eat which gave me an opportunity to try cactus (it was cactus festival at the garden centre). Cactus leaves with re-fried beans and a cactus-water mocktail which came together with a reusable metal straw. The straws were being sold (together with brush straw cleaners) at the counter. After lunch there was a very well made long black (interestingly I was given the choice to have it either as a 6oz or an 8oz, ie. more or less water depending on whether I wanted more or less coffee taste) and resisted (somehow) one of the tempting cakes before having a wander in the garden centre.

equations art work coffee Camden

But are they real?
The equations are the writing on the wall at this cafe.

There are of course many things that you can notice and connect with/to in a garden centre. Plants, biosphere, windows and greenhouse effect, the carbon cycle, the nature of colour, the list could go on. In addition to all of these, to the left of the counter was an art piece on the wall with a list of various equations and comments. Were all these equations real? One thing in particular though in this café/garden centre was particularly mesmeric: the disco ball suspended as a pendulum from a beam across the ceiling. Initially we watched as the ball just glinted reflected light as it slowly swayed to and fro in its oscillation. It took 22 seconds to cover 5 oscillations while I estimated it was 7m in length. Knowing that there is a formula for calculating the period of oscillation I wondered, was my estimation any good?*

During the hour it took us to enjoy lunch, the position of the Sun moved in the sky so that the disco ball started to reflect an array of polka dots of light onto the walls surrounding us (you can see these in the photo). Owing to the combined rotation and oscillation of the ball it wasn’t too easy to measure the time period from these oscillations but about 4 seconds per swing (as I had obtained by merely watching the ball) seemed comfortingly correct. The sun slowly moved round and these dots danced until at some point the sun had moved far enough that the glitter ball was no longer in direct light. But had the Sun moved or the Earth rotated underneath it? We all know the answer (or at least we think we do), but we could use the pendulum to prove it (and to calculate our latitude).

discoball cafe

Disco ball pendulum together with polka dot reflected sunlight. The view from the gallery at Pritchard and Ure.

In various science museums around the world, different Foucault pendulums swing to and fro all day above circular patterns on the floor. The pendulums appear to rotate clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the southern hemisphere thereby illustrating the rotating earth underneath the pendulum. The idea is of course that the pendulum continues to swing in the same plane as it was when it was started off but as it is swinging the earth is rotating underneath it giving an apparent rotation of the pendulum swing over the course of a day. If we were at the north (or south) pole, the period of one complete rotation of the pendulum through a circle on the floor would take 24h. As most of us are not at the pole (and Pritchard and Ure certainly is not), the period of complete rotation is lengthened by a corrective factor proportional to the sine of the latitude. Consequently, it is perfectly feasible for us to calculate our latitude by observing a pendulum swinging for long enough in the absence of any breeze.

It is a great piece of evidence for the rotation of the earth (and by implication the fact that the earth is not flat and that the sun is not going round the earth each day). It’s also a very simple (hiding some complicated maths) demonstration that anyone could set up if they wished to carefully do so. So next time you see a disco ball suspended as a pendulum in a café, you would have another reason to start singing “I feel the Earth, move, under my feet…”

Pritchard and Ure is in the gallery of Camden Garden Centre at 2 Barker Drive, St Pancras Way, NW1 0JW

*7 m is an over estimate of the length of the pendulum based on the period of the oscillation. A length of 7m would give a time period of 5.3 seconds, whereas 22 seconds for 5 oscillations is about 4.4 seconds for one giving a calculated length of just under 5m. More details about how to calculate this are here.